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Agnes Nicholls and Elgar's The Kingdom 

The following excerpts from a BBC programme broadcast on 12 May 1957 feature Alec Robertson interviewing Agnes Nicholls about her initial experience with Elgar’s great oratorio. The programme, which was recorded, was transcribed and presented in The Elgar Journal of November 2007, Vol. 15, No. 3. It really says a lot about the character and singing of Agnes Nicholls.

AR ... when Elgar was composing The Kingdom he had in mind the glorious voice of Agnes Nicholls, Lady Hamilton Harty.

AN. I think it was 1906 that I knew I was engaged for the forthcoming new production of The Kingdom at the Birmingham Festival. The proof score came in two parts, and I remember we were staying in Devon at the village of Combe Martin. I had been swimming in the morning and it was not till after lunch that we went through the part, and came upon a wonderful solo, “The Sun Goeth Down”. After we had gone through it twice my husband turned from the piano and said, “You know, that is exactly you, for your voice and what you can do best.” I was thrilled. I worked at it until it literally got into my blood. The first rehearsal was in London, and Edward Elgar seemed very moved. The next rehearsal was the final one in the Town Hall, Birmingham. John Coates was the tenor, and I remember he came over to me on the platform, tears in his eyes, to say how beautiful it was.

AR. And what did Elgar, himself, say to you at rehearsal?

AN. He said nothing. He just looked at me. But the tears were running down his face.

AR. And how did everything go at the performance?

AN. Oh, it went wonderfully - all things considered, I think. But you know I remember very little about it. I can see the Birmingham Town Hall now today - but that is about all I do remember; I can’t remember anything of what I did.

AR. I suppose that’s the sheer excitement. You felt very tired, I expect?

AN. Oh, afterwards I was literally exhausted, but it wasn’t so much the singing. I think it really was the melodies of both The Kingdom and The Apostles - and we had done The Apostles the night before - had simply overwhelmed me; they never went out of my head. I couldn’t sleep at all. I never forget it. Don’t today. Though I can’t really remember it, but it is still there. One thing is that if I try all the things today, as I sometimes do, and if I do it at night, I still can’t sing.

AR. What do you feel towards Elgar?

AN. He was curious, very curious. I thought he was, very often sort of very disappointed in life and with himself generally. He always used to say that nobody wanted him; he used to tell me that.

AR. Even when he was so successful?

AN. Even when he was the great Sir Edward Elgar. And because I used to say to him, You’ve no right to say that!”


A further reminiscence by Sir Adrian Boult : 
And The Kingdom makes me think also of a rather nice occasion - well, a rather nerve-racking occasion which was very exciting - at the Worcester Festival, when things had not been going frightfully well, and Elgar had rather lost interest, and he was driving the thing very fast. Suddenly we came to the point, the end of the fourth scene, you will remember it, when Agnes Nicholls, who was then pretty well in retirement but had taken up the part at short notice, again the part that was written for (her) and the part that she loved, I think, more than anything in the world perhaps, except Isolde. She got up and began singing “The Sun Goeth Down” and as she did it, one felt the whole orchestra at once spring to life and then Elgar took interest; and from then on, it was really a splendid performance, It’s the only occasion I know when a conductor - whose job it is sometimes to pull difficult situations together - was himself pulled together by a soprano soloist. 

 


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