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18:02 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Elgar's enigmatic link to Bray

by Emma Midgley
BBC Berkshire Reporter

Elgar and friends.

A fashionable residence on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire has played host to one of England's greatest musicians.

The Hut in Bray was often visited by the musicians Elgar and Gabriel Faure, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon and the playwright George Bernard Shaw during the early part of the 20th century.

Bray became a sought-after destination in the late 1800s to 1910.

Edward VII and Queen Alexandra sometimes took tea on the lawns of the hotel on Monkey Island.

It was during this period that wealthy arts patron Frank Schuster took possession of The Hut, a house and estate overlooking the riverside alongside Monkey Island.

Frank Schuster came from a German banking family, but decided to devote his life and money to the arts from an early age.

In 1896, Schuster met the composer Elgar, and once he had bought The Hut in 1903, he began to invite the musician to stay in Bray, where he composed parts of some of his most famous works, including The Kingdom and the Violin Concerto.

Tranquil surroundings

Elgar enjoyed the Thames-side settings, and it is believed by Maidenhead historian David McBrien that the tranquil surroundings of Bray helped him compose.

He said: "As a child, Elgar lived in Worcester and used to be inspired to compose by walking along the river. Having the Thames running past was an inspiration for him."

W.H. Reed, who was helping Elgar on aspects of the composition of the Violin Concerto, describes a visit to the Hut in 1910. He wrote: "It was not very long before I received an urgent summons to go there. The slow movement and the first movement of the concerto were almost finished; and the Coda was ready. Could I therefore come and play them with him?

The Hut

"When we were tired of playing, or if Sir Edward wanted to go out in the air for a change, the fiddle was laid in its case and we went off together, strolling about the riverbank, watching the small fish in the water and enjoying the quiet beauty of the place."

After the outbreak of the Great War, Frank Schuster met a young soldier from New Zealand called Leslie at Lady Astor's hospital in Cliveden, near Bray. 'Anzy' Wylde, as he was known was described in contemporary accounts as a 'handsome young New Zealand officer who had lost a leg at Gallipoli'.


Anzy became Frank's protégé, his companion, and even, despite his disability, his chauffeur. The relationship persisted even after Anzy's marriage to the painter Wendela Boreel in 1924, when 'The Hut' was extended to accommodate them, and it was to Anzy and his wife that Frank left 'The Hut' when he died in 1927.

Elgar continued to visit 'The Hut' for quiet composition up until the time of Lady Elgar's death in 1920, for example in 1919 working on the Cello Concerto.


However, after Alice's death, he found a change in atmosphere there. A new young set, including the war poet Siegfried Sassoon and the painter Walter Sickert had begun to visit 'The Hut' and Elgar began to visit less frequently.

However as a celebration of Elgar's 70th birthday in June 1927 Schuster borrowed 'The Hut' and invited a large gathering of friends, old and new, for a concert of Elgar's chamber music given in the music room.

Elgar's music was no longer fashionable and the mix of bright young things with the Victorian and Edwardian worthies of Elgar's circle failed to gel.

No longer fashionable

Osbert Sitwell, a member of the former group, recalled the occasion in a famous passage from his autobiographical Laughter in the Next Room. Sitwell found Elgar's music 'obnoxious' despite acknowledging his genius and this attitude colours his account.

He wrote: "I seem to recall that we saw from the edge of the river, on a smooth green lawn opposite, above an embankment, and through the hallucinatory mist born of the rain that had now ceased, the plump wraith of Sir Edward Elgar, who with his grey moustache, grey hair, grey top hat and frock-coat looked every inch a personification of Colonel Bogey, walking with Frank Schuster.

"The music room was so crowded that, with Arnold Bennett, we sat just outside the doors in the open air … From where I sat I could watch Elgar, enthroned on the side, near the front. And I noticed, too, several figures well known in the world of English music, but in the main the audience was drawn from the famous composer's passionately devout but to me anonymous partisans here gathered for the last time.

"It is true that these surviving early adherents of Elgar's genius seemed to be endowed with an unusual longevity, but even allowing for this, it was plain looking round, that in the ordinary course of nature their lives must be drawing to an end.

The Hut

"One could almost hear, through the music, the whirr of the wings of the Angel of Death: he hovered very surely in the air that day, among the floccose herds of good-time Edwardian ghosts, with trousers thus beautifully pressed and suits of the best material, carrying panama hats or glossy bowlers, or decked and loaded with fur and feather …

"Most of them knew, I apprehend, as they listened so intently to the prosperous music of the Master, and looked forward to tea and hot buttered scones (for it was rather cold, as well as being damp) and to all kinds of little sandwiches and cakes, that this would prove to be their last outing of this sort. The glossy motors waited outside to carry them home … Some of the motors were large and glassy as a hearse."

The Hut and its estate now make up seven separate houses. The house was bought in the 1930s by the Moss family and was the childhood home of racing driver Stirling Moss. The estate has since housed the creators of hit TV series Thunderbirds: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Since 1927 the house has been called 'The Long White Cloud'.

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