Saturday, 21 January 2012

Elgar and other Catholics

I accidentally tuned in to a showing of the late Ken Russell's monitor film on Elgar (BBC 3, I think). I have found it on YouTube here. I have long been puzzled about Elgar's Catholicism. He was quite bitter after his "The Dream of Gerontius" was disregarded in England (it was a dreadful performance apparently) and made some remarks about being let down by "Providence". He was bitter about the way some people - according to Elgar - frustrated his ambitions because of his religion. I found a really excellent article on Elgar's faith here. Reading about how some people had commented on Elgar's Catholicism and how Elgar had felt the need to almost dismiss his faith, I became quite angry. It is clear that some people around the time of Elgar's death wanted to believe that he had indeed become either a kind of "pan-Christian" or an atheist or a pantheist (anything, it seems, but a Catholic). As he was dying Elgar apparently asked for his body to be cremated and his ashes to be scattered at the confluence of two local rivers. His daughter persuaded him otherwise and he asked for a Low Requiem Mass and agreed that his body should be buried near that of his late wife. By the time of his final illness he had ceased to be a regular Mass-goer, but the priest from his old family Church, St. George's, arrived at his deathbed and gave him the Last Rites. This priest later said that Elgar had made a "statement of faith" before he died. This last report is not treated with much respect even by the sympathetic writer of the article from Princeton (at the link). I was reminded of Chopin's death.

Chopin was the child of devout Polish Catholic parents. Although he had ceased practicing his faith amongst the salon society of the day, one of his visitors in his final illness was a Polish priest who had know Chopin as a boy. According to this priest Chopin made an enthusiastic profession of faith, made his confession and died reconciled with the Church. Some of his "friends" were horrified at this and the report of the priest was treated with scorn (suggesting he was lying). It was too much for some of them that Chopin would have done anything so uncivilized or tasteless as to return to the Catholic Faith (in fact he never lost it).

Certain elements of the "establishment" are still quite anti-Catholic. Some elements of the academic world cannot abide the thought that Shakespeare may have been a devout Catholic. Some years ago I was in Stratford with a Catholic friend, and I tried a short exercise. We went to three of four of the major bookshops asking for a specific book (Fr. Peter Milward's "Shakespeare's Catholic Background"). No one had heard of it. Since then there have been three more major books about his Catholicism (one of them from Fr. Milward). I suspect there may be ONE of them available in Stratford - perhaps, "Shadowplay" - but I would be surprised to find any others.

Even today there is a great reluctance to believe that any great British artist of recent or bygone years was a practicing Catholic (lapsed, they don't mind). There are some. of course, you cannot go around - for example the architect Pugin (although he suffered much after his conversion to Catholicism). I suspect that, in spite of the supposedly more enlightened environment of the 21st century, there are still quite a lot of well-educated people in Great Britain who merely tolerate a great artist's Catholicism (or even Christianity) and who wish he or she would have had the sense to free themselves from such backward thinking. I'm sorry to say this in Unity week, but reading about Elgar's difficulties and of the attitude of the Anglican establishment of the day I began to feel quite angry about the Church of England - something that hardly ever happens. The way some Anglican commentators spoke about Elgar's music in relation to his Catholicism was not only snobbish but very ill-informed. I plan to listen to the "Dream" again as soon as I have enough time to spare.


  1. It has long seemed to me that none of Elgar's biographers had any real insight into the Catholic faith or, indeed, of the kind of environment in which Elgar grew up. I only discovered recently that the schools he attended as a boy were the predecessors of the present Catholic schools in Worcester. One of his sisters became a nun but no further reference is to be found to her in any of the biographies although he appears to have written some music for her community. Such facts don't fit with the establishment narrative and are conveniently ignored. I think we saw something similar recently in the reporting following the death of Jimmy Savile whose "eccentricity" was highlighted as if that were the motivation behind his good works.

  2. I have The Dream on a set of old and cherished LPs - I think I shall put time aside in Lent to listen to them.

  3. Thank you for this very interesting Post Father and the links you provided. I can always rely on you to enlighten me!
    Blessings and prayers,

  4. No we shouldn't be too surprised at Elgar's treatment. The same Anglican establishment had only recently given up encouraging the State to imprison its own Anglo-Catholic clergy for so-called 'ritual offences.'

  5. Thank you, Father, for the link to the article which I have only just read. It confirms- and expands upon- what I had deduced about Elgar's schooling from the history of St George's parish by Fr. Brian Doolan. It is in error, however, in suggesting that Elgar is not commemorated at St George's. The organ in the church was restored, enlarged and dedicated as a memorial with the manuals Elgar played preserved under glass.
    I have a longstanding interest in Elgar. We were both born in the same parish and I think I can name the two priests who appear in the Benediction sequence of Ken Russell's film.

  6. Thank you Patricius.
    As you will gather I am an "Elgarian". I feel a great sympathy with him although he was a very complicated individual. I would be interested to know more of your thoughts about him. I missed the last BBC film about him in which it was claimed - with good evidence - that he had fathered an illegitimate child. This would explain a few things about his behaviour. If the theory is correct, and that he felt great guilt - guilt which almost pushed him into a breakdown - it also suggests that he felt a need to expiate and make amends in some way. This would explain some of the suffering in his later works.

  7. I missed that one too, Father. This is the first I have heard of an illegitimate child. He certainly appears to have had an eye for young women- from Dora Penney onwards- but irrespective of whether or not it is true I think that there was a real tension in Elgar's life between his Catholic faith (as part of who he was in himself) and the need he felt to project a personality which would enable him to be a successful composer within the cultural environment in which he found himself. The author of the Princeton article seems to get closer than most with his concept of "avatars" if I have understood it correctly. Elgar said, somewhere, that he had written Gerontius out of his "insidest inside". He followed that up with the blatant bombast of the Pomp and Circumstance marches. That is not to say that they are without depth- far from it- but they are about putting on a show intentionally distracting a public which had been less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic about Gerontius. Of course plenty of people think they can imagine the likely shame of having fathered an illegitimate child. Fewer, I suspect, can appreciate the difficulties of a sincere and sensitive- not necessarily good- Catholic who feels forced into dissimulation in order to succeed in his calling. I can imagine it being stressful! This might account for his identification with Judas.

    Off topic, slightly. Elgar's boyhood friend Hubert Leicester had an interesting parallel career- he became Mayor of Worcester and conferred the freedom of the city on his old school chum!