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ELGAR'S BARITONE by Charles A. Hooey

Sir Edward Elgar was heard to profess no special love for English singers, and yet, he relied heavily upon a few for much of his success. Muriel Foster elevated his oratorios, The Dream Of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom, while being wonderful in the cycle Sea Pictures. Agnes Nicholls and Caroline Hatchard were supreme in The Spirit Of England too, but it is baritone Charles Mott who deserves special note for his loveable creations in Elgar's two wartime master works, The Starlight Express and Fringes Of The Fleet.

photo: Charles Mott

He first encountered Mott on 5 March 1914 during a visit to Covent Garden to enjoy Tristan Und Isolde. Instead, the curtain rose on Die Meistersinger, and in spite of feelings, he felt his bias wavering. He warmed to a certain English baritone as Kothner and set out immediately to help him. He wrote to Percy Pitt on 16 March, "I wish you would cast Mott for Kothner again - he is far and away the best I have ever seen - I have sent a note to Mr. Higgins telling him this as he may not have been present on that chance evening." Then, directly to Mott, "I have seen more representations of the opera than I care to count, but have never seen this part done in so entirely satisfactory a manner."

Charles James Mott drew first breath in 1880, as the son of Henry Isaac and Eliza Brockley Mott of the East Finchley /Highgate district in north central London. That placed him in proximity to Covent Garden, his future home before the War intervened. He found music early as a choirboy with St. James's Church Choir at Muswell Hill. Once he reached early adulthood, he chose banking, not realizing the boredom that would entail. He began to sing softly to himself, creating the legend of "the singing bank clerk." His superiors took note: "Tut-tut, young Charles, you cannot behave so." But they were in a mood to help if he confined his singing to after hours. This he did. After a hard day at the bank he studied singing with Josiah Booth and Henry Stanley.

Good fortune continued to smile. His path crossed that of Baron Frederic d'Erlanger, who just happened to be a prominent member of the Royal Opera Syndicate. The Baron took this brash youngster to heart and pressed his case with the Syndicate, so soon Charles was hustling to Berlin to study with basso Paul Knupfer. After a year's progress, Knupfer arranged an audition with the Hofoper at Dessau which led to Mott being posted as principal baritone.

In 1906 Charles came home to roost. He continued his studies with Madame Novello Davies while awaiting chances to sing. Sure enough he was invited to appear on 26 October in a Variety Show at Choughs, a prominent society that produced musical concerts regularly in the Grand Hall of Cannon Street Hotel. Returning on 1 February, he shared the stage with an exciting new tenor, one "J. F. McCormack."

As the Royal Opera's Spring Season of 1909 neared, Charles came by to see if his d'Erlanger connections would help pry open a door. Indeed they did and he signed prior to opening day on 26 April. Amongst so many stellar artists, Charles was fed a steady diet of support roles. This meant he appeared on 9 June as Méru, a Catholic noble, in Meyerbeer's grandiose Les Huguenots, singing with Luisa Tetrazzini, Emmy Destinn, Giovanni Zenatello, Antonio Scotti and Marcel Journet. He would have dreamed of being their equal soon.

We next hear of Charles in 1912, first as a mainstay in a Wagner Festival in Buda-pesth, as it was known then, and during the following February at the Edinburgh Festival when he and Carrie Tubb interpreted music of Beethoven.

Late in the autumn of 1913, he aligned himself with Raymond Roze, a youthful impresario/composer, who had arranged to present six weeks of grand opera in English at Covent Garden. His main objective though was to give his own opera Joan Of Arc massive exposure. He opened by conducting Joan on 1 November with Mott as Philip, Duke of Burgundy. In total, Roze gave twenty performances! What is there to say? Roze's Joan proved an unrelenting four hour bore, brightened only by the splash of colourful costumes. Mott no doubt breathed easier on 8 November, when he sank his teeth into a meatier role as Kurwenal in Tristan Und Isolde with John Coates and Marta Wittkowska, and again on 4 December, as Telramund in Lohengrin with Coates and Lillian Granfelt. Finally, he gave the Toreador in Bizet's Carmen his brand of flair with Violet Essex and Pauline Donalda.

