In the spring of 1918, Sir Edward Elgar, wearied by World War I and years spent living in London, sought sanctuary amidst the haunted woodlands of West Sussex.
Pronouncing himself “sick of towns” he rented a cottage called Brinkwells near the ancient village of Fittleworth, and there began a remarkable period in his creative life.
In just a few months during the glorious summer which followed, he composed four of his finest works – including the Cello Concerto, first performed a hundred years ago this month.
The Fittleworth landscape hummed with the harmonies of wild earth, and immediately brought an enormous sense of relief to his disturbed and troubled life.
Since 1912 fame had forced Elgar to live in Hampstead. It was convenient for his metropolitan commitments, but a world away from his “beloved borderland” in the Midlands, where in years gone by he had revelled in the fresh air, seeking inspiration from the countryside around him.
Gradually, his creative spirit, born of the Malvern Hills, had seemed to ebb away and the music he produced was nothing compared to his former glories. There were trifles in support of the war effort and he even wrote music for the West End and, surprisingly, the music halls, doubtless responding to the need to maintain his expensive London home.
Brinkwells changed all that. “It is divine,” he wrote. “A simple thatched cottage and a (soiled) studio with a wonderful view: large garden unweeded, a task for 40 men.”
The idyllic landscape was populated by familiar country folk reminiscent of his boyhood: people like farmer Aylwin who provided transport in his pony and trap, and handyman Mark Holden, who built a special shelter for Elgar’s wife, Alice, so that she could enjoy the flower-fragranced garden and listen to the hum of summer.
“We go for lovely walks,” he wrote, “the loveliest walks really – the woods are full of flowers, wonderful – some anemones still left but just leaving us for a year, bluebells and primroses etc.”
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