The Malvern Hills Inspired Sir Edward Elgar

The Malvern Hills Inspired Sir Edward Elgar

Elgar Museum and birth placeEdward Elgar was born in Worcestershire and lived in and around Malvern and the Malvern Hills for many years.

Edward Elgar was a renowned composer and it was the Malvern Hills that inspired many of his well-known compositions. From age 55 he lived in view of the Malvern Hills and was routinely seen cycling around the surrounding countryside and village lanes during that time. He died in 1934, aged 76 after his wife Alice, and they are both buried in St Wulstans Church in Little Malvern.

Edward Elgar gave regular piano and violin lessons from the large Post Office in Great Malvern, which during the Victorian times was a piano shop. It was here that he met his future wife, a pupil called Caroline Alice Roberts. They fell in love and within three years they married, much to the horror of Alice’s family, who went on to disinherit her for marrying a Roman Catholic and unknown musician.

As we know Edward Elgar went on to become a great composer to compositions such as Pomp and Circumstance Marches, one of which was set to the words – Land of Hope and Glory. In 1903 Elgar founded the Malvern Concert Club with Arthur Troyte Griffith who was a local architect and his enthusiastic secretary. Today there is still a loyal support for this membership and the club continues to flourish with over 450 members and often over 600 people attending concerts.

Visitors to the region often follow the Elgar Route or Elgar Trail

One of many statue's of Edward Elgar

One of many statues of Edward Elgar

The Elgar route takes in Elgar’s birthplace, which is now a museum, the music shop that his father owned, and the various places he taught and lived later in life. There are quite a few prominent statues of Elgar in Worcester High Street, Malvern Church Street and near Hereford Cathedral. The Elgar Route is quite simply a purposeful tour of Edward Elgar’s favourite places and takes in the house where he was born in Lower Broadheath – -and the Elgar Graves in St Wulstan’s Church at Little Malvern.

The cottage in Broadheath which was known as the ‘Firs’ was rented by Elgar’s parents as their family grew. Elgar’s mother Ann had some artistic talent and an affinity with nature so wanted to be in the countryside to bring up her 6 children. In 1856 Elgar’s father William established a music business in Worcester and was only able to spend weekends at the cottage, so when another addition to the family (Joe, born in 1859) was now expected, the family was going to outgrow the cottage so William and Ann sought a larger home in Worcester. From 1859 to 1861, they lived in a number of properties in Worcester ending up in 1863 moving to 10 High Street, to live above the shop that housed the family music business. Here Elgar received his initial grounding in the various aspects of music making that ended up being a substitute for a formal musical education. The shop was demolished however there is a plaque to mark the approximate location at the Gifford Hotel in Worcester.

Edward Elgars birth home at Broadheath

Edward Elgar’s birth home at Broadheath

In 1879 Edward Elgar moved from 10 High Street and moved in with his sister Pollie and her husband William Grafton to 35 Chestnut Walk, Worcester. During this period Elgar’s compositional talents began to show through and he attempted to provide a new composition or arrangement each weekend. In 1883 Elgar took up residence in the home of his eldest sister Lucy and her husband Charles Pipe and Elgar remained here until his marriage to Alice in 1889.

When they married Alice was already renting a property, Saetermo, in Great Malvern however, Elgar felt he needed to move closer to the London musical scene to make his name. This lead to them taking up residence in London which threw their marriage into a period of domestic turmoil as Elgar tried, but eventually failed to establish himself in the capital. After their honeymoon on the Isle of Wight, they took a short lease on a property in West Kensington, but when that lease ran out, and with very little income, they returned to Malvern.

Edward Elgar moved from Malvern to London to find fame and fortune

Edward Elgar Malvern

They returned again to London in October taking up residence close to Crystal Palace, which was holding a regular orchestral concert. Edward Elgar hoped his compositions would be played, but he was not making much headway. During this period Alice became pregnant with Carice, but after a bitter winter, Elgar once again decided to return to Worcestershire to teach the violin again, where he could make a better living.

In March 1891 Elgar and Alice found a solid semi-detached house off Alexandra Road at Malvern Link called Forli. It provided a stable environment for Elgar almost to the end of the century. He completed The Black Knight, revised and published the Serenade for Strings, and composed Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, The Light of Life, King Olaf, The Banner of St George, much of Caractacus, and the Enigma Variations. This impressive list of works reinforced his local reputation and onto a national treasure.

Edward Elgar began to feel that Forli was essentially an urban property and so lacked the inspiration he yearned, despite its proximity to the Malvern Hills and the Worcestershire countryside, it had no views. So in 1891, Elgar began looking for a countryside property that offered peace and quiet, with views, sounds and smells to inspire him and in 1898, began to look for a cottage retreat away from the pressures and disturbances of Malvern.

They found a property to rent where he could work on his music in Great Storridge just inside Herefordshire, called Birchwood Lodge. Edward Elgar fell in love with Birchwood over any other home he’d lived in, apart from his birthplace or course. He quickly installed a Broadwood piano into a bedroom and went on to complete works such as Caractacus, which is set among the hills that Edward Elgar could now gaze upon from his music room window.

In 1899 Elgar’s increasing fame motivated him to quit Forli, the family home, for something grander. He and Alice chose a house about a mile outside of Malvern on the Wells Road, which they named Craeg Lea – an anagram of C(arice), A(lice) and E(dward) Elgar. It was a substantial house set on a bank high above the Wells Road and much like Birchwood, Elgar’s music study was a room on the upper floor, which gave him fantastic views across the Severn Valley and the Worcestershire countryside. However, this move to Craeg Lea was in the end, a mistake as it was further away than Forli from the rental property Birchwood he so loved.

Fame brought increasing demands on Edward Elgar’s time

Edward Elgar MalvernEdward Elgar found it increasingly more difficult to ‘get away’ to Birchwood, which remained his inspirational bolt hole. Eventually, Elgar and Alice accepted their folly of renting a property that he rarely visited, so they let Birchwood go in October 1903. He quickly regretted this and then became worried about a proposed property development across the road from Craeg Lea might ruin the views from his study window. During this uncertain time, Elgar made inquiries to try to purchase Birchwood but was told that it was not for sale. So another move took them to Plas Gwyn, a house on the eastern outskirts of Hereford.

This house seemed an odd move as it was on the edge of the city, set back from the road within enclosed grounds, with no views. On top of that, he was now a well established national personality with heavy commitments in London, so this move to Hereford was even less convenient than being based in Malvern. However, Plas Gwyn did provide the isolation Elgar needed to continue composing, and it was from here Edward completed The Kingdom, arranged the Wand of Youth suites, and composed both symphonies, the violin concerto, the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, two more Pomp and Circumstance Marches and a mass of smaller works. Not since Forli had Elgar produced so many works from the same house.

But the pressure of travelling to and from London with prolonged visits away from home took its toll, so in March 1910, Elgar and Alice rented a number of flats in Central London as pieds-à-terre to allow Elgar to fulfil his city commitments. In the end, they once again took up permanent residence in London in 1911. The house was an imposing Queen Anne style mansion called Severn House, with its own music room, large enough to hold a recital for a small audience. It was, for Alice her dream house, but it was a huge drain on their finances so Edward had to take on extensive conducting engagements to pay the mortgage. They had a busy social life from this house as it was conveniently placed for an endless stream of visitors from Central London, and this in part explains Elgar’s limited works from Severn House. On top of that, it was wartime and Elgar determined to play his part became a special constable in the Hampstead Home Guard (then called the Volunteer Force). As the war dragged on into its third year, Alice, accompanied by Carice, set off to find another country retreat to provide another ‘Birchwood’ to serve Severn House.

Alice Elgar buried at St Wulstans Church, Little Malvern

Alice Elgar buried at St Wulstans Church, Little Malvern

Alice found a retreat deep in the Sussex countryside called ‘Brinkwells’ near Fittleworth. With stunning views and woodlands nearby for Elgar to walk in, a quick succession of compositions followed; The violin sonata, string quartet, and the piano quintet. Once again the pleasure Elgar experienced was short-lived as Severn House was burgled and in 1919 the neighbour began building a garage close to the music room of Severn House. Elgar and Alice realised they could not afford both properties and so put Severn House up for sale. With Alice becoming increasingly frail at the age of 70 and after a succession of minor illnesses, took to her bed in March 1920, and sadly died the following month.

Edward Elgar was devastated and tried to buy ‘Brinkwells’ as he had tried years before with ‘Birchwood’, but the landlord decided not to sell. Elgar had no choice but to let ‘Brinkwells’ go in August 1921 and ‘Severn House’ later the same year. Initially, he remained in London, but the withdrawal from public life following Alice’s death reduced his commitments and his links with Worcestershire were stronger now with Alice buried at St Wulstan’s Church, Little Malvern. In April 1923, he returned to live out his remaining years close to his roots.

His first move was to ‘Napleton Grange’, a rather grand mansion at Kempsey close to the River Severn and Malvern. In 1923, he went on a cruise up the River Amazon and continued to a somewhat peripatetic existence. He spent extended periods at friends’ houses and continued to compose spasmodically. He enjoyed going to the races and always attended the Three Choirs festival, often conducting performances of his own works. Elgar however, remained inwardly lonely and unsettled.

Edward Elgar malvernLater in 1927, he let the lease on ‘Napleton Grange’ go and moved into Worcester, renting ‘Battenhall Manor’ which was a short walk to the south-east of the city centre. Five months later he moved to ‘Tiddington House’ in Stratford-on-Avon, where he loved attending performances of Shakespeare plays at the memorial theatre. He moved to two more grand mansions none that he could truly call ‘home’, so moved again in December 1929. He purchased ‘Marl Bank’, a large house set on a bank to the east of Worcester city centre with a wonderful view of the cathedral.

Now with a  permanent home, Edward Elgar appeared to have regained the inspiration he needed to compose and the music began to flow again : the Severn Suite, A Fifth Pomp And Circumstance March, the Nursery Suite together with a number of shorter salon pieces were produced along with an opera – The Spanish Lady – and a Third Symphony. In October 1933, Elgar was diagnosed having terminal cancer and at age 76 he died.

Edward Elgar as we’ve said drew inspiration for his musical compositions while walking and cycling in this area of Malvern and Worcestershire. He was proud to collaborate with George Bernard Shaw to organise the Malvern Drama Festival from 1929.

So if you come and visit the area look out for the well-signposted Elgar Trail constructed to link most of the surviving properties and other locations associated with Edward Elgar in the Worcester, Malvern, and Hereford area – a leaflet describing the Trail can be obtained from Tourist Information Offices.

For more information:

A stay at Orchard Side Bed and Breakfast will give you the perfect base to explore the Malvern Hills and enjoy the Edward Elgar Route or Trail

Listen to this powerful example of Sir Edward Elgar’s music – Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 is a composition you will be very familiar with.


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