Early in 1914, he stayed on for The Royal Opera's own Festival of German Opera. This included participation in Wagner's Parsifal on 2 February, when Wagner's epic was heard for the first time in England, sung in German. Mott sang the Second Knight of the Grail.

The next night Pitt tackled another "first," Etienne Méhul's Joseph with Mott as Judah. Beecham masterminded the initiative as a critic wrote: "Méhul's Joseph has hitherto been excluded from the English stage on account of its biblical libretto; and it is well that Mr. Beecham is the first to take advantage of the wider views which now prevail in such matters, to give us so beautiful a work."

When Tristan Und Isolde appeared on 11 February, Mott sang Melot with Jacques Urlus and Eva von der Osten in the title roles, Friedrich Plaschke as Kurwenal with Albert Coates conducting. In Meistersinger on 21 February, he sang the Nachtigall with Plaschke as Sachs, Claire Dux as Eva, Knupfer as Pogner and August Kiess as Kothner.

It was when he took Kiess's role of Kothner that Elgar took note. His enthusiasm unabated, Elgar urged Ivor Atkins, coordinator of The Three Choirs Festival at Worcester, to place Mott in Gerontius, adding "I wish you might (also) hear him as a possible Elijah - I think a little new blood wd do good. He sang some of it to me finely.."

Mott continued with the Royal Opera into the next season on 28 April, and was soon on stage in Die Götterdämmerung with Gertrude Kappel, Peter Cornelius and Louise Kirkby Lunn as Artur Nikisch conducted. Other roles followed. On 28 July, the Company closed its doors as England readied for war.

Elgar forged ahead in promoting Mott. He wrote to Atkins again on 1 June, "I suppose Kirkby Lunn will do Gerontius; you did not tell me. What is Charles Mott doing? I hope you will like him. I heard him do Gunther, & the Herald in Lohengrin, both good." In fact, Atkins did hear Charles Mott, was duly impressed and engaged him to sing the Priest in Gerontius with Coates and Kirkby Lunn, but it was all in vain. The Festival became an early casualty of the War.

Photo: Edward Elgar

Instead of heady Three Choirs action, Mott turned his attention to a series of weekly concerts. At Bournemouth, he likely sang Easthope Martin's "Speed the Plough" and the cycle "Songs of The Open Country", music he much favoured.

He turned up at the Royal Albert Hall at Adelina Patti's beckoning for her final "farewell" concert on Saturday afternoon, 24 October 1914. Patti herself sang with Mott, Carrie Tubb, Phyllis Lett, Plunket Greene, George Parker, the Royal Choral Society under its regular leader, Sir Frederick Bridge, the Queen's Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood and the massed bands of H M Brigade of Guards led by Capt J. Mackenzie Rogan. The stage must have groaned.

Indeed Mott sang Elijah on 4 November in Nottingham with the Sacred Harmonic Society, Laura Evans-Williams, Frank Webster and Helen Blain, Allen Gill presiding. Eleven days later word came that Field Marshal Lord Roberts had died while visiting troops in France. Atkins rushed to prepare a special service in his memory on the 19th with Mott to sing `Proficiscere' from Gerontius. On the 21st Elgar wrote to Atkins: "I am so very sorry I could not get down to Worcester on Thursday. What an excellent choice - proficiscere, & Mott, I hope, sang well."

Mott, now a friend as well as a favourite of Elgar, would figure in his next work, a project instigated by Elgar's friend, Lena Ashwell. She had pressed him for incidental music for The Starlight Express, a play she was producing at year's end in the Kingsway Theatre. Algernon Blackwood supplied the story, drawn from his novel, A Prisoner In Fairyland; costumes and scenery were entrusted to Henry Wilson, President of the Arts and Crafts Society, and Mott was assigned the key role of the Organ-Grinder.

