Thursday 14 March 2019

Elgar's Dream & Yehudi Menuhin

Elgar's Dream & Yehudi Menuhin

"Elgar's Dream", watercolour triptych 158 x 203 cm. 1996 

I have an affinity with water - having grown up virtually on the banks of the English River Severn that flows past Worcester Cathedral (right) and the Malvern Hills (left), where Edward Elgar wrote "The Dream of Gerontius" in 1900.  

The morning after my February CBSO performance of The Sea (M.K.─îiurlionis) at Birmingham Symphony Hall, the adrenaline was still flowing (or whatever adrenaline does), so I let myself be persuaded to give my extended family a guided tour of a number of my watercolour paintings of great musicians in the Symphony Hall Collection. The paintings hang in the Director's Lounge and the corridors leading to the backstage dressing-rooms that are only accessible to VIPs and performing artists. The first of thirty-one paintings was made in 1990, yet my family - still in town after the concert - had never seen the originals before! So I had many anecdotes to tell on the making of these works, exciting, sad, with precious memories of my subjects' reactions - it was great to be able to share some of these with the family.

But the largest watercolour I have ever painted hangs in the first floor foyer. I gave it the form of a triptych because of the limited measurements of watercolour paper. The three parts are deliberately hung to float away from the background. My Elgar's Dream was painted with many tears in 1996, soon after the death of my wife and mother of my children, the cellist Vivian King. 
Commissioned by Robin and Jayne Cadbury, it was unveiled by Yehudi Menuhin in October 1996. We shared the presentation, and then speaking of his own memories of Edward Elgar, and of having conducted this work himself, Yehudi said: “There isn’t a note in this painting that contradicts Elgar’s music and what I remember of Sir Edward”. Here's the precious amateur video made by Will Blagburn - a link to that memorable occasion. It was the last time that I could enjoy such warm contact with this wonderful musician and dear friend, who left us on March 12th.1999.

Through music, Elgar made the dream of the dying Gerontius his own. He considered this composition to be one of his best. This epic drama for chorus, soloists and full orchestra is pure theatre, beautifully evoking the anxieties, doubts and weariness of Gerontius (geron: Greek for old man) and then his ultimate acceptance and state of peace.

The final angelic message set to a soothing melody is deeply moving:

Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul,
In my loving arms I now enfold thee.....
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee,
And carefully I dip thee in the lake....
Sinking deep, deeper into the dim distance.

All highly paintable. Even though I find the dogma in most of the lyrics a bit hard to swallow, I feel for this guy. In my painting you will recognise my semi-abstract "loving arms" cradling the pallid Gerontius above the flow of music and the "devils" in the reeds, clamouring for his soul. But apart from the figurative elements of my story-telling, I hope that the colours, structure and abstract dynamics of the painting will reflect and echo the music itself.

On the morning of the guided tour, as I explained this painting and my sources of inspiration to the family, young and old, the designer/image-maker Rebecca Foster brilliantly seized the opportunity to create her own triptych, converting her images to black and white and manipulating the tonalities so that uncannily I became one with my own watercolour. Am I cradling my dying self or am I lowering myself into the depths? I had no idea at the time that I was figuring in my own painting!

Little did Rebecca know that my own wishes are that when my time comes, my ashes be strewn, if not in the River Severn, then in the River Amstel (nearer to my present home), into which small bottles of the very same organic transparent colours that I have used in performances for many years will then be poured, so that I become part of one last continuous fluid lyrical painting that carries me out to sea, to be united with nature. My motto has always been - Go with the flow......