Enigmatic CatholicStephen Hough
- 2 June 2007
Elgar's music is often regarded as the epitome of Englishness, with all its Protestant pomp. But the circumstances of his faith, received from his mother who converted to Catholicism a few years before the composer was born, remain a riddle wrapped in mystery
The external facts of Elgar's Catholic life are straightforward enough. It all began, appropriately, with St George, the patron saint of England, and, more specifically, with the Catholic church which bears his name in Worcester.
In 1846 William Elgar, a man-about-town who ran the music shop and tuned pianos, took the job as organist at St George's. In 1848 he married Anne Greening, who, in 1852, after accompanying her husband to church regularly on Sundays, decided to convert to Catholicism, although William remained an agnostic until his deathbed conversion. In 1857 Edward was born and was baptised at St George's. From 1863 to 1872 he attended small Catholic schools in the area where the education was good but probably quite narrow. He left school aged 15 and began to assist his father at St George's, arranging and writing music for the choir.
Worcester Cathedral was close by and he often attended services and concerts there, even though this would have been discouraged by Catholic discipline at the time. In 1879 he read Emile Zola's novel L'Assommoir, published two years earlier, and gave its title to a set of five quadrilles he had written. This would be of no special interest except that all of Zola's writings were to end up on the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books by 1898 and he would certainly have been under suspicion when Elgar was reading him.
Perhaps we see here already a certain spirit of independence from the traditional views, which Elgar would have received in his education at school and church. In 1885 he took over as organist at St George's, and in 1886 he began to give lessons to Alice Roberts. In 1887 Alice's mother died and Elgar lent her his well-worn and annotated copy of The Dream of Gerontius, by Newman.
In 1888 Elgar became engaged to Alice, to the outrage of her well-to-do relatives. One of her aunts actually wrote her out of her will in objection to her association with this penniless musician, the son of a tradesman and a Catholic. They married at the Brompton Oratory in 1889 in a Catholic ceremony but not a Nuptial Mass, as Alice was still a Protestant and not able to take communion. In 1890 their only daughter, Carice, was born and was baptised at Brook Green. In 1893 Alice was received into the Catholic Church at St George's in Worcester.
To move to examine the internal Catholic life of Elgar (and its apparent collapse) is as problematic as it would be to look inside anyone's soul. He did not talk very much about his personal faith or lack of it, but we can gather a few clues from some of his letters and from the background to his most Catholic work.
In 1892, in a touching letter Elgar wrote to the children of some friends during a Bavarian holiday, he had taken up a third of the text enthusing about the folk-Catholicism he found there: "No Protestants ... church open all day ... workmen carrying their rosaries ... bells ringing at the elevation [in the Mass] at which people in the streets take off their hats and make the sign of the Cross ... crucifixes on the roadsides ... stations of the Cross ... chapels to the blessed virgin ...".
By 1899 he had had his first major success with the Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36. Each of its movements had been headed with the "enigma" of some initials representing the names of his closest friends. His next large-scale work, the choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, op. 38, had just one set of bold letters at its head: A.M.D.G. (Ad Majoriam Dei Gloriam).
Curiously, Dvorák had been invited by the Birmingham Festival in the late 1880s to set Newman's poem to music, but it was deemed to be too controversial. When Elgar was commissioned by the same festival in 1900, he suggested the same text - a daringly provocative gesture, and a significant risk for a young English composer receiving his first important commission on the back of his first big success. England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission. Yet Elgar went ahead with total disregard for any censure or disfavour, making it hard to believe that the words had no religious meaning for him at this time, especially as he was aware, and had complained, that his faith was an impediment to his career.
At the suggestion by his publisher, Jaeger, that there was too much "Joseph and Mary" about the work, he replied: "Of course it will frighten the low-church party but the poem must on no account be touched! Sacrilege and not to be thought of... It's awfully curious the attitude (towards sacred things) of the narrow English mind." Yet only weeks after its disastrous premiere he would write to Jaeger: "Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work: so I submit - I always said God was against art & I still believe it ... I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling & every soft, gentle impulse for ever." Although this sounds more like a temper tantrum than a reasoned rebellion against belief, it does suggest that his Catholicism was not deep-rooted and was more cultural than creedal. It also appears to mark the beginning of a walk away from the Church, and of a black, depressive mood that would overshadow his emotional life until the end.