The theme was the significance of childhood vision in a world sullied by the mistakes of grown-ups. Its timing was perfect for late in 1915 the Great War was crunching through its second horror-filled year; if ever there was a monument raised to the stupidity and wretchedness of the adult world, this was it. The authors would discover to their dismay that trying to create a show with and for children but with a powerful message for adults was not such an easy task.

Elgar urged Blackwood to see Mott in action. On 15 December, he said, "You want me to hear Mott and I long to. I suppose you realise that your music is the most divine, unearthly thing ever written.. It makes me happy all day long, and I want to cry and sing. It will go all over the world, I know. I shall simply burst when I hear Mott sing it".

Blackwood wrote again on 21 December, this time to express concern over the staging. "Mr Wilson has designed the Sprite in the spirit of Greek fantasy ... Lamplighter a quasi-Mercury, Gardener as Priapus, or someone else, and Sweep possibly as Pluto. It is a false and ghastly idea. There is nothing pagan in our little Childhood Play. It is an alien symbolism altogether. It robs our dear Sprites of all their significance as homely childhood Figures. Don't you think so too? If our Play means anything at all, it means God ... not the gods. But Mr. Wilson is obsessed with Greece " Alas, he aired his concerns far too late. On this rather glum note The Starlight Express opened on schedule at the Kingsway on 29 December 1915.

The Musical Times enthused over Mott: "A feature of the presentation is an organ-grinder, a kind of Pied Piper, who, with a group of children, makes his appearance before each Act. Some of the music allotted to this character is searchingly expressive - the first song particularly. Mr. Charles Mott was a highly sympathetic exponent." Rounding out the cast were by V.B. Clarence as "Daddy, who has a dim idea of something great which he cannot find words to express," Ruth Maitland as a far more practical Mother and Clytie Hine as The Laugher "who sings trouble into joy.".. "(The music) is certainly the main lure. It affords a glimpse of a quality of Elgar's genius that owing probably to lack of encouragement, has not yet been sufficiently explored. We had a foretaste of its potentialities in the Wand Of Youth Suites, which resurrected some of Elgar's youthful fancies, and much of the music is deftly woven into the Starlight Express. The scoring is delightfully dainty ... dance-music especially is captivating, and many of the songs and other incidental music have conspicuous melody and rhythmic grace."

There was universal acclaim for the music - it was unlike anything previous from Elgar and the singing actors were praised but, as expected, both story and staging drew criticism. For such an important event, Elgar should have conducted but four days earlier Alice had suffered a mild concussion when her automobile was struck by a taxi during an air raid blackout. Besides this worry, Elgar had just lost a nephew to tuberculosis. Ultimately he remained by Alice's side and left the premiere to Julius Harrison.

Wulstan Atkins, Ivor's eleven year old son, followed the proceedings with glee. He wrote of a meeting between his father and Elgar at the beginning of January: "Elgar told him that The Starlight Express was running at the Kingsway Theatre, and though he did not like the sets, he was pleased with the music and especially the songs." Then, after attending a performance, "I expected to see Elgar conducting, but in fact the young Julius Harrison appeared on the rostrum. My disappointment soon disappeared, however, when Elgar's fascinating overture began and when the Organ-Grinder, Charles Mott, appeared on the apron of the stage to sing his first song, `O children, open your arms to me'. Soon I was completely absorbed.."

Composer and critic Thomas Dunhill attended too, and compared it with Elgar's other wartime works, "Of slighter texture, but far more musical importance, were the delicate entr'actes and songs which Elgar wrote for Algernon Blackwood's fantastic children's play, The Starlight Express ... the music which accompanied it does not deserve to be forgotten. It is of altogether finer quality than that of the ephemeral songs called Fringes Of The Fleet."

Elgar had missed the opening and registered his displeasure in the process. Why did the staging have to differ so much from his childhood memories? As reports trickled in, his dark mood started to dissipate, and he attended regularly throughout January. His music could not stem the inevitable though and the show closed after just that single month.

