Elgar’s University days

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As a music student at the University of Birmingham, it was often mentioned that Edward Elgar was our very first Professor of Music. What is usually left out is that there weren’t actually any music students at the time, and Elgar’s only required duties were to give 6 public lectures a year for a salary of £400. 

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The University as Elgar would’ve known it

The position was sponsored by businessman Richard Peyton, and there’s a line of Peyton Professors of Music up to the present day. The Professor incumbent has a very nice office in the Barber Institute on campus, thank you very much.

Elgar was Professor at Birmingham University from 1905-1908 so was knocking around Edgbaston exactly a century before me – though most of the buildings I  was familiar with were only built in the 1960s (including our beloved Elgar rehearsal room) so we weren’t exactly tramping around the same landscape. The most iconic buildings (the Clock Tower and Great Hall) on campus weren’t quite finished during Elgar’s tenure – and I’m pretty sure the Selly Sausage wasn’t open at the time either.

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Class of 2008, outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

He was instrumental in the founding and developing of the University’s music library (and the University library now holds some of Elgar’s correspondence, his wife Alice’s diary, and scores and books that Elgar owned). The lectures he gave, however, weren’t quite as successful – here are a few quotes about the speeches to give you an idea of how they went:

  • “Almost at the outset he implied scorn for two groups of people very prominent in his audience – academic musicians and professional lecturers.”
  • The lectures “constitute a critique of almost everything that had been achieved in English Music in the previous thirty years.”
  • “All his life he detested the world of musical commerce and held a low opinion of the taste of the British public. He allowed these feelings to show in his lectures.”
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Great Hall and ‘Old Joe’ clock tower

He was, however, looking to the future for English music in Brum, calling for a permanent orchestra and even an opera house and setting out to make Birmingham into the ‘Leipzig’ of England.

I hold it to be a happy Providence which places this new movement in English music in that district of England which was parent of all that is bright, beautiful and good in the works of Shakespeare

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Granville Bantock

After giving just eight lectures, Elgar’s role changed – he instead recommended guest lecturers and focussed even more on composition. During this time he composed his ‘nobilmente’ First Symphony. Elgar was very happy to pass the chair on to his friend Granville Bantock in 1908, who remained as Peyton Professor until 1934 (he also helped to establish the City of  Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1920).  Bantock doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention as Elgar (I confess I don’t know as much about him myself) – perhaps it’s because Bantock’s beard looks rather pedestrian when compared to Elgar’s fantastic Edwardian moustache. But the second of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches is dedicated to him, as is Sibelius’s Third Symphony – the Finn was the president of the Bantock Society which was formed after Granville died in 1946.

6930787422_6103495272_zAfter graduating I lived in Birmingham for a couple of years and used to walk past a house with a blue plaque where Bantock lived. There are also blue plaques on the new Bramall Concert building to commemorate Elgar and Bantock on campus.

In the interest of expanding my own knowledge, here’s Bantock’s Pagan Poem, which was composed in 1930 (i.e. during the time he was living in that house on Metchley Lane)

Pins on this post

  • Bantock’s blue plaque on Metchley Lane
  • Elgar and Bantock’s plaques on campus
  • Barber Institute of Fine Arts
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