Elgar, Alice (1848–1920)

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Elgar, Alice (1848–1920)

British author and wife of Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934), who served as his inspiration, critic, literary advisor, and music scribe. Name variations: Lady Alice Roberts Elgar; Lady Caroline Alice Elgar; Caroline Alice Roberts. Born Caroline Alice Roberts on October 9, 1848, in the Residency at Bhooj (now Gujerat), India; died in London on April 7, 1920; daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts and Julia Maria (Raikes) Roberts; had three brothers; married Edward Elgar, in 1889; children: daughter, Carice Elgar (b. 1890).

The music of England's greatest composer, Sir Edward Elgar, was brought to light largely due to the support of his wife, Lady Alice. Born in India as the only daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts, Alice Roberts grew up in the English countryside after the retirement of her father, a hero of the Sepoy Mutiny and the Sikh Wars. Her mother, Julia Raikes Roberts , was born into a family that counted as its most distinguished member Julia's grandfather Robert Raikes, founder of Sunday Schools. By early 1880s, when the second of Alice's three brothers died (one had died in infancy), it became clear that Alice would remain with her elderly mother at the Georgian family home of Hazeldine House in Redmarley d'Abitot, southeastern Worcestershire.

Short in stature, Alice Roberts had china-blue eyes and light-brown hair. Her assured manner and quiet voice marked her as a lady of England's rural gentry, and she gave the impression of possessing considerable confidence and inner strength. Intellectually curious, she was first drawn to geology but developed other interests as well, mastering several foreign languages, particularly German. An aspiring author, she penned both a long poem (Isabel Trevithoe, 1879) and a novel (Marchcroft Manor, 1882), both of which were published in London under her full name Caroline Alice Roberts.

Alice also had a love of music, and it was this passion which would cause a woman regarded by family and friends alike as a guaranteed "spinster" to meet and eventually marry a man destined to become a great composer. Edward William Elgar was born on June 2, 1857, in Lower Broadheath near Worcester. Starting in 1863, Elgar's father William Henry ran a music shop on High Street in Worcester. By age ten, Edward was composing music. He won praise for his piano improvisations as a child, but besides violin lessons from a local teacher (and more advanced violin instruction some years later in London) he had little formal musical education. Plans for studying at the Leipzig Conservatory had to be abandoned for lack of funds. By age 16, Elgar was making his living as a freelance musician, his profession for the rest of his life.

He worked in and around Worcester as the organist at St. George's Roman Catholic Church (his mother Ann Elgar was Roman Catholic, and Elgar was raised in that faith) as well as playing the violin at the Worcester Philharmonic and other ensembles. He also coached and conducted the staff ensemble of the Powick County Lunatic Asylum, and in his spare hours played bassoon in a local wind quintet. Extra money was earned teaching private violin pupils. Edward was an excellent violinist and conductor, whose reputation in time spread beyond Worcester, and by 1882 he was performing in an orchestra in

Birmingham. He composed in his spare hours, and some of his orchestral compositions began to be performed locally; on one occasion, a piece of his received a public performance in London. As he approached the age of 30, however, Edward Elgar remained unknown and had accomplished nothing that could make the world at large take notice of any extraordinary talents.

In October 1886, Alice Roberts began to take violin lessons from Edward Elgar. She was almost nine years older than her teacher and appeared destined to remain unmarried. Underneath her Victorian exterior was a passionate soul, and she recognized similar feelings hidden within the reserved Elgar. After the death of her mother in 1887, Alice moved to a furnished room at Malvern Link so as to be nearer to her violin teacher. Several years earlier, Edward had fallen in love with Helen Weaver , an aspiring musician who was the daughter of a Worcester tradesman. Edward and Helen had briefly visited Germany together, and in 1883 they had become engaged. But soon the hopes for a permanent union evaporated, and a disappointed Edward overcame his sorrow in work. The appearance of Alice Roberts several years later changed his life.

By September 1888, Edward and Alice were engaged. His own family's disappointment that his fiancée was Anglican was more than matched by that of Alice's cousins and aunts, who were almost universally disapproving of the man she had chosen: a Roman Catholic, without financial means, often in delicate health with ailments of apparently psychosomatic origin, and with no definite prospects of success in his chosen field of music. Edward's family, being "in trade," was also regarded by Alice's as totally unsuitable for a bride-to-be from the rural gentry whose father had been a highly decorated general. Their marriage, at Brompton Oratory on May 8, 1889, was marked by a distinct lack of support from both families. Even before she married him, Alice Elgar was convinced that her husband was a potential genius, that he would soon be recognized as one of England's greatest musical creators, and that her task was to help him achieve the full potentialities of his God-given talents. Edward produced a musical setting of one of Alice's poems, "The Wind at Dawn." Whereas until now his compositions had been undistinguished, revealing little of a personal style, in the finale of this song he composed a work that revealed "an assurance that was absolutely new" in his music. That same year, 1888, Elgar composed Salut d'amour (Liebesgruss) for violin and piano, published as his Opus 12. Dedicated to Alice Roberts, this heartfelt miniature went on to become a worldwide bestseller for many decades. Most of the profits from this went to the publisher, Schott & Co., which paid its commercially naive composer a trifle in royalties.

