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19 May 2020

Highs and lows with Elgar

When I went up to the Hall in 1967 to read Modern and Mediaeval Languages, I took with me the rather dodgy amplifier for an electric guitar which I had never learned to play and a painted plywood box of my own manufacture containing a basic Garrard record-changer deck. With these I would play music loudly while I studied – so loudly that the very nice research fellow occupying the room next door in my third year finally complained when his ears were assaulted for the umpteenth time by the Ode for Joy.

It is not Beethoven, however, that I most recall from those days but Edward Elgar and, in particular, his Introduction and Allegro for Strings. I confess to being a musical illiterate but Sir Thomas Beecham could have had my younger self in mind when he said, “The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.” Whichever of my musical contemporaries it was who introduced me to this piece did me a favour, which has lasted until this day. It is less than a quarter of an hour long but it has always for me encapsulated life in all its aspects. In just over 14 minutes it takes me from jubilation, by way of lyrical joy, through melancholy and even despair back to confident serenity.

When, wrestling unsuccessfully with an essay or with revision, I would become convinced yet again that I should fail my exams and be sent down in ignominy, I would down tools and indulge in my own home-grown music therapy, courtesy of Elgar, Sir John Barbirolli, the Sinfonia of London and the Allegri String Quartet (on HMV ASD 521 1963). You can hear this recording on YouTube and it remains for me the best performance ever. There is something ever so slightly rough about the opening chord and about the closing pizzicato ‘plunk’ but, for me, that adds to the spontaneous wonder of that performance.

I cannot hear this music without thinking back to my view across Latham Court from the top floor, taking in the Old Library, the Master’s Lodge and Fellows’ Garden, with Clare and Kings in the distance. I have just listened to it again and that scene is instantly before my eyes once more. It acts as powerfully on me as Swann’s madeleine.

The Reverend Cortland Fransella spent 40 years with HM Diplomatic Service and is now the Assistant Priest at the Chapels Royal, HM Tower of London and a Deputy Priest in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen.