Discovering the Elgar Route

September 29, 2019
The Malvern Hills, Elgar walks

Edward Elgar (2 June 1857 – 23rd February 1934), was the first substantial English composer since Henry Purcell (died 1695). His father had a music shop in Worcester where he tuned pianos.  His mother, a farmer’s daughter, wanted  a country life for her children. Elgar studied the music available in his father’s shop and taught himself to play a wide variety of instruments. Remarkably, he was very largely self-taught as a composer – evidence of the strong determination behind his original and unique genius.  During his lifetime, from the birthplace cottage at Broadheath to Marl Bank, his home in Worcester for the last years of his life, Elgar lived in some twenty-five houses or flats. 

The inspiration for some of his greatest works came from Worcester and the Malvern Hills. Here are some highlights from The Elgar Route, which maps out some of the places that inspired him. 

The Firs

Edward Elgar was born at The Firs, Broadheath on 2 June 1857. Although he only spent the first two years of his life here, it is this space that remained close to his heart for the rest of his life. On receiving his baronetcy in 1931, Elgar requested the title ‘Baron Elgar of Broadheath’. It was his wish that his daughter, Carice, create a museum here, to preserve the place for all to enjoy.

“Nervous, sensitive & kind
Displays no vulgar frame of mind”

(couplet written about Elgar by his mother, Ann)

The Firs, Broadheath, birthplace of Edward Elgar

Elgar’s birthplace.

The cottage (National Trust) is set up as it would have been around the time of Elgar’s birth. The garden is small but well laid out, with a life-sized figure of Elgar sitting on a bench (great if you want a selfie!).  Next door is a modern visitor centre that offers a very informative film about his life, mocked up study room, plus interesting momentos, letters and treasures. The cafe is really good for cakes and drinks and has indoor and outdoor seating. All the volunteers were friendly and knowledgeable.

Edward Elgar study

A reconstruction of Elgar’s study, at the Visitor Centre.

Salut d'amour, Edward Elgar, original manuscript

Original manuscript of Salut d’amour, written for his fiancee, Alice Roberts, and presented to her when he proposed.

The Firs,
Crown East Lane,
Lower Broadheath,
Worcestershire, WR2 6RH

For opening times and admission click here.

The Malvern Hills

The Malvern Hills, which divide the English countryside of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, provided much inspiration to Elgar.

“If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.”

Edward Elgar, referring to the opening theme of his cello concerto.

View of the Malvern Hills

The walking and the views from the Hills are superb, with plenty of choice of routes and levels of difficulty. The Herefordshire Beacon (British Camp) was the inspiration for Elgar’s cantata, Caractacus, and is one of the largest ancient British camps in the country. The Worcestershire Beacon is the highest point of the Hills standing at 1395 feet or 425 metres and offers a 360  degree view. There is also an easier access trail starting at Black Hill car park.  The 200 metre trail rises gently up towards the ridgeline of the Malvern Hills.  A short off-trail section takes you onto the top with spectacular views over Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The path is surfaced and there are benches along the route. Grab your headphones, take a hike up there and at the top listen to the Enigma Variations. The great sweeps of music with this landscape, sky and wind, is a wonderful experience.

There are car parks at the main trails with a charge of £4.50 a day (the money from car parking fees goes towards nature conservation and management of the Hills). The ticket can be used in any of the Malvern Hills Trust car parks on the date of purchase.

The Malvern Hills Hotel serves good food all day from bar snacks to a full menu.

Longdon Marsh and Queenhill Church

Elgar would regularly cycled to Longdon Marsh as he loved the stillness. Here he was inspired to compose The Apostles. His friend the violinist, Billy Reed, wrote:

How he used to sit and dream. A great deal of The Apostles took shape in his mind there…he had to go there more than once to think out those climaxes in the Ascension; for they had to be built up each time that they never reached such a pitch of intensity as at the last and greatest climax, or he would have felt that the architecture of this movement was imperfect.

Elgar also often visited the nearby St Nicholas Church, Queenhill, where it is believed that, whilst sheltering from a thunderstorm in the porch, he thought out the climax of The Apostles.

Worcester Cathedral

Worcester Cathedral must be one of England’s loveliest cathedrals, with Royal tombs, Medieval cloisters, an ancient crypt and Chapter House and magnificent Victorian stained glass.  Elgar had many links with the Cathedral; he played here under Dvorak during the eighth centenary celebrations in 1884, he took an active part in the Three Choirs Festival throughout his life, and several of his works were first performed here including the overture, Froissart.

The Elgar window, Worcester Cathedral

A memorial window depicting the Dream of Gerontius was unveiled in 1935. The window shows Gerontius ascending to the Heavenly City, surrounded by figures from the Bible.

Worcester Cathedral
8 College Yard

The Cathedral is open every day from 7:30am to 6:00pm
Entry is Free.

St. Wulstan’s Church

This is the burial place of Lady Elgar (1920), Edward Elgar (1934) and their daughter Carice Elgar Blake (1970). The gravestone, which they share, was designed by Arthur Troyte Griffiths, the Malvern architect and a close friend of Elgar’s who is depicted in the variation number seven of the Enigma Variations.

St Wulstan's Church, Elgar graves

Edward Elgar died of cancer on 23rd February, 1934.

The Press Association reporter’s account of the 1934 funeral was as follows

Almost before the morning mists had cleared away over the Malvern Hills, which he loved so well, Sir Edward Elgar was laid to rest on Monday. He lies by the side of Lady Elgar, his beloved partner in life who died 14 years ago. The great musician went to his rest without a note of music being played. In the Catholic Church of St Wulstan’s Little Malvern; a brief simple service was conducted by the Reverend GC Alston. Scarcely a score of people were present, and in fact only a few intimate friends knew of the time and place of the service. There was no mourning dress or “formal attire”. The priest in robes of black and gold, had three attendants, and lighted candles threw a soft glow over the purple covered coffin. In a few minutes the congregation passed out into the little churchyard with the sunlit valley of the Severn spreading away below and the Malvern Hills rising steep behind. The smoke of incense rose on the clear morning air. There was a sprinkling of holy water and in a few minutes the little group of mourners left the grave. Sir Edward had been placed to rest. As the mourners dispersed the sky darkened and flakes of snow came drifting over falling gently on the plain oak coffin.

The Elgar graves

St Wulstan’s RC Church
Wells Road,
Little Malvern,
WR14 4JL

The cemetery is always open.

For information on how to get to the Malvern Hills, click here.

Listening suggestions:

There is so much more to Elgar than the imperialistic Land of Hope and Glory! If you are not too familiar with his music, here are some listening suggestions which reveal a very different aesthetic:

  • Introduction and Allegro for Strings
  • The Dream of Gerontius
  • Violin concerto (Nigel Kennedy has done an excellent recording)
  • Sea Pictures (sung by Dame Janet Baker)
  • Cello Concerto (the recording made by Jacqueline du Pre is iconic)
  • Sospiri (dedicated to Elgar’s long-time friend, the violinist W. H. “Billy” Reed).

There’s an excellent article about Elgar’s music on The Gramophone website here.

Download a PDF map of The Elgar Route.

You can read more about the Enigma Variations and see Elgar’s autographed score on the British Library’s website.

Edward Elgar on bicycle wall mural

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