Calling his new bride "Braut" or Alice, Elgar found in her what Michael Kennedy has called a "wife, mother, friend, mentor, and spur." It soon became apparent that Elgar's confidence, always easily bruised, was now receiving daily doses of support, and his music showed the benefits. The couple, deeply in love, artistically and personally compatible, easily ignored the gossip of the narrow-minded gentry of late Victorian Worcester-shire, which regarded theirs as an unsuitable match between a patrician lady of "a certain age" who had married a mere shopkeeper's son of the lower-middle class whose social skills were suspect and who had possibly married to live off of his wife's private income.

After their wedding, Alice was determined that her husband—until now largely isolated from the fresh currents of modern musical life—should be fully exposed to the new post-Wagnerian musical scene. This would only be possible if they lived in London, to which they moved, residing in Norwood close to the Crystal Palace and its plenitude of orchestral concerts. Alice's private income was not sufficient to provide total leisure (Edward had hoped to attract a few violin students, but none appeared), but London's intellectual stimulation, and the newfound luxury of some leisure time kindled his creative energies, and he worked on several large-scale musical projects. Although the birth of a daughter, Carice Elgar , in August 1890 also brought joy, their stay in London was in many ways a disappointment for the Elgars. In June 1891, the family returned to the English countryside, at Malvern. Financially hard-pressed, Elgar had to resume violin teaching, which he compared to turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder.

Alice refused to be discouraged by a temporary setback. While in London, Edward had composed his first major orchestral work, the exuberant concert overture Froissart, which was accepted for publication by Novello, one of London's leading music publishers. Certain of his future, Alice prodded her husband to embark on large-scale projects, including The Black Knight, a choral symphony which became Elgar's first successful choral work. Other successful works, The Light of Life, King Olaf, and Caractacus, followed, all of them compositions that proved to be popular with both choral societies and audiences, and all the result of the artistic collaboration between husband and wife.

Alice contributed directly to Edward's artistic productivity on several occasions, and provided him with verse for the following works: Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, O Happy Eyes, Fly, Singing Bird and The Snow, the latter two being excerpts from her long poem Isabel Trevithoe. She also provided one of the poems, In Haven (Capri), for Edward's orchestral song cycle, Sea Pictures, which received an enthusiastic reception at its 1899 premiere with Clara Butt as the soloist. After 1900, Alice Elgar made only occasional literary contributions for her husband's compositions, as when she provided the text for a carol, A Christmas Greeting, which received its first performance at Hereford Cathedral on New Year's Day, 1908.

Easily discouraged, Edward sometimes found himself unable to compose while in "the slough of despond." On these occasions, when he vowed to abandon the career of musical composition, Alice provided the encouragement to strengthen his own resolve. She helped him with the arduous task of copying his manuscripts and took care of all mundane distractions to leave him to his composing. Long before he sent a manuscript off to his publishers, Alice had listened to it. Once, Edward remembered, after he had played on the piano some of his day's compositional achievement, she nodded her head appreciatively "except over one passage, at which she sat up rather grimly, I thought. However, I went to bed leaving it as it was; but I got up as soon as it was light and went down to look over what I had written. I found it as I had left it, except that there was a little piece of paper, pinned over the offending bars, on which was written 'All of it is beautiful and just right, except this ending. Don't you think, dear Edward, that this end is just a little…?' Well … I scrapped that end." Where Alice believed the achievement of musical excellence was at stake, all else was subordinated to this ultimate goal, even if it impacted their daughter Carice, who was sent off to boarding school at an early age so as to keep the Elgar home environment calm and quiet for composing.

Realizing that her husband's composing was stimulated by the presence of others, particularly intelligent, attractive women younger than she, Alice Elgar saw to it that his friendships with such individuals flourished. Edward was a quintessential Victorian gentleman, and there is no evidence that these relationships were anything but Platonic. The most important of these friendships was with the musician Alice Stuart-Wortley (1862–1936, Lady Stuart of Wortley), the daughter of the noted painter Sir John Everett Millais. In his extensive correspondence of more than three decades with her, which has been published, Edward called the other Alice in his life the "Windflower," and there is little doubt that some of his most beautiful music was inspired by his relationship with her. She was closely linked with the composition of his Violin Concerto, and it was with her playing in mind (she was a pianist of considerable ability) that Elgar began sketches for a never completed Piano Concerto. Alice Elgar approved of the decades-long friendship. When she wrote to Lady Stuart Wortley, Alice Elgar invariably used the salutation "My dearest Namesake."

Another younger woman brought into Edward's world by Lady Elgar was Dora Penny (1874–1964), daughter of Reverend Alfred Penny, rector of Wolverhampton. Dora was employed by Lady Elgar as keeper of Edward's archives starting in the mid-1890s, and Alice encouraged the influence of Dora's youthful charm on the often moody composer, who enjoyed bicycle riding with Dora as well as listening to her piano improvisations. Naming her after a character in Mozart's opera Così fan tutte, Edward incorporated a character sketch of "Dorabella" in his first great orchestral score, the Enigma Variations.

