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Sir Edward Elgar at The Firs

The garden in front of the house at The Firs, Worcestershire
The garden at The Firs | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

We often feel closest to Elgar when we listen to his music, but to know the world in which he walked is to colour the image of him further. To stand within the four walls of the humble cottage where he was born is to be immersed in a world that Elgar believed already contained music that was there for the taking. Discover more about Elgar’s beginnings at The Firs and his life, loves and accolades in the years that followed.

Early days at The Firs

On 2 June 1857, this early nineteenth-century Worcestershire cottage was the birthplace of Edward Elgar.

His father, William Henry Elgar, was an itinerant piano tuner from Kent who moved to Worcester in the 1840s and set up a piano tuning and music business. His mother, Ann Greening, was a farmer’s daughter from the Forest of Dean. Although hardly educated, she developed a great love of literature and the natural world. Above all things she wanted a country life for her children.

Three older children had been born to them in Worcester and there would be three more when they returned. Edward was the only child to be born in Broadheath.

'My mother's wish for a country life prompted father to go to Broadheath... only a hamlet, with a handful of houses, a large clump of fir-trees by the entrance gate of Newbury House and a wide stretch of heath known as the 'common'. We were always taught to adore Him in the smallest flower that grew, as every flower loves its life. And we were told never to dare destroy what we could not give - that was, the life - ever again'

– Lucy Elgar, 1912

The family life in this cottage was ideal, his mother could communicate to her children a simple faith which viewed the countryside and the changing seasons as God's promise of immortality.

Elgar's father spent most of the week lodging in Worcester, he would come home at weekends with musical friends and through him the family was introduced to much that was best in the music of that time.

In 1859, when Elgar was two, the family left Broadheath. His father's expanding business forced them back into Worcester. His mother however, continued to send her children to Broadheath for summer holidays, where they stayed on a farm by the common. Elgar's memories of these holidays were so idyllic that he returned here again and again through later life, almost as if to consult the place.

Elgar’s early years

Young Elgar showed a great aptitude for music and would have loved to have studied at one of the great European conservatoires, but family finances were stretched and this became impossible. Instead, on leaving school at the age of 15 his father found him a position in a solicitor’s office. Elgar soon realised that a career in the law was not for him and he persuaded his father that he should be allowed to pursue his passion for music.

First jobs in music

He helped out in the family music shop in Worcester High Street, picked up performing fees throughout Worcestershire as a violinist and took on whatever odd-job musical appointments he could find.

One of the more eccentric was as bandmaster at what was then called the Worcester City and County Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Powick, a village halfway between Worcester and Malvern. He travelled to Powick once a week and trained the staff in instrumental playing, moulding them into a band to perform for the patients, an early form of music therapy. The band was also supplemented by local musicians to give public concerts in the hospital ballroom, concerts for which Elgar wrote much music.

Elgar – the teacher

Much of Elgar’s income at this time was derived from teaching. He visited local schools to give violin and piano lessons, and he also took private pupils, hiring a studio in Malvern for the purpose. But teaching was something he came to hate, describing it as ‘like turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder’.

In 1885 he succeeded his father as organist of St George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. He composed anthems for the choir and started writing larger scale choral and orchestral music for music festivals throughout the midlands.

The garden in front of the house at The Firs, Worcestershire
The garden at The Firs | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Edward meets Alice

Caroline Alice Roberts, known as Alice, was born in Bhuj, Gujarat, India in 1848. Her father was Major General Sir Henry Gee Roberts, KBE, who was serving in India at the time of the Indian Mutiny.

On returning to England the family took up a residence at a large house near the village of Redmarley d’Abitot, just beyond the south end of the Malvern Hills. Alice became a linguist, wrote much poetry and a two-volume novel Marchcroft Manor which was published in 1882.

In 1886, Alice arrived for piano lessons at the studio of the then unknown Edward Elgar.

