Donald Fraser- My Personal Elgar Pilgrimage

Composer, producer, conductor and arranger, Donald Fraser

Composer, producer, conductor and arranger, Donald Fraser

I was 12 when I began to become seriously interested in classical music. I had been a chorister since the age of 7 and had always been ‘fooling’ around on the piano so music was already a very large part of my life.

My local record store had 3 classical records in stock… LP’s! I was able to purchase all of them with the savings from my choir earnings….yes, a paid gig in those days!

The first one I bought was the music to Les Sylphides, conducted by Andre Kostalanetz, then the Chopin Concerto in F minor coupled with the Schumann Piano Concerto played by Aldo Ciccolini and, last but by no means least the Decca recording of the Cello Concerto and Cockaigne Overture by Elgar with Anthony Pini as soloist.

As a Brit I of course knew the tune to Land of Hope and Glory but was certainly not at all aware of the composer. The Cello Concerto and Cockaigne were my first ‘Elgar conscious’ works, as it were.

I began composing at this time and at 17 went to the Royal College of Music in London to study composing and conducting. In those intervening 5 years or so I immersed myself in the great repertoire of classical music and my love of all things Elgar grew steadily. the conductor of my Youth Symphony Orchestra had studied violin with none other than W. H. ‘Billy’ Reed, Elgar’s great friend, biographer and colleague.

* * *

Arriving at the RCM was entering ‘Elgar Land”. He had been on the RCM Council and, had encouraged Adrian Boult to set up the first conducting class in the UK. Boult had returned to the RCM to teach the year before I went to college. My first meeting with him was very powerful….here was the man who had given so many performances of Elgar, had known and worked with the composer since he was 16…..and I was to take some conducting classes with him! Awesome!

Two other ‘Elgar’ connections were also at the RCM and I was fortunate enough to meet and chat with them both. Herbert Howells and Gordon Jacob had both known the great man and regaled me with their personal recollections. Sir Arthur Bliss, who’s Colour Symphony had been commissioned with Elgar’s endorsement was another ‘Elgar’ man that I met when he came to the RCM for the annual prize giving ceremony in 1967.

 

 

 

 

Pictured are Herbert Howells with Sir Adrian Boult, Gordon Jacob and Sir Arthur Bliss.

Howells Boult

 

 

Sir Arthur Bliss

 

In my second year I was given my first film commission from the Shell Documentary Film Unit. The score was recorded by the Sinfonia of London with Edward ‘Eddie’ Walker as principal flute. Walker had recorded the flute solo from Elgar’s Nursery Suite with the composer back in 1933. We chatted about that recording session.

 

 Eddie Walker

 Edward ‘Eddie’ Walker

 

After college, a large part of my work was arranging and record production, much of which was undertaken at the Abbey Road Studios, famous for the Beatles albums made there. Elgar, however had opened the studios in 1931, been filmed conducting the LSO in Studio 1 and, in 1932 recorded the Violin Concerto with the 16 year old Yehudi Menuhin. The famous photograph of them recording together still hangs in those hallowed hallways.

 

 Menuhin Elgar Abbey Road (1)

Elgar and Menuhin in Abbey Road Studio 1 recording the violin concerto.

Much of my recording had been with the English Chamber Orchestra and in 1984 I conducted them in a program to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death at Westminster Abbey in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen mother.

Talking with her at the post concert reception she spoke about meeting Sir Edward at the recording of the Nursery Suite at Kingsway Hall. “…he growled like a tiger at the orchestra…’ she recounted with glee.(I assume more ‘tigger-ish than tiger-ish!)

Yehudi Menuhin had written a letter of his recollections of Elgar for the program book and subsequently he and the ECO asked me to arrange some of the shorter pieces of Elgar for strings. These were to be performed on a tour of America with Menuhin conducting, his wish being that he wanted to promote more awareness of Elgar in the United States. They subsequently recorded the pieces in New York.

 

Menuhin NY Recording (1)

Menuhin recording Donald Fraser’s Elgar miniatures in NY

 

 

That’s enough for now about those whom I had the privilege to meet who had known and worked with Elgar.

 

In the meantime, another piece of my Elgar pilgrimage had fallen into place….I had purchased The Studio, Bedham near Fittleworth, West Sussex!

 

The Studio Exterior

This was ‘his’ studio that had been in the garden of Brinkwells the cottage he and Lady Elgar had rented in 1916. Originally built as an artist’s studio it had been moved (in 1922) by horse and cart over the brim of the hill to it’s current location at the top of the hamlet of Bedham. Two wings had been added and I moved out from London to spend some 15 years living there and later at Brinkwells itself.

Having moved from London to the English countryside I was able to keep dogs. My first, a Border Collie had to be named ‘Sir Edward’, of course and I kept the first pup from the first litter he sired…none other than ‘Nimrod’, a variation on a theme! Eddy and Nimby were to become quite the local characters and a delightful children’s book was written about them.

 

 

Dog Book a

Dog Book b

 

 

 Eddy and Nimby at the Studio

The real Eddy and Nimby taking life easy at the Studio.

