Beyond the Malverns: Elgar in the Amazon

Elgar is often seen as an ebodiment of conservative, Edwardian Englishness – but his epic trip to South America late in life suggests he sometimes felt a suffocation with his homeland

When the RMS Hildebrand left Liverpool harbour in November 1923 on a six-week journey to Brazil, there was an unexpected passenger aboard: a widower in his early 60s, an extravagantly moustachioed knight of the realm. His face, his name, and his music would have been known to all of the ship's passengers, and to the whole country. Sir Edward Elgar was on his way to the Amazon.

It's one of the least likely journeys ever made by a great composer: music's most famous Edwardian turned into a Heart of Darkness-style explorer. By the 1920s, Elgar had composed the soundtrack of early-20th-century Britain. His orchestral pieces, such as the Enigma Variations and First Symphony, grand choral works such as The Dream of Gerontius, and his series of Pomp and Circumstance marches – including the melody that had the tub-thumping words of Land of Hope and Glory grafted on to it – were the hit tunes of British concert halls, their composer as much a part of Edwardiana as the king, cultural imperialism and gunboat diplomacy.

But by the early 1920s, his music was no longer as popular as it once was. The premiere of his Second Symphony in 1911 was greeted with incomprehension, and his music took a more intimate, darker turn after the first world war, above all in his Cello Concerto. Yet it wasn't a public crisis that prompted Elgar's Amazonian adventure. His wife Alice had died three years previously, in 1920. Sir Edward never fully recovered, and he spent much of the last 14 years of his life in a virtual creative silence.

Unmoored from the central relationship of his life, the grief-stricken Elgar set sail for South America. We know that he travelled to Manaus and its opera house in the rainforest, the Teatro Amazonas, but we don't know much more about how Elgar filled his days on the Hildebrand. It's a hole in his biography that James Hamilton-Paterson has filled with his fanciful novel, Gerontius, in which Elgar hooks up with an old flame, and loses himself in the exuberant fecundity of the Amazonian flora and fauna.

But the simple fact of Elgar's desire to travel to this part of the world at this time of his life is food enough for our imaginations. We still think of Elgar as fundamentally a conservative figure, whose personality and music are bounded by the confines of his historical time, the places he lived, and the landscapes he loved. His music is limited by its associations with Empire, but even more powerfully, it's heard as a sounding realisation of the gentle undulations and soft-focused Englishness of the Malverns and Worcestershire, where he was born and lived for much of his life.

Yet Elgar's music is much bigger than the wee lumps of the Malverns, and it has greater elemental impact than the tilled fields of Worcestershire. I like to think of his 1923 journey to the Amazon as an escape from what he could have felt to be the suffocating horizons of his homeland – musically, emotionally and topographically. Whether he confronted his demons somewhere on the way to Manaus is a moot point. But even if Sir Edward didn't discover his heart of darkness in a Conradian sense, he opened himself to new experiences, new sights and new sounds, at a time when he might have been expected to sit in his house in Worcestershire in nostalgic contemplation of his lost life with his beloved Alice.

You'll look in vain for direct evidence of the effect of the Amazon on Elgar's life after he returned home. But Elgar's journey should be a cue for us not to limit his music in our imaginations. Every time you think of Elgar as a starchy establishment figure – as Land of Hope and Glory is pumped out yet again in some ghastly display of pointless patriotism like the Last Night of the Proms – imagine him instead with a panama hat, squinting into the South American sunlight, taking in the panoply of the rainforest. Elgar, it turns out, belongs as much to Brazil as he does to the Malverns.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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