Other women who inspired Elgar in his creative work were the sisters Florence and Winifred Norbury . The sisters, both of whom were musicians as well as ardent cyclists and tennis players, lived near the Elgar summer home in the Malvern Hills. Winifred Norbury (1861–1938), who often assisted Elgar with checking proofs of his musical manuscripts, was sketched as the "W.N." section of the Enigma Variations, although the composer asserted that it was not Winifred but both sisters' home, Sherridge, that had been the real subject of his work.

Lady Elgar worked tirelessly to shore up her husband's morale when it flagged, which it did on numerous occasions even after he achieved fame in 1899 with the premiere performance of the Enigma Variations. He often threatened to end his life, and his sense of inferiority was great. In 1897, already well-regarded in musical circles, he sent a card on the morning of a formal luncheon party, the invitation to which he had previously accepted: "You would not wish your board to be disgraced by the presence of a piano-tuner's son and his wife."

Never doubting her husband's supremacy as an artist, Alice kept a diary that remains a key source of information on her unyielding belief in his ultimate recognition. The scant material rewards of his work during the first 15 years of their marriage, pitifully tiny royalty payments, and debts incurred from the Elgars' modest savings in order to stage expensive choral works never dampened her enthusiasm. The conferring of a knighthood on Edward in 1904, transforming Alice Roberts Elgar into Lady Elgar, came after long years of struggle. Frank Schuster, one of Elgar's wealthy champions and patrons, marveled at her skills as an "indefatigable hostess and marvelous manager."

By the end of the First World War, the Elgars both sensed that the traditional world they had known had died in the carnage that had toppled dynasties, destroyed millions of lives and crushed the optimistic ideals of previous centuries. Edward composed a number of masterpieces during and immediately after the great conflict. These includedThe Spirit of England, a "grand and melancholy" choral composition, as well as a trio of superb chamber works (a violin sonata, a string quartet, and a piano quintet). The greatest of these autumnal works, the Cello Concerto, was composed over the period of a few months in mid-1919. Although the premiere performance was technically inadequate, critics recognized the work for the great masterpiece it is. Lady Elgar, who considered the concerto to be "a flawless work," fumed about both the conductor and his players, writing in her diary how "absolutely furious" she was with the musicians' slipshod work, including the mediocre and "shameful" quality of their rehearsals. She faithfully attended not only performances and rehearsals, but recordings of his music, which he conducted at the studios of the Gramophone Company.

By the end of 1919, Lady Elgar's health was in a visible state of decline, but she struggled to remain active. Friends noticed her fragile appearance, but in late February 1920 she summoned the energy to accompany Edward to another recording session. Fred Gaisberg, the recording manager, noted how much "motherly kindness radiated from her, and it was easy to see how much Sir Edward … owed to her good advice and solicitous care."

By March 26, 1920, Sir Edward himself was making notations in the diary Alice had kept for more than three decades. The entry of April 6 notes, "My darling—in great distress—cd. not understand her words—very, very painful." The next day's entry was brief and tragic: "My darling sinking … Sinking all day & died in my arms at 6:10 pm."

Stunned by his loss, Edward allowed his daughter Carice and close friend Frank Schuster to make the funeral arrangements. On April 10, 1920, Lady Elgar was buried in the graveyard of St. Wulstan's Catholic Church, Little Malvern, in the shadow of the hills she had known since her childhood. In the tiny church, Edward, appearing "very grey, old, and grief-stricken," listened to musician friends perform the Piacevole movement from one of his most recent works, the string quartet, music that Lady Elgar had instantly warmed to, describing it as "gracious and lovable." In the next months, he wrote friends: "All I have done was owing to her and I am at present a sad & broken man."

Sir Edward Elgar outlived his wife by almost 14 years, dying in February 1934, but he never again composed a musical work of great significance. Only 62 when Lady Elgar died, he enjoyed good health until the last few months of his life, but it quickly became clear that his energies were no longer focused on composing. Instead, he traveled, spent time at the races and with his dogs (Alice Elgar had been "undoggy," and her widower now reverted to the love of dogs that had marked his bachelor years), occasionally conducted, and made a series of important recordings of his major compositions. Not until the early 1930s, when close friend George Bernard Shaw prodded him to write a third symphony, did Elgar's creative spark appear to be rekindled. But it was too late, and neither the symphony nor a projected opera and other major works were ever completed.

Thanks largely to the sacrifices and interventions of his wife between 1889 and 1919, Edward Elgar created a series of great works of orchestral music that remain centerpieces of the late Romantic repertory. These would never have been composed without Alice Elgar. Without her, there might never have been the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and the immortal tune contained within the first of the series of five, which, sung as "Land of Hope and Glory," has accompanied millions of graduates from high schools and universities in many parts of the world. One evening in 1914, she had read aloud to him passages from some of her own writings. In her diary that night Lady Elgar noted some regrets at her long-abandoned literary ambitions, but concluded her entry with the sentence: "The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman."


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John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia