Elgar takes a trip
This Friday (August 10) Mark Elder and the Hallé bring Elgar’s choral masterpiece The Apostles to the BBC Proms. Mark Elder is a notable Elgar interpreter, and encounters with the transcendental and numinous are among the sensations triggered by a great performance of The Apostles. But they are also sensations associated with a very different kind of experience – an LSD trip. And surprisingly there are links between Elgar, The Apostles and LSD.
Elgar made the first sketches for The Apostles in the the early 1880s when he was band instructor at Powick Hospital. This was a psychiatric facility originally called Powick Lunatic Asylum which stood in the shadow of the composer's beloved Malvern Hills - the hospital is seen in the aerial view above. Music therapy was pioneered at Powick and the visionary hospital board formed an unconventional band of strings, wind, strings, brass and piano from the institution’s staff . The young Elgar’s responsibilities included conducting, arranging and composing, and he taught himself the bassoon to augment the available musical forces.
Elgar worked at Powick from 1879 until 1884 and his little known compositions for wind quintet date from this period. Above is my 1978 LP set of Elgar’s wind music played by the Athena Ensemble. The composer turned bassoonist is seen in the centre of the back row in the photo below, with him are three friends and his brother Frank (front right) who played wind quintets together. The connection between music and healing continued at Powick Hospital long after Elgar moved on to greater things, and until the 1940s all male nursing were required to be proficient on a musical instrument. Then, at the beginning of the next decade, a new consultant psychiatrist was appointed to the hospital, and his arrival was the start of a literally mind-blowing period in Powick’s history.
Dr Ronald (Ronnie) Sandison (1916-2010) trained as a psychiatrist before his involvement with Freudian and Jungian analysis led to a career in psychotherapy. Freud had speculated in 1938 that chemical substances had a role to play in therapy, and in 1952 – a year after taking up his post at Powick – Sandison visited the Sandoz laboratories in Basel, Switzerland where he met the creator of LSD, Dr Albert Hoffman. When Sandison visited Sandoz for a second time a few months later he was given a box of LSD ampoules, and unknowingly became the first person to bring the drug into Britain. On his return Dr Sandison began introducing LSD into the psychotherapeutic regime at Powick, and Sandoz continued to provide the drug free of charge for the twelve years that the psychiatrist practised at the hospital. Ronnie Sandison's research included one personal LSD trip taken in a carefully controlled set and setting, and several of his registrars also took the drug. A paper published by Sandison in 1954 was a pioneering study of the medical use of LSD which concluded that therapy using the drug had clinical potential. Such was the support for his research that funding was quickly made available in 1956 for a specialised LSD to be built at Powick, this allowed up to five drug therapy sessions to take place at the same time. The new LSD unit can be seen in the photo from 1955 below with the original hospital buildings in the background.
The music thread that stretches back to Elgar continued in the new LSD unit, and each of the treatment rooms was fitted with a record player. Based on advice from the American psychologist and pioneer of LSD therapy Betty Eisner (1915-2004), patients undergoing psychotherapy were supplied with the soundtrack of their choice from the unit’s large record collection. Sadly there are no accounts of patients tripping to The Apostles and it seems that folk music was the favourite hallucinogenic accompaniment. The photo below from 1960 shows Dr Sandison in the LSD unit with nursing staff.
Dr Ronnie Sandison moved to another hospital in 1965 and ended his work with LSD, although after his departure the drug continued to be used at Powick. But in late-1965 adverse press coverage forced Sandoz to stop production of LSD, and this decision coupled with increasing demonization of the drug soon ended its clinical use. Records show that 683 patients were treated with LSD in 13,785 separate sessions at Powick before the program was discontinued. But a belated shadow was cast over the pioneering psychotherapy programme three decades later when a class action was brought against the British medical authorities by patients claiming to have suffered psychiatric damage as a result of LSD treatment in the 1950s and 60s. This resulted in out of court settlements to forty-three patients who had received the pioneering treatment at several hospitals.
Elgar’s links with LSD may be tenuous, but it is not his only connection with drugs and astral travel. The composer was a close friend of the author Algernon Blackwood - the two are seen together in the photo above - and in 1915 he composed the incidental music for Blackwood’s play The Starlight Express. Algernon Blackwood was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a qabalistic order practising astrology, tarot divination, geomancy, magic, astral travel, with a membership including the notorious drug user Aleister Crowley. Given Elgar's links with hallucinogens the typography on the Wind Quintet box above and the artwork for Tod Handley’s classic recording of The Starlight Express below are wonderfully appropriate. More on this path in Elgar and the occult.
* Sources for this post include Andy Robert’s meticulously researched and highly recommended Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. My personal soundtrack has been Sir Adrian Boult's now deleted - as is Tod's Starlight Express - 1974 account of The Apostles. After listening to Sir Adrian's Apostles repeatedly over the last few days I can only ask who needs LSD?
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