October at Cheltenham

It was a great start to my Autumn series of concerts with a trip to Cheltenham to perform for Park House Concert Series. We were fortunate to have a morning free to stroll round Cheltenham – what wonderfully wide boulevards and building façades. Very regal and grand. The Fountain of Neptune designed by Joseph Hall is quite a spectacle and was modelled on the Trevi Fountain. Had coffee and croissants at an Italian café opposite. La Dolce Vita as they say in Rome!

There was also plenty to admire on our journey through the Cotswolds: peaceful rolling hills, twisting country lanes and honey-coloured cottages, all synonymous with this area. A rural idyll indeed. We had a lovely visit to Bourton-in-the Water, with its mini-Venice charm of bridges, canals and waterside cafés and also Moreton-in-the-Marsh. Every time I visit this area, I am reminded of a poem I once read by Edward Thomas (1878-1917 ) called ‘Adelstrop’. The poet had been travelling on an express train from Oxford to Worcester when, all of a sudden, the train made an unexpected stop at Adelstrop, a deserted station. A brief excerpt of the poem is below…

“…No one left and No one came
On the bare platform.What I saw
Was Adelstrop

And willows, willow-herbs and grass
And meadwosweet and haycocks dry
No whit less still…”

The station has long since disappeared (as we later discovered after many zigzagging attempts down single-track roads to find it!) but the poem’s appeal is enduring. Its success seems to lie in its uneventfulness and perhaps even more so in its typical British understated-ness, capturing a still image of the English countryside in a single, uninterrupted moment.

It always fascinates me to consider the parallels between poets, writers, artists and musicians who were working in a similar time period and with the poet Edward Thomas, I am often reminded of another Edward – composer Sir Edward Elgar. Both have associations with the Cotswold area and their lives deeply marked by the harrowing traumas of World War 1.

As Edward Elgar was born very near Cheltenham, (Broadheath near Worcester) I thought it perhaps apt to perform a work by him at my concert that weekend, namely his Violin Sonata written in 1918. Where Thomas’ ‘Adelstrop’ captures the sunny innocence of pre-war Britain, Elgar’s Violin Sonata unleashes the loss. For many, Elgar’s music is associated with the imperial optimism of the late Victorian age. Yet beneath a grandiose exterior of his more public works, we can always hear the spiritual and intimate outpourings of a deeply sensitive musician.

We are aware of this in his Violin Sonata where he combines, almost paradoxically, feverish torment with a sublime delicacy and serenity. It begins with a violent sweep of fury yet these raging and passionate outpourings soon yield to an introverted mood of resignation. The second movement too, is mercurial, darting between capricious and poignant interludes. And in the finale, we alternate again between these moments of grief and hope. For me, the most enchanting part of the whole piece occurs just before the final coda – the fits of passion abruptly halt and we are greeted with a moment of hushed awe. Elgar had written the sonata for a family friend, Marie Joseph. Tragically, she died only days before he completed the sonata. In a tribute to her memory, he chooses to expand the moment of awe, revisiting an earlier theme and unleashes it to shine gloriously and draw the work to a triumphant conclusion.

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