Elgar and the occult

Aleister Crowley was a practicioner of the occult, ceremonial magician and recreational drug experimenter. Sir Edward Elgar was Master of the King's Music, practising Catholic and composer of Land of Hope and Glory. A connection between the two may seem highly improbable. But this post explores a little known path linking Elgar to Crowley's world of the occult.

In 1915 the actress Lena Ashwell asked Elgar to write the incidental music for a play she was producing. The Starlight Express was based on the recently published novel A Prisoner in Fairyland and the adaption was by the books' author Algernon Blackwood and Violet Pearn. Elgar's original intention was to reuse music from his early composition The Wand of Youth, but as the project progressed he added a substantial amount of new music to the score. The Starlight Express opened in London on 29th December 1915 to mixed reviews. The critical consensus was that the play was too long and the staging inappropriate; however Elgar's music was enthusiastically received.

After a run of just one month Starlight Express closed and it has never been revived in a professional production. Over the years the legend has grown that the play was harmless juvenilia notable only for Elgar's music. Michael Kennedy's authoritative Portrait of Elgar dismisses The Starlight Express as "a children's play" and accords Algernon Blackwood just one mention; this despite clear evidence from Lady Elgar's diaries that Blackwood and Elgar maintained a close relationship for many years. Similarly the Elgar Society website condescendingly describes the play as "a nonsensical piece of escapism". So for almost a century The Starlight Express has been dismissed as harmless juvenilia enhanced only by its excellent incidental music. But my recent research reveals that there is far more to the play than this.

Algernon Blackwood was born in Kent, England in 1869 and his early career included farming in Canada and newspaper reporting in New York City. As he approached forty he returned to England where he built a very successful career as a writer of ghost stories while becoming deeply involved in mysticism and the occult. Among his interests was Rosicrucianism, a secret society of Christian mystics concerned with ancient and esoteric truths.

It was fashionable for intellectuals to dabble in mysticism at this time. But Blackwood's involvement was much more than dabbling and he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This was a qabalistic order whose activities included astrology, tarot divination, geomancy, magic, astral travel. These are reflected in Blackwood's fiction where alchemy and qabalistic themes recur. Among other members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was the influential occultist Aleister Crowley who founded the religious philosophy Thelema which incorporates the ritual practice of magic.

Dismissing the Starlight Express as nonsensical escapism does not stand close inspection. Despite its title, Blackwood's novel A Prisoner in Fairyland on which the play is based is not juvenile fiction. In fact today the bibliographic categorisation is "Fiction, Fantasy, Horror". The epigraph of the novel is a quotation in French from the Belgian symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) whose reputation was based on controversial and radical writing. The stage adaption of A Prisoner in Fairyland was made by Blackwood and Violet Pearn. Among their other collabarations was Karma; a reincarnation play in prologue, which was billed as ""A love story re-enacted through four existences".

The photo above shows the final ritualistic scene of the 1915 Kingsway Theatre production. Of course The Starlight Express can be as viewed simply as a wonderfully entertaining piece of music theatre. But, for those who want to dig deeper the symbolism starts with the play's title which expresses the tension between the forces of light (good)) and darkness (evil). At the centre of the story is the dramatic opposition of children and adults representing innocence and experience. Jungian themes of dreams and the feminine archetype also appear and the tensions of the play are finally resolved in the tableau pictured above by the discovery of the inner light, or gnosis, which the libretto describes, with capitalisation, as - "the rising of the Star". All these symbols are the currency of dualist religions and in particular of the various strands of Gnosticism which view the universe as a battleground between the gods of good and evil.

