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Spirit Insights 
by Charles A. Hooey 

I had been at work for several months on a biography of the soprano Caroline Hatchard, an important and well-loved figure on the English musical scene in the first half of this century, using information provided largely through a close study of news accounts of long past musical events. It was when I noticed Caroline's name cropping up as an early and frequent performer of Elgar's Spirit of England, that composer's stirring war trilogy that I began to wonder if she had been the first soloist in the complete work.

To prove or disprove this contention, the research effort had to be intensified with the result that it became obvious Caroline was a significant, if not the first, singer of The Spirit. But I was surprised to discover more than one performance being touted as the "first" while the one pre-dating the others, was being ignored!

It is not possible to say for certain why this strange situation should exist.. but, it was 1917 and war-weary reporters may have failed to do the event full justice... but that cannot be true as reviews exist in archives and libraries for anyone today to read … so it must have been other factors that have distorted the truth, a combination perhaps of carelessness, indifference and misunderstanding?

Most of this information now would not be appropriate for my Hatchard story, and as it would be unfortunate to allow it to go to waste, it was decided to offer the results here in order to explain the work's development and subsequent introduction, including the identity of that elusive first Spirit performance, for those unaware of this aspect of Elgar's music.

The Great War did not end by Christmas, 1914 as a few misguided pundits had predicted; instead it ground on into the early months of 1915 with the combatants feverishly gearing up for the horror and carnage to come. Elgar, disillusioned and saddened by the course of events, nevertheless felt buoyed by acts of individual heroism being reported and the optimism that seemed to prevail. He decided to prepare his own special tribute to his country's valiant military by selecting three powerful verses of Laurence Binyon and giving them musical meaning as The Spirit of England.

He completed the third part, "For the Fallen" in 1915 and the second, "To Women," early in 1916 but the opening section, "The Fourth of August," eluded his creative grasp until April, 1917. About thirty minutes in length, the complete work calls for a spirited chorus, a solo contribution by tenor or soprano singer and an exceptional orchestra. In those early days, it was not uncommon to find both soprano and tenor taking part.

The composer was on the podium in Leeds on 3rd May, 1916 to give his partial Spirit its first performance. It preceded the main work, a performance of The Dream of Gerontius which featured the Angel of Madame Clara Butt. The famed Leeds Choral Union also participated in this concert, the first in a series in aid of war charity organized by Madame Butt. Agnes Nicholls, a favoured Elgar interpreter, sang "For the Fallen" while tenor John Booth intoned "To Women." The concert was given again in Bradford the following day and then the choir, soloists and conductor moved to London to repeat the programme on six successive days, starting on Monday, 8th May.

Following this initial presentation, the incomplete work was performed on a number of other occasions. For example, it was featured in a series of regional concerts that Beecham gave with the Hallé Orchestra early in 1917. When giving concerts outside of London, Beecham would often invite the local chorus master to conduct the choral music, to acknowledge the effort made locally in preparation. Thus, on 7th February at Walsall, T.W. North conducted the Elgar as tenor Frank Mullings sang both parts. Then during an All-Wagner Concert in Manchester on 15th March, "For the Fallen" was added as a special request, so R.H. Wilson stepped forward to conduct Agnes Nicholls in this music, just prior to the Grail Scene from Parsifal which concluded the concert. H. A. Fricker was on the podium when she sang both parts to open a similar programme the following day at Bradford.

With the opening section finished at last, Elgar conducted the complete work in a Royal Choral Society Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 24th November, 1917. The concert included music of a nautical nature by Stanford, Parry and Bridge. This was a stellar event which was widely publicized, perhaps accounting for the fact some today regard it as the "first" performance. "The solo part in The Fourth of August, as also in For The Fallen, was quite beautifully sung, as it deserved to be, by Miss Agnes Nicholls, and the composer (who conducted) was also well served by Mr. Gervase Elwes, the soloist in the middle section of the completed work. There was great enthusiasm at the end." (Daily Telegraph)

And yet, accounts of the day readily reveal that three weeks earlier on 31st October, Agnes Nicholls and Elgar had combined to present the complete Spirit of England in Leeds with the Choral Union, where once again it preceded The Dream of Gerontius on the programme. There are two errors being perpetuated here: some believe it was the Official Première (which it was not); others think tenor Gervase Elwes participated in the Spirit. Elwes was indeed present that evening but acutely suffering from laryngitis and barely able to struggle through his role in Gerontius. Fortunately he had no part in the Spirit of England on this occasion (Yorkshire Post & Musical Times).

