Kevin Allen is a well-known Elgarian with three previous books on the composer to his credit: Elgar the Cyclist (2005), August Jaeger: Portrait of Nimrod (2000, Ashgate) and Elgar in Love: Vera Hockman and the Third Symphony (2000). In addition to other publications he has organized exhibitions and undertaken many other musical activities.
In this book he deals not with a single aspect of the composer’s life but with the milieu from which he came and in which his music developed. At the same time he sheds much light on the Norburys and on many other of Elgar’s friends. He also explores the place of music-making in 19th century provincial life and the increasing opportunities outside the household for women at this time.
The Norburys were a Worcester “county” family whose ancestry - well-documented by Mr. Allen - extended on the maternal side from the Middle Ages. Thomas and Sarah Norbury had five daughters and three sons, two of the daughters, Florence and Winifred, being life-long friends and supporters of Elgar. Needless to say Winifred is the eighth Enigma Variation. The two sisters never married and so were able to immerse themselves in the musical life of Worcester and Great Malvern as performers and organizers as well as perceptive commentators on musical events both local and farther afield.
One of the strengths of this book is the glimpse it gives into the array of musical activities available in Worcester and environs at this time. In addition to the inevitable home musical events and visiting artists there were numerous charity days as well as concerts and recitals of a veritable plethora of local musical societies. Kevin Allen ably describes how sacred and secular music frequently blended. Cathedral personnel performed in secular concerts and local amateurs provided the backbone of the Three Choirs Festivals. Especially interesting is his description of the gradual inroads made into Festival programmes by both secular music and the new works of English composers.
The most valuable aspect of this book, at least to music-lovers, is the way it details Elgar’s growth as a composer. We see the maturation of his talent unfold in the context of his daily activities and the situations in which his works were originally performed. At the same time we see the influence on his music of the Norburys and the other “Variations” as well as of other equally close friends. Finally, Mr. Allen ably details the composer’s evolution from a boy who accompanied his father to tune the pianos of the gentry to a well-regarded musician invited to the same houses as a guest.
In researching this book Kevin Allen has had access to a veritable mine of material from Norbury family letters and diaries as well as many other contemporary documents. With so many topics addressed it is inevitable that a book of this depth would have imperfections. Two small ones are immediately obvious. The first is the lack of an index. This book is actually only the first of two volumes on the relationship between Elgar and the Norburys (it ends in 1897). Mr. Allen has promised a complete index in the second volume. That said, in a book of over 900 pages, this is a serious drawback as one would naturally wish to refer to previous sections of the book while reading it. The second is the glossy paper used. This makes for real eye-strain in spite of the generous font adopted.
A more substantial drawback than those above is in the description of the relationship between Elgar and the Norburys. Like certain films it takes a long time for the characters to meet (200-300 pages). Mr. Allen is frequently constrained to tell us what Elgar and the Norburys were doing at a given time although they were not in the same town or even country.
None of these things takes away from the immense effort Mr. Allen has made to give us insight into Elgar’s compositional and sociological milieu. Obviously this is a book for the committed Elgarian but it may also find a wider audience because of its broader sociological focus.
Previous review: Hannah Parry-Ridout
Part 1: Gertrude: The Angel in the House
Prologue: 'Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity...'
1. Thomas and Gertrude
2. Letters from the Crimea
3. Nesting at the Norrest
5. Leaving the Nest - Coni, Tommy, Kitty, Nelly - and Billy
6. More of the Same, and a Scandal at the Lodge
Part 2: Winifred and Florence: Sense and Sensibility
7. 'She is talented in music'
8. Brahms in Malvern, Dvorak in Worcester
Part 3: Annals of the 1890s: 'More closely connected with music
9. 1890: A Virgornian Dances in Oxford Street
10. 1891: Miss Burley comes to Malvern
11. 1892: A Black Knight at Bayreuth
12. 1893: A Local Composer's Triumph
13. 1894: A Mission in the Cause of Musical Art
14. 1895: Lady Mary to the Fore
15. 1896: Annus Mirabilis
16. 1897: Miss Hyde Calls at Sherridge