I don’t know why we had the sudden urge on Friday to return for the first time this decade to Elgar’s birthplace. As the man himself said, there is music in the air, and when it’s early autumn in the English Midlands, that music has nobilmente written over it. The St Petersburg Enigma at the Proms last week may have been a factor, but anyway, it suddenly just felt necessary, like an overdue visit to a very old and dear friend.
I was last there for the launch of Michael Foster’s book on the Apostles trilogy in about 2003 – when there was cake, bubbly and a speech from Sakari Oramo, but no time to look around the new visitor centre and exhibition. And the time before that was in 1993, when there was no visitor centre: just the cottage itself, packed with relics and with a shop crammed into a tiny back room. That time, I took the train from Oxford to Worcester and cycled through the lanes to Broadheath. It was a sunny day in early summer; they had the cottage door open and the Violin Concerto was drifting softly out into the garden and mingling with the birdsong.
There was a lot of controversy about the building of the visitor centre in the late 1990s – I was on the “anti-” side of that argument at the time. Arriving on Friday, I had to admit that it’s barely noticeable and beautifully done. The traffic on the lane seems busier, but the lovely rural isolation of the cottage has been preserved, and you park your car in the middle of an apple-orchard. On this September day every tree was weighed down with fruit.
I can’t quite recall, but the cottage seemed a bit emptier than I remembered, though many of the most wonderful relics – Elgar’s apparatus for making Sulphuretted Hydrogen, the framed signed photos from Henry Wood and Richard Strauss, and Elgar’s desk, complete with manuscript paper marked up by Lady Elgar and the rough-looking pen-holders he made out of branches that he picked up in the woods around Brinkwells while he was writing the Cello Concerto – are certainly still there.
Probably most of the really priceless relics that used to be in the cottage are now in the visitor centre, where they have excellent displays (including the manuscript of the Second Symphony) friendly staff and a wry sense of humour.
And the cottage garden – where, more than anywhere in the world, you feel like the spirit of Elgar himself is standing right next to you – is as magical as ever; well looked-after but not too manicured. The late summer flowers were just starting to fade, the grave of his dogs Marco and Mina are well-tended and the summer house needs a bit of urgent TLC.
But one magical new surprise remained, dating from 2007 – a familiar figure on a bench in the bottom corner of the garden, legs outstretched, looking out across the lane towards the Malvern Hills – which were just starting to vanish in the haze as we left.
We were glad to see that they keep the hedge trimmed down at exactly that spot, so he can forever enjoy the view that he loved above all. We left him there, and listened to the Vienna Philharmonic’s Proms Dream of Gerontius in the car as we sped back north up the Severn valley.
Back at the desk, meanwhile, I wrote this article for The Amati Magazine, inspired by my experiences with my own beloved CBSO Youth Orchestra, and a few more-or-less reprehensible memories from my own Merseyside and Wirral Youth Orchestra days. I’m keen to know what people think.