There has been recent media coverage to the effect that the collection of music manuscripts and other material held at the Elgar Birthplace Museum at Broadheath is to move from Worcestershire to the British Library in line with the letter and spirit of Elgar's daughter's will. This page is intended to explain why, in the view of the Trustees of The Elgar Foundation, the decision they have taken is in the best interests not only of Elgar's reputation and heritage but also of Worcestershire.
The bulk of Elgar's music manuscripts and over 1,000 letters are, in fact, already held by the British Library. To that extent, the Elgar Archive is already there. This began to be formed immediately on Elgarís death, when Carice, his daughter, placed a number of manuscripts on loan at the former British Museum Library. She supplemented these with further donations during her lifetime and a major bequest on her death. She further provided that if any other legatees did not wish to retain material received from her, that material should pass to what is now the British Library. In addition to their duty to promote Elgar and his music worldwide, the Trustees are very conscious of the wishes of the composer and his daughter.
The material still held in Worcestershire, though important, only realises the appreciation it deserves when considered alongside the more important material in the British Library - a clear case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Most of the sketches relate to works for which the British Library has other original manuscripts. The scores, sketches and correspondence present a cohesive corpus of material that forms a continuous music and biographical narrative. There is enormous value in uniting in one place all such material. Indeed The National Archives takes the view that, when considering a new home for archival material, co-location with similar material (Ďthe integrity of the archiveí) is the most important factor, a view echoed by archivists around the world.
It is wonderful that the Birthplace Museum in Broadheath which Carice established is flourishing and has a secure future under the stewardship of the National Trust. That will always be a draw to those who admire Elgar, and artefacts from his life will always be on display to enrich the visitor experience. But the provisions of her will also permit her fatherís music manuscripts and letters, most of which are not on display, to move to a location where they may be better exploited and promoted for the benefit of researchers, musicians and music lovers of all types. It is a sad fact that the Elgar material in Worcestershire typically receives visits from no more than 12 researchers a year.
The active collecting of personal archives of musical manuscripts and archives of national importance and substantial research value is a priority area of focus for the British Library. Over a long period it has built up very significant holdings of the manuscripts of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, Britten, Tippett, Grainger, Smyth, Lutyens, Maxwell Davies and Musgrave. It has also acquired the archives of Elgarís publishers Boosey and Hawkes and Novello.
When the National Trust advised the Foundation that it could not take on the additional cost of maintaining an archive at Broadheath, the Trustees were sensitive to the strength of local feeling. They didn't take their responsibility lightly, commissioning two independent assessment exercises and taking almost three years to reach a final decision, in which all of Elgar's personal artefacts from Worcester and elsewhere will remain with the National Trust at the Birthplace. A number of possibilities including The Hive were considered for rehousing the Foundation's research material, all offering good facilities and the necessary standards of protection. But it was clear to the Trustees that the British Library offered the greatest potential for using it to promote Elgar's music around the world, the Foundation's overriding objective.
Leaving aside co-location and the British Library's far more detailed catalogue, it has been fast to adapt to the digital age which researchers now live by: the Digitised Manuscripts website, allowing researchers to see many of Elgar's and other composers' manuscripts on-line; the Discovering Literature on-line resource (with Discovering Music to be added later this year); and collaboration with Oxford University and other external bodies on projects designed to make British composers' music accessible to all.
If digitisation makes everything accessible from anywhere, you may query whether the Foundation's material could be digitised for the world to see, with the original manuscripts remaining in Worcester. Again, though, it comes back to co-location. Digitisation isn't quite perfect: embossed letter headings are difficult to read in photocopies; Elgar manuscripts regularly contain several layers of alterations which can only be distinguished by viewing from different angles and in different lights; in his sketches he often shows continuity with circuitous lines, sometimes wandering from one page to the other, which are difficult to follow on screen; watermarks and paper structure cannot be properly studied from digital images; and there's more. It is often said that the availability of on-line images increases rather than decreases the need to see the original, and it is easy to understand why.
Elgar's heart may have remained in Worcestershire throughout his life but his musical ambitions lay much further afield. He first headed for London to seek his fortune in 1889 and lived outside the county from 1904 until 1923, the years in which he composed most of his best-known works. Even The Dream of Gerontius, composed in 1900 while he lived in Malvern Link, carries the word 'Birchwood' after the last bar, the name of the cottage across the border in Herefordshire where he set down most of the music.
Listeners to Radio 4's Today programme may have heard a recent item reporting nightly performance in a remote corner of the Czech Republic of a number of Elgar's works rarely heard in Britain; of the Taiwanese première of The Music Makers; and of a South Korean girl group riding high in the K-Pop hit parade with a disco version of Salut d'Amour. With a little help from the Elgar Foundation, the Elgar Society and Elgar Works, the three charities which share this website, Elgar's international star is shining. By ensuring that Elgar's archive is accessible via an appropriately prominent online platform, we expect his global following to grow, with more lovers of his music making the pilgrimage to England, and Worcestershire in particular, as a result.
If you wish to explore for yourself what the British Library offers on-line, try following some of these links:
THE ELGAR FOUNDATION
is a Charitable Company limited by Guarantee; Registered Charity No.266849; Registered Company No.1147282
Registered Office: Thorneloe House, 25 Barbourne Road, Worcester, WR1 1RU