Elgar’s Tenth Muse: After Alice

Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.
Shakespeare, Sonnet XXXVIII

The first time I was exposed to the music of Sir Edward Elgar was in 1965 when I graduated from Harvey High School in Painesville, Ohio. We had to walk down the aisles of the school gymnasium, up to the podium to receive our degrees. As we walked in single file, in a slow almost funereal staggered two-step, the music of Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” (Pomp and Circumstance March No 1) played over the school sound system. Although I was unaware of Elgar at the time, I never forgot this music. I always associated it with my graduation, much as I once associated the music of J.S. Bach with the Christmas music they played in department store elevators.

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Elgar’s Tenth Muse (1996) is a television special, directed by Paul Yule, and written by Nigel Gearing. It is set a century ago and stars James Fox as Elgar and Selma Alispahic as the young violinist, Jelly d’Arányi, who became Elgar’s inspiration and muse during his final years.

The film opens with a seductively beautiful and moving performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in the present day, performed by Natalie Clein. The “shadow” of Elgar is standing in the wings of the theatre watching. He closes his eyes, lost in the music.

Suddenly we are back in 1919. Elgar is chopping wood on his farm in Sussex. He is paid a visit by violinist Billy Reed, who has come to check on the progress of a new violin sonata. Elgar hasn’t begun the piece yet but instead directs him to the wooden music stand he has just built.

Elgar tells Reed that his wife, Alice, is very frail. In the house, Elgar demonstrates a chemical experiment he is doing in a test tube over a burner: “a little show stopper to wake them up in the back rows”. When asked about the music, Elgar tells him “the point, Billy, is that without the catalyst, you can’t turn dross into gold”. He is referring to the lack of inspiration that is preventing him from completing the work. Alice tells Reed that for thirty years she has been behind the scenes, ruling his bar-lines and looking after his every need. She says, “Allow me then this little vanity; I’d like to think that I was his muse.”

Elgar is invited to a private performance by the Hungarian virtuoso violinist Jelly d’Arányi. His wife tells him to go alone as she is not feeling well and “there are a lot of things you will have to learn to do without me”.

Elgar is plunged into a household of Hungarian bohemians and is overwhelmed. D’Arányi has just recovered from the Spanish flu, as has her friend, Igor Stravinsky. When she suggests to Elgar that perhaps he is not an admirer of Stravinsky’s kind of music, he tells her that he has always loved Richard Strauss and “much of Stravinsky”. When she asks, “And Schoenberg? Bartók?” He says, “Well, let us say with this ‘new’ music … shouldn’t music have a beginning and an end?” He asks her to perform his violin sonata and she gives him a big shocking kiss on the lips.

Returning home, he raves to his wife about the “d’Arányi girl”(left). His sick wife is more concerned about how long the two of them will still have together but assures him that his “new-found enthusiasm; the will to begin again” is what she has always wished for him. D’Arányi performs the violin sonata to great acclaim and he signs her program, “To my darling 10th Muse, E.E.”

He tells her that she made a “grievous” mistake coming to England. “There is no future for a musician in England, however serious. The English are simply not interested. They are Philistines.”

He invites her to play the new sonata at a private performance for a select audience of his elderly associates. It is an awkward occasion, with one of his friends laughing and calling her a “blue stocking” for her progressive views.

Back home, Alice (right) lies dying, she tells Elgar not to worry; that because of her faith, she knows she is going to a happier place. But she feels sorry for him because he “plays along”, for her sake, but has no real belief.         

After his wife’s death, Elgar continues to pursue d’Arányi who, at first, refuses his calls but finally, taking pity on his loneliness, agrees to meet him for coffee. He tells her that he has given up on composing as his muse has abandoned him. She tells him she is returning to Hungary. He awkwardly attempts to kiss her and she pulls away, leaving abruptly. In the taxi, she says, “These old men! What do they think they’re doing?”

The closing credits tell us that Elgar never completed another major work and died twelve years later, and d’Arányi never married.

Paul Yule is a London-based photographer, film-maker and sculptor. Between 1975 and 1978, he photographed the early theatre work of Rowan Atkinson. Yule’s film about censorship and the arts, Damned in the USA (1993) won the International Emmy for Outstanding Arts Documentary. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association sued Yule and Channel 4 for $8 million, describing the film as “blasphemous and obscene”. Channel 4 fought the lawsuit in court in Mississippi, and won. Lou Reed re-wrote the lyrics to his classic “Walk on the Wild Side” (changed to “Walk on the Wildmon Side”) in support of the case. 