Though keenly disappointed, Elgar had his spirits lifted by executives from The Gramophone Company, who came to express interest in recording four sides from The Starlight Express. Elgar held out for eight and this was agreed, making this in 1916, nothing less than a recording miracle. Elgar saw it as an opportunity to preserve forever his personal memories.

On 18 February 1916, Mott appeared at Hayes to record the Organ-Grinder's songs with Agnes Nicholls managing those of The Laugher. All eight records were cut that single day. They were hurriedly produced and introduced two months later at a lavish press party in the Savoy Hotel. When Blackwood came on 13 March to spend a few days with the Elgar's, no doubt they felt uplifted listening to the gramophone. On the 26th, Charles Mott came with his wife and child to share tea and biscuits.. and presumably to share the recorded magic.

That summer Mott became caught up in the frenzy attending Clara Butt's latest war relief effort. Despite a host of naysayers, the magnificent Clara had organized a weeklong series of concerts with The Dream Of Gerontius central to each, as her way of giving a lift to her fellow war-weary Londoners. Just the ticket she felt, especially with the composer conducting, herself as the Angel, Gervase Elwes as Gerontius and Charles Mott as Angel of the Agony. On Mott she was firm, so how on earth could he refuse?

After tryouts on 3 and 4 May in Leeds and Bradford, the show opened on the 8th at Queen's Hall, London for a triumphant six concert stay. In his role, Mott "sang with all the fervour of his strong temperament." An enormous audience, including both King and Queen, attended on 19 May as Mott and Clara sang with Maurice d'Oisly, in place of an ailing Elwes, as Gerontius. Clara was vindicated, many were turned away and a sizeable sum was raised for the Red Cross.

On 22 November, Mott faced Elgar's Dream again at a Hallé Concert in Birmingham with Elwes filling in for Captain John Coates, gone a-soldiering. A marked change of pace occurred in Liverpool on 6 March following when, with Sir Frederic Cowen conducting, he "sang well" with Agnes Nicholls and Alfred Heather in Scenes Of Hiawatha in perhaps his sole foray into the exotic music of Coleridge-Taylor.

Elgar and Frank Schubert had enjoyed a fortnight cruise in the Mediterranean in 1905 courtesy of Admiral-in-charge Lord Charles Beresford. Fanned by ocean breezes, Elgar heard Lady Maud Warrender sing Sea Pictures. A dozen years later, the Admiral showed up seeking a favour; he wanted Elgar to set to music Rudyard Kipling's poems, Fringes Of The Fleet, reasoning that England's premiere talents could easily fashion a sure-fire tonic to lift sagging spirits. Kipling, however, had just learned his son Jack had gone "missing" at Loos, so was in no mood to participate. Elgar forged ahead, producing a cycle of four songs for four baritones, one to act as soloist, that singer to be Charles Mott.

The songs, dedicated to Admiral Beresford, were arranged in order, gradually growing darker in mood and then lifting gently at the end. As Elgar explained to Ernest Newman, they were in a "broad saltwater style." And capture the mood of the moment they did, not least because submarine warfare was much in the news. On 12 June, the songs were featured twice-daily, with Elgar conducting, during a war-time entertainment at London's Coliseum Theatre. Mott, Harry Barratt, Frederick Henry and Frederick Stewart as brawny and weather-beaten mariners sang their salty tunes in front of a rustic rural pub. The performances succeeded so well a provincial tour was organized to start when the London run concluded. All four songs were recorded on 4 July.

But Elgar was not finished. As July drew to an end, he took a poem of Sir Gilbert Parker's and fashioned a song, "Inside the bar," which the singers recorded on 27 July, before going to the Coliseum for their last show. Afterwards, at an on-stage party, everyone struggled to be cheerful but with Mott's call-up imminent, they were hard-pressed. Elgar rose finally to present a small silver ship to Mott, wishing his friend "clear sailing."

Baritone George Parker filled in as Fringes was acclaimed in music halls throughout Britain that summer and autumn. The spirited adventure ended, however, when Kipling, in agony over his son's loss, decided his poetry should no longer be used to glorify war. Disappointed, the travellers limped back to the Coliseum on 1 December to end where they began.

