Pomp, Circumstance & a Touch of Mindfulness at Elgar’s Birthplace

One breezy, rainy afternoon recently I made a curiosity visit to Elgar’s Birthplace, and enjoyed a pleasant surprise. To the uninitiated, Sir Edward William Elgar, (1857 -1934) was an English composer particularly noted for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Cello Concerto, and Salut d’Amour. He was born in a quaint red brick estate cottage known as The Firs, around 3 miles northwest of Worcester, now under the care of the National Trust.

Image of Elgar’s Birthplace, facing the Malvern Hills. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019
Image of Elgar’s Birthplace, facing the Malvern Hills. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019

On the day of my visit the clay roof tiles glistened, cars splashed through puddles in the nearby lane and the Malvern hills were barely visible for cloud cover. This scene I describe created the most perfect collar gripping, hat pulling atmosphere for a visit, although causing an all-too-swift walk from the museum centre, through the garden, to the shelter of the front porch. The dimly lit rooms beyond, with music drifting through the upper floor were, I have to say, completely enchanting.

As mentioned, my visit was born out of curiosity and as such, I was in a casual, light-touch, information grazing kind of mind set. However, I couldn’t not listen Elgar’s music, which infused many of the museum spaces. I couldn’t not read the museum labels, stories and quotes, or watch the introductory video. Furthermore, I couldn’t miss the considered introductions the volunteers offered.

Looking back as I type, I can see that the visitor centre, birthplace cottage and the garden were delivering, for me at least, a consistent message. Supporting this message were the misty vista from the front porch, wind blown cherry blossom branches filling the bedroom window view, in fact the whole view looking out from the cottage. It all blended to hint, I believe, at a nourishing and guiding light in Elgar’s life: nature.

Grape hyacinths, or Muscari, before an antique garden roller at Elgar’s Birthplace. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019
Grape hyacinths before an antique garden roller at Elgar’s Birthplace. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019

Let’s be honest, I have spent a mere blip of time learning about Elgar, but I drew clear connections with him due to the way the museum has been presented, and the messages that unknown curators have brought to the fore. I learned less about what he composed, and more about how and why he composed – this, for me, was perfectly pitched.

“The trees are singing my music.” wrote Elgar from a home, Birchwood Lodge, in the saddle of the Malvern Hills.

I was challenged above all with the realisation that Elgar was very well aware of his need for mindfulness and wellbeing; things that are increasingly referred to everywhere these days. Sir Edward Elgar, despite being of another age and situation, appeared to face similar work, life, confidence, and creativity challenges as many people do today; and the museum engaged me in this aspect of Elgar’s life completely.

Museum text: “Elgar chased fame and fortune from a young age [but] on the other hand, he was happiest living the simple and rustic life that he had been afforded as a child. Often he’d retreat into the peace and serenity of nature when work commitments became too much for him.”

What materialised for me was that despite Elgar’s success, wealth and worldly travel; he still appeared to yearn for the peace, escape, and personal inspiration that the Malvern Hills and other rural places offered him. We’re all familiar with the ‘escape to the country’ idea, but for Elgar whose living and success depended on productivity; the inspiration and creativity he drew from the Malvern Hill, or nature generally, was clearly very important.

We may not all be creative composers, but most of us will recognise and identify with Elgar’s need to relax the mind. Creating that escape in order to properly refresh our minds and bodies helps to restore balance, and helps to prepare us for the next period of intense activity.

Cherry blossom filling a window view at Elgar’s Birthplace. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019
Cherry blossom filling a window view at Elgar’s Birthplace. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019

Elgar had certainly found his place, and one thing I took away from my visit was the need to find my own place. If I needed to further prove the point, I just turn again to Elgar’s example, who, although leaving his birthplace at the age of two, revisited often, retained a close connection with the area, and expressed a wish to purchase the The Firs if ever it were to become available.

Elgar wrote: “My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

Returning to the garden, the benches were sodden from rain, but I spent a good while in the garden whilst trying to pick up on its spirit of place.

The tall, rolling, country lane style hedges shivered in the breeze. Freshly composted, mixed cottage style borders were packed full of plants, and although hellebores and primroses drew the eye, the winter structure stole the show with standard roses, a range of budding shrubs and an ironwork arch over a path entwined with climbers.

A rustic, thatched shelter nestled against a wattle fence, offering a shady place to perch. Gravel and wavy lined brick paths crossed the garden, and a bench in a far corner was itself a sculpture of Elgar relaxing whilst taking in the Malvern Hills vista.

A sculptural Malvern Hills view. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019
A sculptural Malvern Hills view. Copyright: Gary Webb 2019

Clearly the garden, whole property even, had moved on with the passage of time, but generally appeared to hold true to its original form judging by the old images available. It was a delightful little garden and was so valuable in allowing me to experience the all-important rural idyll that was so very important to Elgar.

I completely tuned-in to his need for mindfulness, and for the need to invest in his core self; and in this respect, The Firs connected me with Elgar, and the environment, perfectly.

During his final illness in 1933, Elgar hummed a concerto’s first theme to a friend and said, “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.”

Regards, Gary

For more information about The Firs, visit this link: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/the-firs

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