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  • Helen

Secrets of Genius?

Updated: Apr 26

We’re just back from a brief jaunt to Great Malvern. The journey itself was one of the treats of the trip. ‘O to be in England now that April’s there...’ Herefordshire and Worcestershire are Heart of England territory. So green, so full of springtime, so bursting, The inspiration for Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with lyrics by A. C. Benson spread out before us.


As we got nearer we found various signposts to ‘The Elgar Trail’. More by accident than design in most cases, we followed in some of the footsteps of the great composer. We discovered a reminder of the great man in the Hereford Cathedral Close and his burial place not far from where we stayed.


We learned some of the secrets of his genius on a visit to his birthplace in a tiny country cottage in the village of Upper Broadheath about two miles from Worcester. We arrived a couple of hours before closing time hoping just to catch the spirit of this genius who claimed that, all his life, deep within him was still that child who had sat by the River Severn ‘with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great....’ We did discover that his ambitions were clearly about more than the music in which he was self-taught. He told his adoring mother, ‘I will not rest until I have received a letter from abroad addressed, “Edward Elgar, England”!


In the tiny birthplace cottage with its traditional black coal-fired stove downstairs, we viewed a fairly random collection of Victorian artefacts associated with the great man. The rest of the exhibition offered further suggestions that genius rarely thrives in a vacuum. Elgar had many friends of both genders whom he often named in connection with his works.


As a man, he seemed to inspire great devotion and self-sacrifice in women – even those, like his daughter Carice, whom one observer thought paid a price for her father’s success! We learned that Carice’s schoolteacher was troubled by the repressed daughter of genius in her class. The Elgar child, the teacher eventually discovered, was under orders to stay silent at home so as not to interrupt her father’s composing work. Her father’s idea that there was ‘music in the air’ of which we ‘simply take as much as we require’ seemed not always to include the music of his daughter’s voice!


There was a great deal of evidence that this limitation on her childhood seemed not to have spoilt Carice’s affection and admiration for her father with whom she was a regular, devoted correspondent. Many of the artefacts in the cottage offered evidence of her commitment to establishing and conserving his archive and reputation by appealing publicly for Elgar mementoes and working with Worcester council to fulfil his dying wish that he should be remembered at the cottage.


Elgar’s wife, Alice, was ‘a published author and poet in her own right’.  She came from ‘semi-aristocratic Anglican stock’ and was disinherited when she became a Roman Catholic to marry the shopkeeper’s son Elgar - eight years her junior. He described her as ‘the immovable rock of his life’ during their 31 year marriage.


To us, perhaps the greatest evidence of her support was displayed in one of the museum showcases – a five-pronged pointed tool called a ‘rastrum’ used to draw musical lines on paper that had not been pre-ruled. She ruled the paper. He wrote the musical notes.


‘The care of a genius,’ said Alice, ‘is enough of a life work for any woman!’ Whether they are male or female, every genius, and probably each of us in our own small way, needs someone to ‘rule the paper’! If we did that for each other not just England but the world might be a place of 'hope and glory'.



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