Richard Bratby extends his trawl through the classics of musical history in search of its most valuable gems – such as this indispensable little book by the LSO leader who helped Edward Elgar with his violin concerto
‘There is not much point in trying to pose as an expert on Elgar as nearly everybody has done it already. ‘The Bluffer’s Guide To Music doesn’t miss much. But if you did want to become an Elgar expert in one easy step, there’s a book that’ll do the job like no other.
W. H. Reed’s Elgar as I Knew Him is the original source of most of the juiciest Elgar anecdotes you’ll read in programme notes or hear retold on Radio 3. It’s a vital primary source for the unfinished Third Symphony. But above all, it’s an extraordinary portrait of a musical friendship: perceptive, humorous, and deeply touching.
William ‘Billy’ Reed (1876-1942) was leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1912 to 1935; a superb player, and a composer in his own right. But nothing in his musical life would matter more to him – or to posterity – than the fact that he was the player to whom Elgar turned for technical advice when drafting the Violin Concerto. In time, he would become one of Elgar’s closest friends, a fact that wasn’t lost on George Bernard Shaw – at whose prompting Reed wrote Elgar As I Knew Him in 1936. Shaw knew Reed would have a remarkable story to tell, and enlisted another celebrity Elgar fan, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) to comment on an early draft.
He was spot on. Reed takes us places you wouldn’t imagine possible. Ever wondered what it was like to be present that night at the 1910 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, when Elgar tried out his Violin Concerto for a group of invited friends? Reed goes one better – he was the violinist:
The room was full; and all the lights were turned out except by some device arranged by Frank Schuster for lighting the piano and the violin-stand. Sir Edward took his seat at the piano, and after a tense whisper to me – ‘You are not going to leave me all alone in the tuttis, are you?’ – we began…
He shows us into Elgar’s work-room:
I found E. striding about with a lot of loose sheets of music paper, arranging them in different parts of the room. Some were already pinned to the backs of chairs…
He mucks in with a wasp’s nest at Brinkwells, the summer that Elgar wrote the String Quartet:
Suddenly I plunged the spade into the very middle of the nest, or so it seemed. Turning up a huge clod of earth, I uncovered a most intricate and paper-like structure beneath. We only saw it for a fraction of a second, however; for the din that arose, as of a million wasps all buzzing at once, sent us flying.
And he helps him pick a favourite for the 3:10 at Cheltenham:
Then he would say, ‘Now, Billy, what about a horse for today?’, and he would read out a list of names at a great rate. When he came to one called Semiquaver, I cut in with ‘Half a crown on Semiquaver: that will be sure to go fast’. He agreed quite seriously and put something on himself. No-one was more surprised than I was when later in the day we found that it had won.
At times, the ‘japes’ of these two grown men read like a kind of musical version of Last of the Summer Wine. But what makes Reed’s book different from other Elgar memoirs (such as Dora Powell’s Memories of a Variation) is the violinist’s professional insight. He prints many of the sketches for the Third Symphony (his observations and memories were a major source of evidence for Anthony Payne’s performing version). And a good quarter of the book is devoted to Reed’s thoughts on Elgar’s music, and not just the works (the Violin Concerto and the chamber music) that he actually helped Elgar to write. You’ll learn why one theme from In the South has a particular rhythm; what was in Elgar’s own record collection; and discover a detail in the orchestration of Gerontius that you’ll never hear again without thinking of this book.
Above all, though, you’ll get an almost uncannily vivid sense of what it was like to know Elgar as a friend and a human being. Don’t expect any intimate confidences to be broken: Reed and Elgar were men of their time. But Reed’s descriptions of Elgar’s sadness in later life, the brusque jokes with which he changed the subject whenever music came up, his small pleasures and sudden silences, are unmistakably drawn from life. Reed’s account of Elgar’s final illness is hard to read without emotion. You feel, as you read it, that you’ve lost a great friend – and then return with renewed love and understanding to the music. Which is exactly what Reed would have wanted.