Besides their musical allure, the songs hold special meaning for many, even today as Harry Howe in Kent wrote: "I have a soft spot for these discs as my father was a Regular in the Old Navy (1911-1946) and served in the Dover Patrol in both the First and Second Wars. The Dover Patrol was made up almost entirely of local Navy and Merchant Navy people, so a Dover Patrol ship sunk meant that a good many houses in Deal and Dover were bereaved. In Memoriam notices still appear in local newspapers for people lost in that fashion."

Mott finally received his call, proceeded to enlist at Paddington and was posted to the Artists' Rifles. While undergoing training at Romford, he tried to keep his singing career afloat, writing to Troyte Griffith, to propose dates with the Malvern Concert Club. Then, when his wife was taken seriously ill, Mott spent much time tending to her. Finally in a letter to Griffith, he advised that a November 1917 date was impossible and the proposed recital would have to wait "until after the war."

With the Rifles, Mott found other singers, namely Tom Kinneburgh and Roy Henderson. Roy, who lived to the grand age of 100, retained fond memories of his light-hearted fellow baritone. By letter he reported, "The Artists' Rifles had in the battalion a Vicar from Essex (who chose) recruits needed to send suitable people for Officer Training and also to supply the 1st Battalion in France. One had to have an interview to get into the Artists' Rifles; it was selective. I was in the same hut (about thirty men) as Mott who was promoted Training Corporal. Mott was very popular and very kind to me personally but didn't conform to the spit and polish of the Battalion and was sent to France, where he became the life and soul of the Battalion there."

In anticipation of the German spring assault, Lance Corporal Mott and his mates of The First Battalion London Regiment (Artists' Rifles), waited in Aveluy Woods on 20 May then the dreadful business began. We can hardly imagine the scream of bursting shells, the chatter of machine guns, the hellish hail of metal...Charles fell, mortally wounded and two days later he died.

At home his loss was a cruel shock. Klein said this, "His singing of the Organ-Grinder's songs acquires a double pathos, so full is it of tenderness, repose and sustained charm." And Elgar, writing to a friend, "It is difficult to believe that Charles Mott is dead; dead of wounds in France. I am overwhelmed: a simple, honest GOOD soul."

Charles Mott was buried in Grave 2, Plot 11, Row C of Bagneux Military Cemetery, south of Gezaincourt, two kilometres southwest of Doullens. Should anyone wish to visit his grave, they should travel to Gezaincourt, turn at the Commonwealth War Graves sign and proceed south down a rustic trail that can become a quagmire on rainy days. It veers to cross a rail line that once serviced a busy casualty clearing station. Now the rusting rail remains, along with the graves. Bagneux is a well-tended but lonely place, far from the beaten track and infrequently visited. Round about the green and rolling countryside could very well be southern England. It is sad to see these white Portland stones now, row upon row, but in their quiet setting a feeling of respectfulness is ever present.

Roy Henderson spoke highly of Mott: "He was a superb singer who would have been No. 1 baritone in England had he lived. As a boy of 16, I heard him singing Elijah at Nottingham and was thrilled by his performance." Apart from The Starlight Express and Fringes Of The Fleet recordings, Mott made a few others, but one song sticks in my memory. "The Sands o' Dee," concerns a young lass who, in gathering her sheep, crosses the sand while the tide is out...but fails to return in time. Her man laments...and there is a scream in the voice of this uncommon soldier, expressing the man's grief and torment...which brings a lump to my throat every time. © Charles A Hooey

Acknowledgements. Thanks to everyone over several years for helping to amass the above information: in England, Dame Norma Major for direction to British government information services, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, John Davies, Dennis Foreman, Ewen Langford, Graham Oakes, photographer Tom Tulloch-Marshall, Wayne Turner, John Ward, Geoffrey Hodgkins and Michael Messenger, and Jim McPherson in Toronto, here in Canada. C.A.H.

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