Thursday, 25 April 2013

Edward Elgar, Ken Russell, Nature, and me

I heard Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings for the first time while watching Ken Russell’s television documentary of the life of Elgar broadcast on 11th November 1962 (when I was 15 years old). In the film, the piece formed a repeating motif for the stages of Elgar’s life from a child, through young adulthood to old age. The music accompanied climbs up the Malvern Hills, first on a pony, then on a bicycle and finally in a motor car. Every time the theme was played I felt goose bumps and I can’t think of another documentary that has had quite such an effect on me. I didn’t know the name of this extraordinary piece of music, so had to find out by visiting record shops and, after purchasing an LP (yes, it was long ago) I hurried back and played it over and over. Why was that? Was it the documentary association with the splendid beauty of the views from the Malvern Hills, used in the repeating motif, or something more? Why does some music have such a hold over us? (For those readers who don’t know the piece, a recording can be found here:

The Introduction and Allegro for Strings was written in 1904/5 and is an example of Elgar’s “outdoor music” [my term]. Five years earlier, during the summer of 1900, Elgar was working on the final score of The Dream of Gerontius, his great work based on a poem by Cardinal Newman about the passage of a soul into purgatory. He was staying at Birchwood Lodge, a rented cottage just four miles from his home in Malvern and the place where he was at his happiest. Michael Kennedy writes that he “loved the view from his study window – ‘a lot of young hawks flying about - plovers also – 150 rabbits under the window & the blackbirds eating cherries like mad’”. Later, in a letter to Augustus Jaeger (Nimrod of the Enigma Variations) on 11th July 1901, Elgar wrote: “One line to say we arrived here [Birchwood Lodge] & are in the intense quiet & solitude which I love.” 1 The task of finishing The Dream of Gerontius was demanding and the correspondence between himself and Jaeger at Novello, his publisher, included many discussions of detail and Elgar listened to the advice of his friend and trusted his judgement. There were times when composition went so well that he was able to write, again to Jaeger, on 11th July 1900: “This is what I hear all day – the trees are singing my music – or I have I sung theirs? I suppose I have? It’s too lovely here”. 2 In Michael Kennedy’s book we read that Elgar felt that “music is in the air all around you, you just take as much of it as you want”. It sums up the view that Russell emphasised; Elgar composed in the open air and only then needed to return to complete the composition. A similar comment is given by Michael De-la-Noy is his less than flattering Elgar the Man. 3 He quotes Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland as saying: “Elgar ‘always carried small sheets of music paper about with him, and from time to time he would take one out of his pocket and jot down notes of some theme that had come into his head, humming as he did so’”. This practice was recalled by Elgar when writing to a friend in 1921 (when he was 64 years old): "I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds & longing for something very great – source, texture & all else unknown”. 4

Elgar was also influenced by tunes he heard, in addition to the sounds of Nature and here we see a parallel to other English composers, like Butterworth and Vaughan Williams (although, unlike them, he was certainly not a collector of folk songs). Kennedy [Portrait of Elgar p. 218] describes how:

“In August of 1901 [ten months after the first performance of The Dream of Gerontius], the Elgars went for a week’s holiday to South Wales.., one day, as Elgar wrote in a programme-note four years later, ‘on the cliff between the blue sea and the blue sky, thinking out my theme, there came up to me the sound of singing. The songs were too far away to reach me distinctly....’”

“His ‘Welsh tune’.. ..had been brought back to his mind in 1904 ‘by hearing, far down our Valley of the Wye, a song similar to those so pleasantly heard on Ynys Lochtyn [during the 1901 holiday in Cardigan Bay]. The singer of the Wye unknowingly reminded me of my sketch.. ..the work [the Introduction and Allegro] is really a tribute to that sweet borderland where I have made my home’”

The countryside, the Malvern Hills and the rivers near Malvern were all so important to Elgar that he wished to be buried near the confluence of the Severn and the Teme “without religious ceremony”.3 Elgar was a complex man for, while he loved Nature and found woods an inspiration for his work, he also liked to chop down trees. It is also characteristic that he wished for a non-religious funeral, yet wrote The Dream of Gerontius. His religious faith, which was probably never strong, was replaced by a sense of place in Nature, although that is too simple an interpretation and Elgar was full of contradictions. He was a lower middle class countryman who greatly enjoyed being a member of the Court of King Edward VII; he had a devoted wife, yet was very influenced by several muses throughout his life; he loved “japes” and word play, yet was self-pitying and had thoughts of suicide. This short list can certainly be extended, yet he produced music that inspires deep emotions - influenced by people he knew and, more than anything, by the inspiration provided by the natural world of the region he loved. His conflicted personality was the driving force of it all and the results are for us to enjoy. Thank you Elgar - and thank you also Ken Russell.

1 Percy Young (Editor) (1965) Letters to Nimrod from Edward Elgar. London: Dobson
2 Michael Kennedy (1968) Portrait of Elgar. Oxford: Oxford University Press
3 Michael De-la-Noy (1983) Elgar the Man. London: Penguin
4 Michael Kennedy (2004) The Life of Elgar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Why not eat sea anemones?