Elgar was first approached about The Starlight Express by the actress/manager Lena Ashwell. Her attention had been drawn to A Prisoner in Fairyland by Muriel Pratt, an actress who was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn together with Algernon Blackwood and Aleister Crowley. Lena Ashwell shared with Blackwood a deep interest in mysticism, spiritualism and all aspects of the occult. Shortly before the Starlight Express production she had become a follower of the Fellowship of the Way, a system of psychic development advocated by the American spiritualist James Porter Mills. So there is no doubt that three of the four collaborators responsible for The Starlight Express were deeply involved in mysticism and the occult. Which leaves us to speculate on the role of the other collaborator, Elgar.

The superficially attractive explanation is that Elgar was a willing but naive accomplice who failed to understand the sub-text of the play. The case for this explanation is persuasive. Elgar was fifty-eight when he was asked to provide the incidental music and was obsessed with the notion that he was a forgotten figure. He doubtless saw the opportunity to be part of a high profile London production as a way of reasserting his position as England's pre-eminent composer. The explanation of naivety is strengthened by Elgar's reaction to the staging. It was most defintely not what he expected, as Lady Elgar explained in her diary:
'29th December. First performance of the Starlight Express - E. wd. not conduct as the mise-en-scène was so repulsive - E was not even present.'
But can we really believe that the composer whose masterpiece is a setting of Cardinal Newman's epic description of a soul's journey to purgatory really wrote incidental music, including substantial text settings, for a play without researching its context? It seems very unlikely, particularly in view of the close friendship that developed between Algernon Blackwood and Elgar. My lower image shows the two colloborators together in 1916. Lady Elgar's diary reveals that the friendship with Blackwood survived the disappointments of the 1915 production and the author was a frequent visitor to the Elgar's Sussex cottage in the last years of the Great War. Could discussions in the remote cottage at Fittleworth have contributed to the perceptibly darker tone of Elgar's compositions of that period, the String Quartet, Piano Quintet and the introspective Cello Concerto?

The friendship between the two men, which one source describes as "long-standing and stimulating", is particularly intriguing in view of Elgar's Catholic background. The dualistic doctrines embraced by Algernon Blackwood were the basis for heretical Christian movements such as the Cathar heresy which the Catholic church extirpated with the Albigensian Crusade and similar genocides.

Richard Strauss was also a close friend of Elgar's and the English composer would have known Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra. This was composed in 1896 and was inspired by the eponymous philosophical novel by Friedrich Nietzsche. Could it have escaped Elgar's notice that the Manicheistic doctrine of Nietzsche had close associations with the practices followed by his collaborators on The Starlight Express? Evidence of Elgar's awareness of the deeper meanings of the play also comes in the form of his links with the group of Belgian intellectuals of which Emile Verhaeren, who supplied the epigraph for A Prisoner in Fairyland, was an early member. These links are reflected in Elgar's setting of a poem by the Belgian Émile Cammaerts in his 1914 recitation with orchestral accompaniment Carillon.

So there is strong evidence that Elgar must have been aware of the sub-text of The Starlight Express. But we will probably never know the extent of his knowledge of Algernon Blackwood's occult connections. However, what I do know is that when I listened to Tod Handley's classic recording again after writing this article the music took on a new character, particularly the closing section with its haunting quotation from The First Noel. Autosuggestion? Or is The Starlight Express Elgar's occult masterpiece?

* Vernon Handley's EMI recording of The Starlight Express can be enjoyed either as pure music or, if you choose, as an occult masterpiece. It was released in 1976 and subsequently transferred to CD on the Classics for Pleasure label. Vernon Handley died in September 2008 and in January 2010 EMI deleted a tranche of his recordings including The Starlight Express. So it is currently unavailable in CD form, other than as part of a 30CD Elgar box. But it can be bought as a bargain MP3 download. Which sadly does not help independent record stores: which, I am sure, will not stop EMI blaming piracy for their declining sales. All accompanying images are from the original LP release.