Those dusty newspaper files were finally forced to yield clear evidence of a performance which by nature of its date, 4th October, 1917, qualifies it as the First Performance of The Spirit of England. It happened in Birmingham with New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman as soloist, and Appleby Matthews conducting. Some seem convinced that only The Fourth of August was performed but, in fact, the complete work was given (Birmingham Post, Yorkshire Post & Musical Times).

Ernest Newman was duly impressed by "the towering glories and solemnities of "The Fourth of August"...observed that "Elgar's confidence in Mr. Matthews was not displaced"... and that "As the Carillon was also given at last night's concert, we had Elgar's full contribution to the emotional history of these tense and mournful times."

Rosina Buckman had come to England in 1898 to begin her vocal studies in Birmingham and had maintained close ties with that community ever since. Her operatic career had prospered, leading Ernest Newman to refer to her Isolde "as the most perfectly finished study" when Beecham offered the Wagner opera at Drury Lane in 1916, in spite of a loud public outcry against German music. Somewhere amongst these factors lies the probable reason for Rosina Buckman's selection as first soloist in The Spirit of England. Newman's verdict: "Miss Buckman was seemingly moved rather too deeply to have complete command of her voice, but she made a noble centre figure for the music."

Caroline Hatchard's first experience with The Spirit of England came when she was invited to sing it in the Manchester Premiere on 15th December, 1917. Elgar was to conduct but he became ill and withdrew two days before the event. Beecham traveled to Manchester to take his part and conducted most of the programme, but just before the Spirit, he again handed the baton to R. H. Wilson (Manchester Guardian).

Caroline achieved a huge success, being acclaimed as "a soloist who combined exquisite beauty and liquid purity of tone with a temperament so manifestly in sympathy with the spirit of the work...the emotional content of Elgar's music is always hard to come at, and few soloists - perhaps half a dozen at the outside - have displayed any affinity for Elgar interpretation. Miss Caroline Hatchard is clearly of this elect company and in future can be confidently expected to share with Miss Agnes Nicholls the task and privilege of revelation throughout Britain of the loftiest musical thought uttered in these fateful times" (Musical Times).

After such a reaction, she became much in demand, going on to strike great chords of emotion in response to The Spirit of England throughout the country, judging from reports in the Musical Times.

On 23rd February, 1918, Bristol received its first exposure to The Spirit of England at Colston Hall where "Mr. George Riseley had under his direction a large choir and a fine orchestra, and with such competent principals as Miss Caroline Hatchard, who took the solos in the first and third parts of the trilogy, and Mr. Frank Mullings who contributed with rich expression the solo in the central section, a memorable reading of this notable war work was secured."

The Halifax Choral Society celebrated its first century of uninterrupted existence on 14th March, 1918 with a concert which included a complete Spirit of England. It was to have featured Agnes Nicholls as soloist but her last minute illness prompted Caroline to rush to the rescue. The performance "received a most sympathetic interpretation, ‘To Women' being in particular very beautifully sung, and the soloist, Miss Caroline Hatchard, realizing fully the note of tender pathos that characterizes the music. Mr. C.H. Moody conducted." 

"The principal work in the programme of the Stockport Vocal Union's 182nd Concert which took place on March 24 (1919) at the Centenary Hall was Elgar's The Spirit of England. Dr. Keighley secured an expressive performance that revealed much of the beauty and thoughtful appeal of the music. The soloist was Miss Caroline Hatchard."

"An important concert was given by the Croydon Philharmonic Society on May 28 (1919). The capabilities of the Choir satisfied an exciting test in a complete performance of Elgar's Spirit of England, ably conducted by Mr. Alan J. Kirby. Miss Caroline Hatchard and Mr. John Booth sang the solo parts."

Just over a year after Agnes Nicholls had introduced the Spirit in Glasgow, Caroline had her chance to sing it there on 20th December, 1919. Conductor Warren T. Clemens created a poignant moment when he halted the music just prior to "For the Fallen," turned to face the audience and read aloud the names of Glasgow's musical family who had been victims of the war.

