Too few of us cycle either as a means of transport or for sport today. In my school days, bicycles choked the stands along the sides of my school building, Don Bosco, and the school ‘run’ involved hordes of school-children and parents pedalling to and fro.
I still cycle in the ‘flat’ portions of the city, which allows me to get a lot of work done without parking hassles, and it is good exercise. And when a steady pace and rhythm has been set, I often find a tune cropping up in my head to go with it. There is something about the regularity of the pedalling, its ‘cyclicity’, that leads one to think of music. The tunes that come to my mind are not my own, but it is not difficult to imagine how it would stimulate a composer.
And this is precisely the case with British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). If one goes to his birthplace museum in Worcester, one would find upstairs in his ‘Hobbies’ room, memorabilia from this abiding pastime of his. You will see pictures of him as a distinguished gentleman, kitted out in bowler hat or flat cap, and in tweeds and leather gloves (yes, gloves were recommended gear!), and sporting his trademark ‘handle-bar’ moustache, and holding his prized possession, a Royal Sunbeam bicycle. Ever a lover of wordplay and the cryptic, he named it ‘Mr. Phoebus’, the synonym in Greek for Apollo, god of light or the Sun, a reference to “Sunbeam”.
Incredibly, the bicycle as we know it today is only about a century and a quarter old. The Dandy horse (1817), a “walking machine” which for the first time put two wheels in tandem, led in the 1860s to the velocipede (with the addition of a crank shaft and pedals). Josef Strauss, son of the famous ‘waltz king’ Johann Strauss II wrote a Velocipede Polka in its honour. A decade later saw the “penny-farthing” (a reference to the huge inequality between the front and rear wheels) and then the “golden age of bicycles” in the 1880s, with the Rover bicycle and its brilliant idea of attaching a chain and pedal to the rear wheel. The bicycle became much more accessible, although still expensive. It would be really interesting to learn when the bicycle first entered Goa, and whether it caused a stir. Did it arrive early enough to be an aristocratic pursuit, or later on, when it was more affordable?
Anyway, back to Elgar. He was bitten by the bug very quickly. His younger lady friend, school headmistress Rosa Burley wrote: “In the summer of 1900 I went cycling with some cousins to Scotland where we had a thrilling time which was duly reported to Edward [Elgar] by letter. The result was that when I returned to Malvern I found that he had bought a bicycle which he had been taught to ride by Mr. Little of Birchwood and on which at the first opportunity he wobbled round to The Mount with the suggestion that I should go for a ride with him.”
“Mr. Little” Henry Little, was the local squire and Elgar’s landlord. Cycling was so much in its infancy then that one could actually sign up for cycling lessons! And the lessons must have been quite funny to watch. Elgar wrote some years later to his publisher friend August Jaeger (whom he would immortalise as the famous ‘Nimrod’ in his Enigma Variations): “The best way to learn to bike is to have a good strong strap around your waist & let your coacher grab that: that’s how I learnt”.
Elgar spent ₤21, 11 shillings from his ₤200 commission for his choral masterpiece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to buy Mr. Phoebus, a tidy sum, equivalent to buying a little car today. And although he got off to a wobbly start, he would more than recover his investment, bicycling thousands of miles through the Malvern Hills, and documenting his routes in red on maps that are on display at the birthplace museum, although his bicycles have sadly vanished.
However, cycling for Elgar was also a social activity. He enjoyed female companionship, and cycling allowed him to spend lengthy periods of time, often entire days in the company of single attractive young women without raising eyebrows. Some of these companions creep into his compositions, notably Dorabella or Dora Penny (Variation 10 in the Enigma), who would cycle long distances from Wolverhampton to Malvern, to spend time with Elgar. We have already seen how a male cycling companion Jaeger also found mention (Variation 9) in the same work. Variation 3 pays tribute to Oxford don and friend Richard Baxter Townshend, who Elgar writes of as a rather idiosyncratic cycling buddy, on one occasion inviting him for a ride, and then cycling far ahead, but thanking him at the end for a lovely outing! He would cycle through town constantly ringing his bell as he was a little deaf and perhaps assumed that it made sense t let others know of his presence in case they were deaf as well. Elgar uses plucked strings and their woodwind doublings to depict his bicycle bell.
Elgar was a fair-weather cyclist, getting on his bike only during ‘cycling season’, from March to October. He wouldn’t venture out in the rain, but on a good day, his outdoor excursions must inevitably have influenced his composing. Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mahler and so many others took walks in the countryside to commune with nature, but Elgar was exposed to the elements on his bicycle. Beethoven carried a notebook for his sketches and ideas, but Elgar composed in his head, often even while having a conversation. He would then cycle home and write it down. Cycling came into his life at the right time, offering him outdoor respite from composing Gerontius. His ‘cycling works’ (works conceived and worked out on his bike) include his first symphony, his oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, his Introduction and Allegro for strings, and of course the Enigma Variations. The inspiration for the majesty and grandeur, the scale and scope of his music can be understood by taking in the vistas he would have encountered on his bicycle in the Malverns, and one can ‘hear’ his exhilaration whooshing through the country lanes in his Introduction and Allegro.
Cycling became less important in Elgar’s life for all-too-familiar reasons: more traffic (especially his London years), the convenience of the motor-car especially when travelling with family, and advancing age.
But let that not deter us. We can still get on our bikes, perhaps with Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’ ringing in our head. Ring-a-ding ding! Safety first though. Let’s spare a thought for French composer Ernest Chausson who died instantly on hitting a brick wall riding downhill.
(An edited version of this article was published on 18 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)