To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, on 24 April Sir Mark Elder leads the LSO in a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Alongside this, we launch Elgar Up Close, a BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert series throughout April and May, showcasing the composer’s lesser-known works for strings. In light of this, we learn more about Elgar as a composer and a conductor, his relationship with the LSO, and some of his unique quirks.
Elgar’s wife was a driving force in his career
For many years Elgar made his living through a number of temporary jobs, such as teaching and conducting for local organisations. He married one of his pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts, in 1889. Despite her family opposing the marriage, Alice had unwavering faith in Elgar’s ability and was a valuable help to him throughout his career, providing inspiration for some of his works, walking miles to post manuscripts and even painstakingly ruling bar lines on score paper. When she died in 1920, the driving force behind his work had vanished and Elgar struggled to regain any motivation to write music for a long time.
Elgar and the LSO formed a close relationship
Elgar conducted the LSO’s first tour in 1905 and the same year the orchestra premiered his Introduction and Allegro. This was the first of a number of premieres of his works given by the LSO, another of which was the Cello Concerto in 1919. After Hans Richter retired in 1911, Elgar was invited to fulfill the position of Principal Conductor, a post which he held for two years. His relationship with the LSO was unlike any other between a composer and an orchestra, and his wife Alice remarked that the players showed a ‘touching devotion’ to her husband.
He had an affinity for explosions
Elgar hard at work in his laboratory
In his spare time, Elgar would set up a chemistry lab in his basement where he especially enjoyed concocting an explosive mixture of phosphorus. The experiments were not always successful, however, and when on one occasion he made too much, Elgar disposed of the paste into the rain barrel beside his house. The result was an explosion that destroyed the barrel and flooded his yard with water. Less dangerous hobbies of his included golf and cycling and, surprisingly, he even sold his violin in order to purchase a billiards table.
Elgar’s alter ego was a rabbit
As well as a deep affection for dogs, Elgar adored a white rabbit, which was brought home by his daughter in 1905. They named him Peter as a tribute to Beatrix Potter’s character, and Elgar took great care of the animal, even going so far as to make sure the rabbit had a hot-water bottle for his hutch each night. Peter became Elgar’s alter ego, and references to the rabbit can be seen in Elgar’s works. On the title page of the composer’s work The River it is described as a ‘Folk-Song, paraphrased by Pietro d’Alba – Peter Rabbit in Italian – and Edward Elgar.’ He even wrote letters to Peter, one of which said ‘Your idea – the vigorous entry of the drums – was splendid’, and when the rabbit died, Elgar admitted how ‘really grieved’ he was to have lost his ‘confidant and advisor Pietro d’Alba.’
Elgar's wife, Alice, with Peter Rabbit
He supervised a recording from his deathbed
In 1934 it became apparent that Elgar was dying. Fred Gaisberg, the artistic director of HMV, connected a landline between the composer’s bedroom and Abbey Road where the LSO was recording the Triumphal March and Woodland Interlude. The music was relayed directly to the composer, whose feedback could be heard coming straight from his bed. Elgar died 32 days later and the LSO was asked to play at his memorial service in Worcester Cathedral, performing selections from his last three oratorios with the Three Choirs Festival Chorus – testimony to the longstanding relationship between orchestra and composer.
Top photo: Elgar with the LSO at the opening of Abbey Road Studios in 1932
Elgar and wartime connections this Spring
Sun 24 Apr 2016 7pm, Barbican
Sir Mark Elder conducts Elgar's finest choral work, The Dream of Gerontius, marking 100 years since the LSO performed the work in the 'Festival Gerontius', devised by Sir Henry Wood and Clara Butt to entertain the people of London amidst the chaos of Zeppelin attacks.
Sir Mark Elder conductor
Alice Coote mezzo-soprano
Allan Clayton tenor
Gerald Finley bass
London Symphony Chorus
> Buy tickets
Thu 28 Apr 2016 7.30pm, Barbican
Music by George Butterworth, killed in World War I, and Vaughan Williams, who served as a medical orderly. Plus Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the War.
Sir Mark Elder conductor
Elizabeth Watts soprano
Cedric Tiberghien piano
> Buy tickets
Thu 21, 28 Apr; 5 May 1pm, LSO St Luke's
BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts: Elgar Up Close
Chamber works by Elgar and his contemporaries featuring the Elias String Quartet, Huw Watkins and the LSO String Ensemble.
> More info
Fri 13 May; 3 & 24 Jun; 1 Jul 12.30pm, LSO St Luke's
LSO Discovery Friday Lunchtime Concerts
Music inspired by the English countryside before and during World War I.
> More info