'More to it than music'

The old coachman whose job it was to drive Alice to and from the lessons remarked that he ‘thought there was more to it than music’, and he was right. Alice penned a poem for her teacher ‘Love’s Grace’; Elgar replied with a beautiful little piece of music called ‘Salut d’amour’ – Love’s Greeting. A romance blossomed and they were married in May 1889.

Alice’s extended family was horrified by the union. They were semi-aristocratic; Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper. There were religious differences too; they were Anglican and the Elgars were Roman Catholic. This was all too much for the Roberts family in the days of strict class and religious divisions, and Alice was cut out of several aunts’ and uncles’ wills. However, she had an absolute belief in Elgar’s abilities, long before he’d composed anything of any real merit.

'The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.'

– Alice Elgar, diary entry

Elgar – the composer

Very slowly his reputation as a composer was starting to spread, but he was still essentially a ‘local musician’.

The breakthrough came in 1899 when he composed the Enigma Variations. This was the work which spread his fame, and over the next 20 years he composed all of the music for which he is remembered – symphonies, concertos, songs, oratorios, cantatas and much ceremonial and occasional music. Honours and awards came his way.

Elgar – the father

The Elgars’ only child, Carice Irene, was born at their then home in West Kensington on 14 August 1890. Her name was a contraction of her mother’s names Caroline Alice.

A loving father

Elgar soon took to fatherhood, writing to a friend: ‘Carice is a most wonderfully lovely infant! Everyone turns to gaze at her as she 'sweeps by in her chariot' – (ie. perambulator). She is a sturdy little minx, noisy and as strong as a house, she has never been ill a day since she came! Isn't that a blessing?’

The relationship between Carice and Elgar seems to have been very loving. They enjoyed japes together and there is a great deal of affectionate correspondence between the two.

Like her mother, Carice was a skilled linguist and worked for the Censorship Department during the First World War. In 1922 she married Samuel Henry Blake, but there were no children, and Blake died young in 1939.

Visitor sat next to statue of Sir Edward Elgar gazing out to the Malvern Hills at The Firs, Worcestershire
Visitor sat next to statue of Sir Edward Elgar at The Firs | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

Sir Edward Elgar

Elgar received honorary doctorates from all over the world, was knighted, became a member of the Order of Merit, and in 1931 received the Baronetcy, for which he chose the title Sir Edward Elgar, First Baronet of Broadheath.

After the death of his wife in 1920, the compositions dried up, and much of his creative energies were taken up with conducting his own music for gramophone recordings, becoming the first major composer to record for posterity recordings of virtually all of his masterpieces.

In 1932 came a commission from the BBC to compose another symphony, however illness prevented its completion, and Elgar died peacefully at home on 23 February 1934. He was buried in the churchyard of St Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern with Alice alongside him.

The Elgar Birthplace museum

Although Elgar only spent the first two years of his life at The Firs, it is this space that remained close to his heart for the rest of his life.

Before his death in 1934, he confided to his daughter Carice his desire to be remembered here. In 1935, Carice with the help of Alderman Hubert Leicester, persuaded the corporation of Worcester to purchase the cottage and simultaneously sent out word that all memorabilia relating to her late father be returned to the cottage.

A commemoration

Through modern eyes, the cottage forms the nucleus of a museum dedicated to the life of England’s greatest composer. At its conception the Birthplace took on a much simpler, more human form: a daughter, mourning for and commemorating her father.

Throughout her life Carice helped to promote Elgar’s work and encouraged the early biographers, making family papers available for the first time. She continued to play an active role in the activities of the Elgar Birthplace Trust right up until her death in 1970 and is buried near to her parents in St Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church.

'Whether the countryside makes the genius or however that may be, it is certain that no one was ever more imbued with the very spirit and essence of his own country than Elgar, it was in his very bones. Worcestershire was everything to him - the very look of spring coming, the cottages, the gardens, the fields and fruit orchards were different to his mind in Worcestershire...From walking, driving and bicycling there was very little of the county he did not know, and his memory for every village however remote and every lane however twisty and bewildering was extraordinary.'

– Carice Elgar Blake

View of the house at The Firs, Worcestershire. Birthplace of Sir Edward Elgar

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