James Fox, who plays Elgar, is an English actor who first worked in the 1960s and appeared with Mick Jagger in Performance (1970), a film that was reviewed so poorly that critics walked out of the cinema; one film producer’s wife reportedly threw up. Shortly after that, Fox became an evangelical minister working with a group called the Navigators, based in Colorado. Dawson Trotman founded the organisation in 1933 and was indirectly responsible for 135 of the sailors on the USS West Virginia becoming Christians before it was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Fox resumed his acting career in the 1980s, appearing in A Passage to India (1984), Patriot Day (1992) and Remains of the Day (1993). In 2011, he appeared as King George V in Madonna’s wonderful film W.E. about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Selma Alispahic, who plays d’Arányi, is a Bosnian actress. She has lived and worked in London and performed at the Royal National Theatre. She teaches acting to actors, film directors and opera singers and is the author of a book about the American poet Sylvia Plath, Step by Step to the Eternal Silence.

Faith Brook, who plays Alice Elgar, was the daughter of the British actor Clive Brook, who was a major star for Paramount in the late silent era, playing Sherlock Holmes three times. She appeared in supporting roles in film and television from the 1940s. She died in 2012.

Sir Edward Elgar, 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO, was a Roman Catholic, self-taught British composer. His first public appearances were as a violinist and organist. At twenty-two, he became the conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum, a post he held for five years. Another quirky job he had was professor of violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.

In 1889, he married Caroline Alice Roberts, eight years older, whose family disinherited her for daring to marry a Catholic. In 1899 he composed the Enigma Variations, which established him as the pre-eminent British composer. Richard Strauss, at the top of his fame, called Elgar “the first English progressive musician”.

In 1900, Elgar set to music Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius, about the redemption of a sinner, but one of Elgar’s Anglican contemporaries, the choral composer Charles Villiers Stanford, said the work “stinks of incense”. It was banned by the Dean of Gloucester.

Elgar was knighted in 1904. His five well-known Pomp and Circumstance Marches were written between 1901 and 1930. He was persuaded by one of his singers that the first march might work with words, and added a new vocal version. “Land of Hope and Glory” was a hit in the United States, where it became known as “The Graduation March”, as since 1905 it has been used for virtually all high school and university graduations.

Elgar was an amateur chemist with a small laboratory in his garden shed. In 1908, he patented the “Elgar Sulphuretted Hydrogen Apparatus”, a device for synthesising hydrogen sulphide. He was also a racing and football enthusiast, supporting the Wolverhampton Wanderers. In 1898, he wrote the team an anthem, “He Banged the Leather for Goal”, probably the first football chant ever written.

Elgar has been described as the first composer to take recording seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, his recordings were released on 78 rpm discs by HMV and RCA Victor. He died in 1934, aged seventy-six, of inoperable colorectal cancer.

Alice Roberts (right) was born in 1848 in India, where her father was serving at the time of the Indian Mutiny. Before she married Elgar, her writing had been published under the name C. Alice Roberts, including a two-volume novel, Marchcroft Manor, in 1882. She was Elgar’s business manager and social secretary and kept a detailed diary during the years of her marriage between 1889 and 1920. Giving up her professional ambitions after marriage, she wrote, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.” Lady Elgar died of lung cancer, aged seventy-one.

Jelly d’Arányi (1893–1966) was the great-niece of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. She had a vibrant personality and her playing style was said to be “passionate, exhibiting a true gypsy exuberance”. She and the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók often gave sonata recitals together. She was also a lifelong friend of Georgie Hyde-Lees, the wife of W.B. Yeats. Initially a pianist, she switched to violin and became part of a chamber trio with the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and the Australian pianist and composer Frederick Septimus Kelly (left, sketched by John Singer Sargent), who she referred to as her “fiancé”. Ravel, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Holst all composed pieces for her. Kelly wrote the Gallipoli Sonata for d’Arányi while he was serving in Gallipoli. He was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. She played the sonata at his memorial service.

Elgar’s infatuation with her after Alice died was unwelcome and created in her a distrust of older men. Bartók had also been interested in her romantically and even though he wrote two violin sonatas for her, she refused to talk to him outside of rehearsals.

Her story, and that of her musical sisters, was told in a book by Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Arányi. Jessica Duchen wrote a novel, Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story in the History of Music, from the viewpoint of Jelly d’Arányi, about an occult session in 1933 over a ouija board, in which the spirit of Robert Schumann tells her to find a “lost” concerto. Erik Palmstierna, working with d’Arányi’s older sister Adila, published Horizons of Immortality in 1937, with a chapter about this actual séance, which led to the discovery of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D Minor in Nazi Germany.

