Christmas with the Elgars

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Quite often found abroad at Christmas Edward Elgar wrote to his friends of Yule-loggy pudding and Mince Pizon.

Christmas card sent by Sir Edward Elgar in 1929
a christmas card sent by Sir Edward Elgar in 1929
Christmas card sent by Sir Edward Elgar in 1929

Edward Elgar at Christmas

Elgar a great letter writer often wrote to his friends at Christmas time and in particular August Johannes Jaeger whom he met through his employment at the London music publisher Novello.  Elgar nicknamed Jaeger 'Nimrod' and immortalised him in the famous ninth variation.

(Nimrod was a Biblical hunter, a pun on the German word for hunter, Jäger).

During Christmas day 1902 he wrote to Jaeger starting his letter “This is the shortest day so I set forth on the longest letter I ever wrote (to you) a regular Yule-loggy puddingy, Brandy-saucious letter” and signed off  “Paracelsus Elgar. (with a pain in his stomach) Mince Pizon”.

In the South (Alassio)

In 1903 the Elgars spent Christmas in Alassio, Italy.  This visit inspired an overture titled 'In the South (Alassio)'.   Elgar wrote to Jaeger: "...This place is jolly - real Italian and no nursemaids calling out 'Now, Master Johnny!'  like that anglicised Bordighera!...Our cook is an angel...We have such meals! Such Wine! Gosh!..."

Elgar strolled around the area during the visit, the buildings, landscape and history of the town provided him with sources of inspiration for the overture.

He later recalled:  “Then in a flash, it all came to me – the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago, where I now stood – the contrast of the ruin and the shepherd – and then, all of a sudden, I came back to reality. In that time I had composed the overture – the rest was merely writing it down.”

You can hear In The South on YouTube

A Christmas Greeting.

In December 1907, whilst in Rome, Elgar composed a part-song carol, 'A Christmas Greeting', putting music to the words of a poem written by his wife Alice.

He sent the piece back to the UK for Dr G R Sinclair and the choristers of Hereford Cathedral  to use in their Carol Concert to be held the Cathedral.

Elgar's A Christmas Greeting
Elgars Christmas Greeting manuscript
Elgar's A Christmas Greeting

It was written for two female sopranos, a male chorus and accompanied by two violins and a pianoforte and was published by Novello and company. 

The setting is for high voices, with optional tenor and bass parts and, like the Enigma theme, it is in G minor and G major. It contains a quotation from the 'Pastoral Symphony' in Handel's Messiah at the reference to pipers (Pifferari) wandering far.

A part song, is a form of choral music that consists of a secular song having been written or arranged for several vocal parts.   It is usually primarily homophonic, with the highest part carrying the melody and the other voices supplying the accompanying harmonies, rather than contrapuntal like a madrigal. Part songs are intended to be sung unaccompanied unless an instrumental accompaniment is specified.

Pifferari (singular pifferaro ) is an older Italian name for the shepherds from the Campagna , who came to Rome around Christmas time and played there before the pictures of the Virgin Mary .  In the Roman States and the kingdom of Naples and Sicily, the "pifferari" go about playing on a kind of rough hautboy and bag-pipes, before the pictures of the Madonna, hung up at the corners of streets and in shops, all through Advent time.

This was written as a greeting, at Christmas time from both Edward, in his music, and Alice with her poem, to their friends back in Hereford. It depicts alongside each other the countryside around Rome and that near their home:

You can listen to 'A Christmas Greeting' on YouTube

On Christmas Day itself, Elgar was hard at work on another song, this time for male voices only, called The Reveille.  This left time for Carice and her cousin May Grafton to go exploring.  Carice wrote in her notebook:

"Fine morning but it rained in the afternoon. May & I went to church early; when we came back we all looked at our letters & presents etc, poor May had a telegram saying her Father was much better…Mother & she & I went to St. Peter’s to try to hear High Mass there, but the crowd was so great, we really could not stay, we caught sight of a glimpse of the Cardinal’s red vestments & some other dignitaries, we did not hear much music, & soon came away. Father busy all day with his partsong…Mother & Father went to dine at the Embassy & enjoyed it very much, & saw such nice people."

Christmas 1908

Christmas was spent at home in Hereford.  Elgar’s first symphony had just received its sensational first performances, and on Christmas morning Elgar wrote to Adela Schuster:

"I am still disappointed that you have not heard the Symphony: it is making a very wild career & I receive heaps of letters from persons known & unknown telling me how it uplifts them: I wish it uplifted me - I have just paid rent, Land Tax, Income Tax & a variety of other things due to-day & there are children yapping at the door, 'Christians awake! salute the yappy morn'. I saluted it about seven o'clock, quite dark, made a fire in the ark & mused on the future of a bad cold in my head & how far a carol could get out of the key & still be a carol: resolve me this last."

Christmas 1914

This was the first festive season since the outbreak of war, and the Elgars spent it quietly with friends.  On Christmas Day itself, Alice wrote in her diary:

"Dry but very cold - thick fog - A. not out at all - No news at all, all day. Seemed a strange blank - Longing to hear - Nice letters & little things. E. & C. well thankful to say. Miss Burley here - Alice S. W. came to tea, brought flowers & E.'s lovely lavender water."

Christmas 1929

For his Christmas card of 1929 Elgar quoted lines from Walt Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd:
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied - not one is demented with the     mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived     thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth."

One recipient, Frank Bridge, replied "...But how many animals could live with us..."