The death of his mother in 1902 - the woman who had first brought Catholicism into the family and who had been his comfort and solace during earlier times of crisis - might have made it easier for him to express his religious doubts more openly as the years passed. Although after reading Shaw's Man and Superman in 1904 he could still write to Arthur Troyte Griffith: "Bernard Shaw is hopelessly wrong, as all these fellows are, on fundamental things: amongst others they punch Xtianity (sic) & try to make it fit their civilisation instead of making their civilisation fit It." Nevertheless, revealing references continue to pop up in letters mentioning Alice or Carice being at church whilst he remained at home.
We only know what a person tells us, and Elgar's petty rant against God to Jaeger quoted above, reflecting more on his mood than on his mind, could never have been enough to tip the balance. But I think there is a telltale clue in his use of the word "Providence": a view of God as Fate rather than Father. In addition, his search for lost innocence, about which Michael Kennedy writes, is a further, false Christian vision. Such a search is always for our innocence - a vague phantom from some distant past that never really existed. Christianity's essence is the discovery in the present that such an innocence does not actually matter; it has been replaced by the innocence of Christ as a gift to be received, not searched for.
Elgar's next big choral work after Gerontius was written as a result of a commission from the 1903 Birmingham Festival, and it has been suggested by Byron Adams that the research Elgar undertook in the composition of The Apostles (and, later, The Kingdom), might have been an element in the unsettling of his faith. He read many modern scripture scholars and consulted two Anglican clergymen, and it is certain that some of the books on Elgar's desk would also have been on the Vatican's Index. Catholic biblical scholarship at the time lagged far behind, and erroneous teachings, such as the single authorship by Moses of the first five books of the Bible, the authorship by St Paul of the "Letter to the Hebrews", and the authenticity of the extra verses in chapter five of the First Letter of St John, were only to be challenged under pain of sin.
An increasing siege mentality had taken hold after the dismantling of the Papal States in 1870 left the Pope a "prisoner" in the Vatican Palace. By the early years of the twentieth century a witch-hunt of theologians and priests suspected of Modernism was taking place. Indeed, London was an important centre in this controversy. Elgar must have been aware of these controversies, and his research at the time could well have led him to distrust the absolute veracity of certain Catholic doctrine.
In later life Elgar's move away from religious belief seems to have been even more determined. To George Bernard Shaw, with whom he established a fond friendship, he was reputed to have wished that the "nots" of the commandments could be inserted into the creed; and on his deathbed he refused to see a priest and asked for his cremated ashes to be scattered by a favourite river rather than receive a Catholic burial. His frustration regarding the commandments and creed can be seen in some ways as a profoundly Christian reflex. Christ removed some "nots" from the commandments of his time and manifested a great intolerance of unnecessary rules and laws, which he described as heavy burdens on people's backs that religious leaders refused to help lift.
Some Catholic canon law can be as complex and arcane as anything condemned by Christ in the Gospels; and the quip, "The Italians make the rules, the Irish keep them", is a rueful reflection on the state of scrupulosity that had made its way into the bloodstream of Christianity, especially in the Northern countries, amongst both Catholics and Protestants. This way of thinking created a religious atmosphere, a repressive and reactionary fog, with which someone of Elgar's background and generation would have been familiar.
The average Englishman in the first half of the twentieth century would have found the clean-cut "churchiness" of The Kingdom much more to his taste than the Dream's agony and ecstasy. But I have a feeling that today this is a shrinking group. It is not just that the narrative sweep of Newman's poem gives Gerontius a dramatic shape that is lacking in the set-piece tableaux of the two biblical oratorios; but the inner drama of creative conviction seems to be missing too. The Catholic candles and incense have been removed, but so too has the flame that set them alight in the first place.
Much has been written in speculation as to why Elgar did not finish his projected trilogy of "apostolic" oratorios. Although it is clear he wanted to write a symphony and to explore more abstract forms, this is not reason enough. It is surely more likely that he simply lost interest in a subject about which he could only write music from his heart or not at all. Gerontius is carried along with the fervour of faith, flushed with the pride of identity and belonging. But by the mid-years of the Edwardian reign Elgar's passions had found new creative outlets: regret at the disappearance of the Victorian England and its culture which he loved, and a new, engrossing attachment to a new Alice - Lady Alice Stuart Wortley. These were to inspire the works written after he reluctantly, and agonisingly, managed to put the finishing touches to The Kingdom in 1906.
Ironically the final "touch" was probably to write at the top of the score those same letters, A.M.D.G., which had been chosen for Gerontius. Was this merely a formula by now, or the flickering, dying embers of faith? Whichever, it remains an enigma that only the composer could solve.