One important part of d’Arányi’s back-story that was left out of the Elgar movie was her relationship with Frederick Septimus Kelly. This might have helped us understand better why she rejected all these older composers that she was so initially attracted to and even outrageously flirted with. Kelly was the real love of her life. She remained unmarried and Kelly’s photo was on her bedside table when she died in Florence in March 1966.

In 1966, the English music critic Frank Howes wrote that Elgar “reflected the last blaze of opulence, expansiveness and full-blooded life, before World War I swept so much away”.

Elgar composed four oratorios between 1896 and 1906: The Light of Life, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom. In Ken Russell’s 1962 BBC film, Elgar, the composer is quoted as saying, “Each time I write an oratorio, we go a winter without wood.”

Laura A. Meadows, in her 2008 Durham Uni­versity PhD thesis, “Elgar as Post-Wagnerian”, said:

Elgar’s oratorios have been compared with Wagner’s music dramas much more than the works of his contemporaries. Such a characterisation is certainly valid. He used leitmotif in all four works. Two of Elgar’s oratorios—The Apostles and The Kingdom—are even linked together by a set of the same musical leitmotifs, characters and plot. They comprise an epic that is often compared to Wagner’s “Ring”. 

In 1931, eleven years after his wife died, Elgar became infatuated with the Jewish-born violinist Vera Hockman (right), who had two children and was separated from her husband. She was thirty-five when Elgar was seventy-four. According to David Powys Hughes, of

They spent a great deal of time together over the next two years, and something significant occurred not long after their relationship blossomed: Edward again began to compose in earnest. Since Lady Elgar’s death eight months after the completion of the Cello Concerto, he had composed no large-scale works.

Elgar’s gorgeous music underpins Elgar’s Tenth Muse, making it a movie that can be watched many times.       

In 1999, the Bank of England created twenty-pound notes featuring a portrait of Elgar, but from 2007, the notes were phased out and ceased to be legal tender. Still, cancel culture has not completely triumphed. There remain sixty-five roads and three locomotives in the UK, named in Elgar’s honour.

3 thoughts on “Elgar’s Tenth Muse: After Alice

  • Ceres says:

    Thanks for the background to this film. Sounds like a must see based on a fascinating life.
    Land of Hope and Glory should be the National Anthem of the UK – such an emotional, stirring piece by Elgar.

  • padmmdpat says:

    Joe Dolce, The Dream of Gerontius is not about the redemption of a sinner, if you mean by that, a great sinner. Rather it is about the death and judgement of an ordinary, garden variety Catholic who won’t end up on the Calendar with a Feast Day, like you and me, as opposed to St Augustine of Hippo.

  • guilfoyle says:

    Not only did Alice’s family disown her for marrying a Catholic, Elgar struggled to gain acceptance with his music and in English society because of his Catholicism. They were ostracised and Alice stood by him the whole time. The comment by the Bishop was just one example – and it shows how socially acceptable this bigotry was – and still is.
    I imagine however, that the film makes absolutely no mention of his faith, as it seems to be a consistent objective to attempt to render all religion, particularly Catholicism, invisible- the historical adviser to Downton Abbey told how he was forbidden to script the family saying grace before meals because they did not want religion to have a presence, even though every family at that time would have said grace. Reference in Elgar’s case to his religious beliefs might be construed as contributing to his creativity. The audience might not like to see their (current) prejudices exposed in the past bigotry of anti-Catholic England.
    The statement attributed to Alice that she had a stronger faith than he , I imagine is included to diminish his faith – but her role was exemplary- she was rejected by her family and much of the society in which she was raised and stood by and supported him completely.
    While I am sure that the movie is beautiful and that this part of his life has its interest, in the context of Elgars story, it is predictable that a film would choose to produce the fare we all expect – sex, young woman, Faith dismissed or diminished. Elgar as a predatory and pathetic old man.
    the story of Alice is a far more meaningful and nuanced story – although it requires speaking truth – it is about true, married and selfless love, prejudice and power operating in society to exclude or ostracise. It seems to be acceptable to present a white, heterosexual man as a predatory old man but not any other class- when the obvious motivation may have been that he was lonely. Similarly, it is acceptable to present certain races, or religions suffering ostracism and bigotry- but never Catholics- the very group who were most excluded in English and American society.
    Although, I am sure the movie presents these interpretations of Elgar’s life in a way that pleases the potential audience, I see the predictable delicacies of sex, accompanied by the (socially correct demonisation) as a missed opportunity- it’s just another pat story.
    the movie could have addressed the relationship of true marriage with its attendant (joyful and loving) sacrifice; it could have touched upon the suffering to which Elgar was subjected and it could have addressed Alice as his muse – the woman who did have the most influence over him in regard to the pieces for which he was famous.

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