 

Many musician friends and colleagues from all over the world came to visit the studio including cellists from as far afield as the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

I was given a gifted an original letter from Elgar to Edmund Gosse who had translated one of the songs from the OP 45 set of men’s chorus settings

 

 

Elgar-Gosse Letter complete (1)

 

After the release of the Elgar string arrangements recording I was asked by my American publishers to arrange 4 of Elgar’s songs for SATB chorus, again to further promote awareness of the composer in the huge choral world that exists in the United States. Here is a link to a YouTube video by a choir from New Jersey singing ‘Pleading’.

 

 

The made for TV movie, ‘Elgar’s Tenth Muse was shot at Brinkwells, the surrounding countryside and at Teddington Studios in London. I was asked to provide extra music and orchestrate some existing Elgar, mainly from the Violin Sonata. The recording for the film was made by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony and with Maxim Vengerov playing the new solo violin music composed for linking passages.

 

 

In 1998 I moved to the United States to become music director of an orchestra here in Chicago. Apart from conducting as much Elgar as I could I also had the idea of setting the Sea Pictures for Choir with various orchestral versions. The American premiere is set for May 1 2016 in Connecticut, the world premiere is here with the ESO on Wednesday October 7 at Hereford Cathedral. I am looking forward tremendously to that concert and the recording of the orchestration of the Piano Quintet as well as all the concerts of this Elgar Pilgrimage 2015. I am honored to be Guest Composer.

 

* * *

As for this article, in good literary fashion I believe I must tie up the loose ends and let the reader have closure on the story. It’s to do with those 3 recordings that I bought all those years ago.

Earlier I mentioned the visits of many musicians, especially cellists to the Studio. Anthony Pini soloist on my first Elgar record had been one of those visitors. It was such a pleasure talking to him, then in his early 80’s about the recording he had made all those years ago which had set me off on my own Elgar Pilgrimage.

I have, today June 28 2015 just finished orchestrating the Piano Quintet. strange to think that the recording I bought of Les Sylphides was an orchestration of Chopin by Glazunov.

Finally, Aldo Ciccolini died earlier this year. I was directed to a You Tube video via an announcement of his passing. You’ll never guess what he’s playing…..!

 

 

It’s a little strange to think of all these connections, my own Elgar Pilgrimage and all the pathways that led me to these upcoming concerts…..how and why this should have all come to pass is, in true Elgarian fashion, one of life’s enigmas!

Donald Fraser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real Eddy and Nimby taking life easy at the Studio.

 

 

Many musician friends and colleagues from all over the world came to visit the studio including cellists from as far afield as the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

 

I was given a gifted an original letter from Elgar to Edmund Gosse who had translated one of the songs from the OP 45 set of men’s chorus settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the release of the Elgar string arrangements recording I was asked by my American publishers to arrange 4 of Elgar’s songs for SATB chorus, again to further promote awareness of the composer in the huge choral world that exists in the United States. Here is a link to a YouTube video by a choir from New Jersey singing ‘Pleading’.

 

https://youtu.be/4yGUSwyVRJc

 

The made for TV movie, ‘Elgar’s Tenth Muse was shot at Brinkwells, the surrounding countryside and at Teddington Studios in London. I was asked to provide extra music and orchestrate some existing Elgar, mainly from the Violin Sonata. The recording for the film was made by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony and with Maxim Vengarov playing the new solo violin music composed for linking passages.

 

https://youtu.be/J7sgkWZr2o0

 

In 1998 I moved to the United States to become music director of an orchestra here in Chicago. Apart from conducting as much Elgar as I could I also had the idea of setting the Sea Pictures for Choir with various orchestral versions. The American premiere is set for May 1 2016 in Connecticut, the world premiere is here with the ESO on Wednesday October 7 at Hereford Cathedral. I am looking forward tremendously to that concert and the recording of the orchestration of the Piano Quintet as well as all the concerts of this Elgar Pilgrimage 2015. I am honored to be Guest Composer.

 

* * *

As for this article, in good literary fashion I believe I must tie up the loose ends and let the reader have closure on the story. It’s to do with those 3 recordings that I bought all those years ago.

 

Earlier I mentioned the visits of many musicians, especially cellists to the Studio. Anthony Pini soloist on my first Elgar record had been one of those visitors. It was such a pleasure talking to him, then in his early 80’s about the recording he had made all those years ago which had set me off on my own Elgar Pilgrimage.

 

I have, today June 28 2015 just finished orchestrating the Piano Quintet. strange to think that the recording I bought of Les Sylphides was an orchestration of Chopin by Glazunov.

 

Finally, Aldo Ciccolini died earlier this year. I was directed to a You Tube video via an announcement of his passing. You’ll never guess what he’s playing…..!

 

https://youtu.be/4g3_wxeCfsI

 

It’s a little strange to think of all these connections, my own Elgar Pilgrimage and all the pathways that led me to these upcoming concerts…..how and why this should have all come to pass is, in true Elgarian fashion, one of life’s enigmas!

Donald Fraser