Vincent M Holt published “Why Not Eat Insects?” in 1885 and the book was given a new lease of life when it was reprinted in 1988 by the British Museum (Natural History). Holt raises a good question and, arguably, it applies even more today than it did in Victorian times. In addition to recommending a range of insects that are good to eat, Holt includes molluscs and, while recommending slugs of various species, it is cooked snails which he favours, giving two recipes from a book by M. S. Lovell, “The Edible Mollusks of Great Britain and Ireland with recipes for cooking them”, published in 1867. This is the Preface of that book:

“In these days, when attention has been so much directed towards the cultivation of the common kinds of eatable shell-fish, it is surprising that the importance of certain others for food has been hitherto almost entirely overlooked. We understand the good qualities of oysters, cockles, and a few other kinds; but some equally nutritious (which are universally eaten on the Continent) are seldom, if ever, seen in our markets, or are only used locally as food, and the proper modes of cooking them are scarcely known. I have therefore endeavoured to call attention to all the eatable species common on our coasts, and also to those which, though not found here in abundance, might be cultivated as easily as oysters, and form valuable articles of food.”

This comment from Lovell applies to both marine snails and bivalves, but the great Victorian Natural Historian Philip Henry Gosse provides us with another addition to gastronomy. In “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast”, published in 1853, he writes of one of his own experiments in cooking sea anemones. He collected Actinia crassicornis (now named Urticina crassicornis) and, after washing them in sea water, began to cook:

“Some I put into the water (sea-water) cold, and allowed to boil gradually. As soon as the water boiled, I tried one: it was tough and evidently undone. The next I took out after three minutes’ boiling: this was better; and one at five minutes’ was better still; but not so good as one which had boiled ten. I then put the remaining ones into the boiling water, and let them remain over the fire boiling fast for ten minutes, and these were the best of all, being more tender, as well as of a more inviting appearance.. .. In truth the flavour and taste are agreeable, somewhat like those of the soft parts of crab; I ate them hot, with the usual crab-condiments of salt, pepper, mustard, and vinegar, mixed into a sauce.. ..I wonder that they are not commonly brought to table, for they are easily procured, and are certainly far superior to cockles, periwinkles, and mussels. After a very little use, I am persuaded anyone would get very fond of boiled Actinias.”

We know that Henry Gosse was a strong influence on the wonderful glass modelling of the Blaschkas (see my earlier Blog post) but could he also be an inspiration for other artists - the top experimental chefs of today? How splendid Anémone de mer a la Gosse would look on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant. It would be as big a talking point as snail porridge.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

In praise of scholarship

In 1965, Richard Freeman published “The Works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist”, which was revised in a Second Edition published in 1977. You can appreciate the depth of scholarship required for its production by viewing the revised Bibliography, available in electronic form at note the number of times it has been accessed on the Web).

Having completed this work, Freeman turned to the bibliography of another great Nineteenth Century Natural Historian, Philip Henry Gosse, publishing “P.H.Gosse: A Bibliography” as a joint work with another eminent scholar, Douglas Wertheimer. This book was published in 1980 (by Dawson Press, publishers of the Bibliography of Darwin) and I am fortunate to have a copy. It was invaluable in the preparation of my book “Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts”, just as it had been to the distinguished biographer Ann Thwaite in researching “Glimpses of the Wonderful”, her very fine biography of Henry Gosse. She wrote: “It was at my hand all through the five years I worked on this book. It not only saved me months of work, but allowed me to write a book rather shorter than might otherwise have been the case.”
Freeman and Wertheimer’s Bibliography shows the dedication of the two scholars, for not only is it an annotated list of all Gosse's publications, including evangelical tracts and many other small publications, but we have details of print runs, bindings, costs, sales, origins of artwork and woodcuts, and much else besides. It was produced before the age of easily accessed electronic sources and, even if these were available, the amount of time and attention to detail needed for the research leading to the Bibliography is remarkable. I am quite incapable of anything like it.

Richard Freeman was Reader in Zoology at University College London and retired in 1982. The Department of Zoology at UCL had the reputation of being one of the best in the World and I was very fortunate to be appointed to a Senior Lectureship there in 1989. Unfortunately, I did not meet Richard Freeman, as he died in 1986. University Biology Departments (many formed from previously separate Departments of Zoology and Botany) are no longer the home of scholars, as we now have the endless and exhausting need to obtain research grants, providing little encouragement for a more reflective approach. That is rather sad, as students should become acquainted with great Biologists of the past, their discoveries and their place in History. Almost everyone knows a little about Darwin, but how many Biology students are familiar with Henry Gosse and his many contributions to Natural History? And how many know of the conflicts he felt in following debates on evolution while being a devout believer in the literal truth of the Bible, including the account of Creation in the Book of Genesis? His is a story which resonates with contemporary debates and we are indebted to Richard Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer for leading us to Henry Gosse’s publications and thus find out so much more about the man, his work, and his views.

The photograph of Richard Freeman is taken from