* My fading memory and that of the recording's producer concur on the point that the original plan was for Sir Adrian Boult to conduct the recording of The Starlight Express; but failing health prompted Sir Adrian to hand it over to Tod Handley who assisted him on many projects. The recording was made by Sir Adrian's long-standing production team of Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and soprano Valerie Masterson and baritone Derek Hammond Stroud. Venue for the 1974/75 sessions was Abbey Road Studio One and the sound from my original vinyl pressings is quite superb.

* Biographical information about Algernon Blackwood detailing his links with the occult is freely available. Surprisingly, very few people seem to have joined up the dots linking Blackwood's occult interests to The Starlight Express. But a 2009 article by The Society for Theatre Research on Lena Blackwell does provide valuable corrobaration.

* Other sources included Alice Elgar, Enigma of a Victorian Lady, by Percy M. Young, An Elgar Companion edited by Christopher Redwood, Portrait of Elgar by Michael Kennedy and Jerrold Northrop Moore's sleeve notes for the LP release of The Starlight Express.

* Judge A Prisoner in Fairyland for yourself. The complete text is available online.

* Media trivia - Algernon Blackwood appeared on the very first programme on BBC television in 1936 together with various dignitaries. He went on to become a regular presenter of ghost stories on BBC television from 1947 untl his death in 1951.

* Elgar the closet mystic is here and his other enigma is here.

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JP said…
An incredible convergence of paths! I'd just like to sound a note of appreciation for Blackwood as an writer whose best stories can still be enjoyed greatly by those who enjoy a good tale of the supernatural, and someone who seems to have had a deep and very sincere interest in things mystical and spiritual. I hope that the mention of Crowley does not suggest to your readers that Blackwood shared Crowley's largely questionable level of literary skill or his penchant for morally suspect chicanery.
Vecchio John said…
A good number of years ago the Radio 3 ( or Third Programme) relayed the play with the Elgar incidental music. It struck me at the time as fey and whimsical.

If it in their archives it would be good to hear it agin in view of your excellent elucidation of the sub text.
It's also available on Spotify. Fey and whimsical indeed.
Anonymous said…
I wonder whether Elgar might have learned about the Golden Dawn even earlier, when in 1901 he provided music for the play Diarmuid and Grania. W B Yeats, a member of the order, helped George Moore to make a play of his novel.

Civic Center said…
Great post. I've lately been researching composer/astrologer Dane Rudhyar along with the early Theosophists, and most of their paths seemed to have crossed with the Golden Dawn people too.

Heard "The Starlight Express" late at night about 20 years ago on a local radio station, and was bowled over by its sheer beauty. Went out and bought the CD and in fact I think it's the only Elgar CD I still own. The program notes mentioned that the play was a symbolic, pacifist reaction to the slaughter of World War One, but it does sound very Fairy Fey.

Actually, I'd love to see it live some day, preferably with lots of Isadora Duncan type movement and gender-neutral casting. In fact, why hasn't Mark Morris already produced this?
Webrarian said…
The BBC broadcast was originally on the Home Service on 26th December 1915, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original play. It was repeated on R3 15th December 1967 and 29th December 1968. Then again on R3 on 13th December 2004.

It was adapted for radio in such a way that it only lasted 75 minutes, so the music which had formed entr'actes, etc., was broadcast separately.

I remember hearing one of those 1960s broadcasts as a child and being caught up by the magic of it.

It's good to see I'm not alone in sensing that magic.
Robert Padgett said…
Elgar's first major orchestral work, the 'Enigma' Variations, is rich with symbolism and ciphers. For example, modulations in Variation XIII spell '1313', the year when the Rosicrucian order was reportedly established. The Mendelssohn fragments in XIII are based on the poetry of Goethe, a member of the Rosicrucian order. The 'Enigma' Variations also allude to Dante's magnum opus, "The Divine Comedy", an epic poem rife with Rosicrucian symbolism. Dante was allegedly a member of the Rosicrucian order. For more information about these subjects, visit my blog posts referenced below:


Unknown said…
There is actually a musical called starlight express, I don't know if its got anything to do with this though...

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