Ask anyone to name a famous English composer and they’d probably mention Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) or, more probably, Sir Edward Elgar.
Elgar was born in June 1857 in a small cottage, The Firs, in the village of Lower Broadheath, a stone’s throw west of Worcester, and 20 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove. The cottage (formerly the Elgar Birthplace Museum) came into the care of the National Trust in 2016 following an agreement with the Elgar Foundation. Closed for a year for some refurbishment, and the addition of a tea-room at the existing Visitor Centre among other improvements, The Firs re-opened in September 2017.
As the weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) had looked promising from earlier in the week, Steph and I made plans for a day out. But where to go? Looking through the 2018 handbook I came across The Firs (which had not featured in the 2017 handbook for obvious reasons). And with the added attraction of a two-mile circular walk in Elgar country in the vicinity, this was just what the doctor ordered!
Our visit to The Firs was beyond my expectations and unbelievably moving, even bringing me to the point of tears as I watched the 15-20 minute film about Elgar in the Visitor Centre. Throughout our visit, but especially in ‘Elgar’s Study’, I really had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, and I can’t recall ever having had that reaction before.
Elgar’s parents William and Anne had seven children, although two died young.
William was a piano tuner, and held a warrant from Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV).
Although Elgar moved away to Worcester with his family at the age of two, he retained a life-long attachment to The Firs. At the bottom of the cottage garden (see map) there is a lovely life-size sculpture of Elgar sitting on a bench (by Jemma Pearson) gazing through a gap in the hedge towards the Malvern Hills that he loved so much. It was commissioned by the Elgar Foundation in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.
Elgar’s daughter, Carice (born in 1890) was the inspiration, in 1935, to acquire The Firs as a memorial to her father.
Entrance to the house is by timed tickets. There’s obviously not a great deal of space inside to accommodate too many visitors at a time.
Inside the entrance porch was a small room with an iron range for heating water and cooking. Today, the National Trust has decorated the room with contemporary though not original-to-the-house items, including a piano tuner’s set of instruments.
On the ground floor, the Parlour (dedicated to Carice Elgar) has a lovely piano, possibly played by Elgar.
At the top of the stairs is a room the full width of the cottage (perhaps earlier divided into two rooms) where Elgar was born. Two other rooms and this one have displays of various musical instruments, his sporting and scientific interests, and other personal belongings such as watches.
Elgar was apparently a keen cyclist, and on one wall of the Visitor Centre there’s a mural of an exuberant cycling Elgar. We were told, although this may well only be anecdotal, that Elgar once cycled from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch his favorite football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. A round trip of 100 miles!
Inside the Visitor Centre, an exhibition illustrates highlights from Elgar’s life and career. He married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889. Her parents disapproved of Elgar—a ‘jobbing musician’—and did not attend their wedding in the Brompton Oratory in London. I hadn’t realized until yesterday that Elgar was a Catholic.
Alice (who died in 1920) was his inspiration, and early on in their relationship recognized his genius. And that leads to the second point I didn’t know. Elgar received no formal musical training. It wasn’t until 1899, with the first performance of the Enigma Variations, that his growing reputation as a composer was sealed.
In ‘Elgar’s study’ there are original scores of some of his most famous works, as well as the desk at which he worked.
Alice used to prepare the paper on which Elgar composed. Apparently, specially printed paper with the staves was not available, and had to be drawn by hand using the five-pointed pen you can see in a couple of the photos above.
‘Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free‘. Famous words by Arthur C Benson put to music in Elgar’s 1901 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, sung here by contralto Clara Butt.
Who hasn’t heard Land of Hope and Glory? It’s the theme accompanying high school and university graduations around the world. Our two daughters graduated from Manila International School in the Philippines in the 1990s, and it was used then.
Another large room in the Visitor Centre, the Carice Room, is used for concerts, and where we watched the film about Elgar. There was also a lovely exhibition yesterday of watercolors by Worcestershire artist David Birtwhistle.
After a spot of lunch—we even sat outside at one of the many picnic tables—we set off on our walk, which took just over an hour. The walk begins on a public bridleway just behind The Firs, and then crosses three fields sown with oilseed rape and winter barley. By the time we reached terra firma again at Bell Lane, it felt as though we were carrying half of Worcestershire on our muddy boots.
And at this point I must come back to Vaughan Williams for a moment, because as we were walking across the barley field, and looking back towards Worcester Cathedral to the east, a skylark rose into the air in front of us, singing lustily throughout its ascent and as it glided slowly back to earth.
What a wonderful sight and sound, reminding me instantly of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending premiered in 1920, although originally written for violin and piano in 1914.
The staff and volunteers at The Firs were outstanding, and their friendliness and readiness to engage with us added to the enjoyment of our visit. As I said at the outset, we didn’t have any particular expectations when deciding to visit Elgar’s birthplace. I came away deeply affected by what I saw, heard, and learned, and I’m sure that the emotion will stay with me for many days to come. And, coincidentally, as I am finishing writing this post, while listening to Classic FM, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 has just been featured.