Heritage: Sir Edward Elgar DIY enthusiast - portrait of the composer at home in Hampstead

Sir Edward Elgar

Sir Edward Elgar - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

In public life Sir Edward Elgar was one of England’s great composers, but at home in Hampstead he was a DIY enthusiast and a special constable at his local police station, Adam Sonin discovers.

Sir Edward Elgar at the opening ceremony of Abbey Road Studios on November 12, 1931. He is pictured

Sir Edward Elgar at the opening ceremony of Abbey Road Studios on November 12, 1931. He is pictured with the London Symphony Orchestra in Studio One - Credit: Archant

Sir Edward Elgar once 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”.

A self taught musician, Elgar never formally studied composition but his music, now part of the national psyche, manages to bottle the quintessence of ‘Englishness’.

The Enigma Variations, his first major orchestral work, made him an overnight success after it premiered in 1899. However, ironically, Variation Nine, Nimrod, often associated with national remembrance, was inspired by and captures the noble character of his dear friend, Augustus Jaeger, a German.

Prone to depression and thoughts of suicide, Hampstead Heath provided a perfect balance between town and country and his long walks helped raise an often sombre mood.

Elgar saw the importance of technology in music, admired the gramophone and was guest of honour when the world’s first HMV store opened in 1921 in London.

At home in Hampstead he was often found sizing up a shot at his grand billiards table. When he wasn’t chalking the cue he would use the table for his collection of microscopes, studying all manner of samples collected from the nearby Heath.

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Sir Edward William Elgar (1857–1934), baronet, composer and conductor, was born on June 2 at The Firs, Broadheath, Worcestershire. Elgar was brought up in an atmosphere of music. His father was an organist and music dealer. “A stream of music flowed through our house and the shop and I was all the time bathing in it,” he later reflected.

At the age of 15, Elgar expressed a desire to go to the Leipzig conservatory but money was tight. Instead he became a clerk in the office of a solicitor. It was no life for the ambitious youth. After less than a year Elgar left to help his father in the shop. He worked as a jobbing musician for a while, giving violin and piano lessons. He also played in local orchestras and began to conduct. He made appearances at music festivals and saw some success.

In July 1888 Elgar won £5 in a publisher’s competition with a song, The Wind at Dawn. The words were written by (Caroline) Alice Roberts, a pupil, published novelist and student of geology, nine years his senior.

The same year Elgar composed a piano piece, Salut d’amour, which he dedicated to Alice. She was enormously supportive and encouraged his talents. The couple married but Alice’s wealthy parents did not approve of the match and later disinherited her. After a honeymoon at Ventnor, in the Isle of Wight, the couple lived at rented properties in London before moving to Malvern and then Hereford.

Initially unpopular, or perhaps misunderstood, Elgar’s reputation gradually grew as a composer. It was his Variations on an Original Theme, better known as the Enigma Variations, which did the trick and cemented his reputation as a musical genius. Thirteen of the Enigma Variations represent Elgar’s friends, while the fourteenth is a self-portrait.

The Variations were first performed in St James’s Hall, London, on June 19, 1899. Elgar revised the finale immediately after this performance, and the work, hailed as a masterpiece, made its way into the repertory of European conductors.

His greatest work, The Dream of Gerontius, followed in 1900. A year later the first of the six Pomp and Circumstance Marches – Number One – was performed and is the tune to which Land of Hope and Glory is sung at the Last Night of the Proms. It is often played at universities in the United States at graduation ceremonies.

In 1904 Elgar was knighted and by 1911 he accepted the London Symphony Orchestra’s invitation to become principal conductor. A few days before the coronation of George V, in the same year, Elgar was appointed the Order of Merit. He was the first musician to be given the highest cultural honour this country can bestow on an individual.

On New Year’s Day 1912 Edward and Lady Elgar moved to 42 Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead. A Heath and Hampstead Society plaque marks the address. The residence, since demolished and rebuilt, was originally designed by the architect Norman Shaw. Elgar renamed it Severn House, after the river close to his birthplace.

Hampstead excited the couple.

Lady Elgar wrote: “I feel he must have it [the house], and a proper room to dream dreams of loveliness in.”

The house at 42 Netherhall was the first property the couple bought together and painting and other improvements were made by the pair. Elgar was very much the DIY-type and on one occasion, unable to find a music stand, he “knocked up a very credible one”.

Three days after moving in, Elgar wrote to a friend: “The house is divine, so quiet, quiet, quieter than Hereford even, where we heard trains. The heating apparatus we can’t manage yet and get too hot. Now do come up tomorrow afternoon and see the chaos and have wild tea – do. If you came early we cd. Walk you on the heath [sic].”

On the first floor there was an enormous panelled studio, measuring 36 by 24 ft with 15 ft high ceilings, a massive semi-circular fireplace with Sienna-marble columns and became the music room, where private concerts were held. Guests to the house included George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Bliss. Outside there was a stabling, a coach house, a tiled and heated conservatory and a small terraced garden with an ornamental bird pond, complete with fountain. The couple bought a pet dog which went missing two hours after arriving in its new environs.

Long walks across the Heath, to Highgate Cemetery, provided the perfect setting for Elgar’s interest in nature. He collected material, from Highgate Ponds, to inspect under his microscopes. One story, in Lady Elgar’s diary, refers to her husband returning home with a toad.

“E. bought it off some boys for 2d,” she said. “He did not think it was happy with them – He put it in the garden and calls it Algernon... He puts his head out of the window and says ‘do you think it will come out if I make a noise like a worm?’”

Elgar embraced technology. He was a pioneer when it came to the gramophone. In 1914 Carissima, a small orchestral piece, was written specifically for recording. HMV were so pleased with the outcome that they sent a brand new device to Severn House.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Elgar volunteered at Hampstead Police Station and was sworn in as a Special Constable. The officer on duty was duly surprised when he saw OM after Elgar’s name and commented, “There are not many of them going about”. He resigned the following year and subsequently joined the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve. During the ‘blackouts’ Elgar would enjoy the “still quiet streets without the trying brilliant lights... I love them so much, so much as they are”.

Lady Elgar died from cancer in 1920. With her death Elgar’s creative life virtually ended. “I have gone out,” he said. He stayed on at Severn House until 1921.

In 1931 Elgar was asked to open the new EMI studios, in Abbey Road, St John’s Wood. George Bernard Shaw was in attendance.