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The Awakening of England’s


Elgar and Vaughan Williams

Elgar and Vaughan Williams

Elgar (1857 – 1934) and Vaughan Williams (1872 -1958) both endured long musical apprenticeships, doggedly determined to discover the destiny that they both seemed to know intuitively lay dormant in their deep mind, hidden even from themselves. When after decades they found what lay within the reputation and the future of English classical music was transformed. Neither of them despite appearances, were stuffy, post-Victorian, establishment figures but radical composers, truly ‘post-modern’. Richard Strauss referred to Elgar as “the English progressivist” but this could, for different reasons, apply equally to VW. Both drew inspiration from their common love of English landscape and its medieval foundations. But their routes to their awakening could hardly be more different.

Leith Hill Place (Surrey) where Vaughan Williams lived as a boy
Leith Hill Place (Surrey) where Vaughan Williams lived as a boy

Vaughan Williams was the son of a wealthy family connected to the Wedgwood pottery dynasty. Money was never a problem. His was a long formal education; prep-school, Charterhouse, two stints at the (new) Royal College of Music, gap years from the RCM at his family’s insistence, to take degrees from Cambridge University. His 40-year friendship with Holst who he met at the RCM, helped them both to express their vision rooted in day-to-day reality, in their love of English landscape and the songs of working people. It was all there hidden in plain sight. VW’s mission was to compose music by the people and for the people. Strange as it might seem despite his upper-middle class upbringing and long formal apprenticeship – he also studied in Germany with Bruch and later on with Ravel in Paris - it would not be wrong to think of VW’s music as a kind of musical socialism, honest, open and free responding to the world but also telling universal truths to us about our common humanity. He wrote music that chimed with a widespread audience; everyone is welcome at VW’s door.

But he was hardly a fluent composer. He said that he struggled all his life, ‘to conquer amateurish technique’. His great gift was one of vision, not technical mastery but being able to translate his imaginative experience into compelling musical images. It was a musical language hewn from the longue durée of the English landscape, blended with the great European tradition but still remaining, as VW asserted, distinctively ‘English’. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis launched his career onto the national and international stage, with an intensity and sense of wonderment not heard before and revealed his destiny as a visionary composer; music that is direct and engaging and is the reason why, of his generation and ours, his appeal is so far reaching; indeed A Lark Ascending.


Elgar, Catholic “outsider”, left school at 15, helped in his father’s music shop in Worcester and from the very beginning played in amateur ensembles composing and arranging music for them, discovering his craft all the while. None of his hand-written manuscripts survive from this period.. He earned his bread and butter teaching piano and violin. He wrote mainly choral music to satisfy the market for choral societies and regional music festivals. So it was that Elgar grew as a composer entirely in the absence of formal music college training. He was highly intelligent and an avid reader, learnt German and went there to hear Wagner’s great opera cycle. Seared into his soul was the English landscape of his birth, especially the Malvern Hills. He said he caught his music from the air! “My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it – (here he raised his hands and made a rapid gesture of capture) – and - you - simply – simply - take as much as you require.”

Elgar’s birthplace at Broadheath in Worcestershire
Elgar’s birthplace at Broadheath in Worcestershire

Thank goodness for his devoted wife Alice Roberts, the one person who always believed in him. She understood what was within this man of genius; unschooled, self-taught, no formal critical input, no training; Elgar had to find his own way, always as he thought a loner, an outsider. The outsized moustache and the formal attire of the gentleman was in reality a disguise. Behind it he was free to find his destiny, who he truly was, uncluttered and free. Despite her Empire upbringing Alice took him on at face value and gave him everything. She organised where they lived, arranged their travelling plans; their many trips to Italy and Germany where he heard all the Wagner operas and the music of Richard Strauss, Mahler, Schumann, Beethoven, especially Mozart.

Alice was the soulmate he turned to when exhausted and depressed after his creative outpourings. She knew how to coax him through. Nine years older, short and plain in appearance Alice let her husband befriend younger women, notably Alice Stuart-Wortley, a married woman, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais. Elgar referred to her as his ‘Windflower’ and she was the inspiration for much of his most important music. Alice also knew that Elgar was a close confidante with several men, enjoying a particularly emotionally charged relationship with August Jaeger, a German who worked for the music publishers Novello. Jaeger stood by Elgar at several points of emotional crisis and supported him throughout his critical creative years. He was fiercely honest about the music Elgar showed him often in draft form. He was probably the most important figure in Elgar’s musical life. He famously appears as Nimrod in the Enigma Variations. It is a gesture of how much love Elgar and Jaeger felt for each other that the variation is passionately romantic music despite its association latterly with mournful public events. It is seriously misunderstood.

To think of Elgar as a post-Victorian, conservative composer could hardly be further from the truth. Nor was he an ‘imperialist’. He wrote music in alignment with the Mahler, Richard Strauss (who he met), Sibelius ,all pushing on from nineteenth century forms into much more complex, abstract sound worlds. Elgar is in the pantheon of modernist composers and was renowned especially in Europe. After hearing the Enigma Variations, composed on the cusp of the twentieth century Richard Strauss called Elgar the “English progressivist” and it was heard in New York conducted by Gustav Mahler. Elgar’s First Symphony was described by its first conductor, the erudite German Hans Richter, as the “..greatest symphony of the modern era”. In Leipzig, Arthur Nikisch, (Adrian Boult’s conducting teacher) after conducting its premiere there ranked it with Beethoven and Brahms. In all there were 82 performances in its first year of life (1908 -09); all over Europe, in English cities, in America, even Sydney.

Elgar was the first composer to fully recognize the possibilities of broadcasting and recording his music. In 1931 he opened he HMV/EMI recording studios at Abbey Road and then conducted the first recording there; his orchestral masterpieces Falstaff. A few years later as a lay dying from cancer one of his dearest friends, the violinist W. H. Reed said that the recording rushed to his bedside of the slow movement of his Piano Quintet seemed to be a message from another world. Listening to it Elgar was in tears.

Few other composers so fully inhabited their music as Elgar. Few other composers left so many autobiographical traces inside their music of the women and men he loved. Elgar’s music embodied who he truly was, all of his life and experience his unique sensitivity to the landscape he loved and his response to the political landscape that he could not escape except in the his countryside, seared into his soul as a child, he wandered the Malvern Hills, fell in love several time and was heart-broken by the war. Elgar’s genius was that he embodied his music; Elgar incarnate.

Come and hear the music of Vaughan Williams and Elgar in Event Four at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall played by world class string players and the wonderful Russian pianist Katya Apekisheva.

John Mills, Jonathan Stone (violins)

Hélène Clément, Simone van der Giessen (violas)

Jonathan Aasgaard, Tim Lowe (Cellos)

Billy Cole (Double Bass)

Katya Apekisheva (piano)

Saturday 16 September | 7.30pm

Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York

Ralph Vaughan William (1872 -1958) Piano Quintet in C Minor

”It is difficult to imagine why VW withdrew the piece in 1918 after well-received performances. It is sad to reflect that he himself never heard it again. If he had he might well have breathed a sigh of satisfaction at such a beautifully crafted piece already revealing his unique vision of music that reaches out to everyone and invites us in.”

Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934) Piano Quintet in A Minor Op 84

“Ops 84 and 85 (Cello Concerto) were Elgar’s last vision of a landscape seared into his soul as a child and as he wandered the Malvern Hills, fell in love several time and was heart-broken by the war. And so, joined at the hip, the Cello Concerto and the Piano Quintet were his last great statements; Elgar’s music incarnate.”

For detailed programme notes and tickets (£20 but free for students and anyone 18 or under)


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