Caroline continued singing The Spirit of England in the 1920's, including a pair of notable offerings in 1925. She sang the Spirit on 31st January at a concert with the Royal Choral Society in London, and, as well, participated in Ethel Smyth's Mass in D. Then on 19th March in Hanley, she performed the Spirit and took the soprano part in Elgar's Apostles.

The Spirit was still being performed in the thirties, especially once when it was broadcast with soprano Elsie Suddaby and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

Although the music was originally written as a source of inspiration in wartime, it is encouraging to see modern audiences discovering its enduring musical values. Recent performances and a CD released by EMI with Felicity Lott are positive signs of renewed interest. My experience with the work stems from the Chandos CD where Sir Alexander Gibson leads the London Symphony Chorus and soloist Teresa Cahill in a passionate rendition. When I hear Miss Cahill lift her sumptuous tones above the choral forces, I can easily imagine Caroline Hatchard soaring in like fashion.

While many of us would agree that The Spirit of England is one of Elgar's most moving choral creations, that's not to say there were no dissenting voices. Sir Hubert Parry was one who dismissed his famous colleague's effort: "Very poor stuff for the most part," he sniffed!

Caroline Hatchard
I had been intrigued when I first heard a sparkling version of the Doll song from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann emerging from a recording that had been made in 1910 when 31 year old Thomas Beecham led Caroline and other members of his Opera Company into the Gramophone Company studio for his first series of recordings. I imagined I was hearing a Doll of full dimension as created by a soprano singing perfect coloratura combined with full-bodied lyric power. I just had to know more about her. Fortunately fate was ready to intervene in this instance and through a friend I was able to contact Ewen Langford, Caroline's younger son. He readily agreed to help by opening his family archives and by providing his own memories to enrich the story. And in Tony Benson, who was then much involved in researching the period, we found an indispensible ally. Caroline was known as an active supporter of Elgar's music, as in addition to the Spirit of England, she frequently took part in King Olaf, The Apostles and The Kingdom. My biography of this great artist appeared in THE RECORD COLLECTOR in July 2001.

Published in The Elgar Journal in Volume 9, No. 6 Nov 1996 

A Postscript 
Elgar wrote music for two poems of Laurence Binyon as part of his Spirit of England, Part 3, "To The Fallen", in 1915 and part 2, "To Women" in early 1916. Both parts were subsequently performed for the first time in Leeds on 3rd May, 1916, Elgar conducting.

While this was happening, English poet/composer Ivor Gurney was in France about to see front-line action. Early in 1916, he was wounded on Good Friday and then, six months later, gassed at Passchendaele. Throughout, Gurney's brilliant mind never strayed far from his beloved poetry and music.

On 21 June, 1916, Gurney wrote to Herbert Howells
By the way, have you heard or seen anything of Elgar's setting of Binyons "To the Fallen", that noble poem? How has he done it? Don't forget to reply on this. I envy any man who can set that properly.

"They went with songs to the battle, they were young"
"As the Stars, as the Stars they remain"
"Age shall not weary them, nor Time condemn"
"We will remember them"
These little scraps stick to my mind and thrill me. It is a great poem.

On 5 June, 1916 Gurney wrote to his friend, Marion Scott
.. But have you heard Elgars setting of "To the Fallen"? Is it any way worthy of the poem? I would like to set that! One of the best things I know "in memoriam".

On 29 September, 1916 Gurney to Marion Scott
Would you mind sending a copy of Binyons “To the Fallen”? I might have a shot at that, though not easy to make a song of. However I might try.

On 25 October, 1916 Gurney to Marion Scott
The Binyon poem is too long, too big, I fear, for any setting I could give it, but perhaps, perhaps…

On 3 February, 1917 Gurney to Marion Scott
Please don’t expect anything of any setting of mine of "To the Fallen" until after the war -- and after that....

Gurney’s version of "To the Fallen" never materialized.

Gurney's writings were excerpted from "IVOR GURNEY - WAR LETTERS," a selection edited by R.K.R. Thornton and published in 1984 by The Hogarth Press in London.

Published in The Elgar Journal as Letter to the Editor, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 1999 

 


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