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Edward Elgar & Helen Weaver: A Love Affair

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Steve Newman

Steve Newman

Just three years before D. H. Lawrence was born the twenty-five-year old Edward Elgar fell in love with Helen Weaver.

Edward Elgar was always a passionate man, in life and in his music; the two were indivisible.

Elgar knew Helen Weaver all his young life. Her father’s shoe shop was opposite the Elgar Brothers’ music shop in Worcester’s High Street. Helen had become an excellent musician, on both violin and piano, and had a good singing voice.

Edward was taught piano by his father and assisted him when he tuned the pianos in the big houses. By his early teenage years Edward had become (by reading and absorbing the printed scores in his father’s shop) an aspiring and competent composer.

It was inevitable that Helen and Edward were mutually attracted to each other and must have listened together to the choir and organ rehearsals in Worcester Cathedral on Saturday afternoons. I can imagine them walking from the Cathedral to a local tea shop perhaps, discussing, as they walked, the music they had heard or the books they had read. They were becoming inseparable.

In the early 1880s that sort of thing was simply not done and frowned upon by parents, and Helen’s parents were no exception to that rule.

A decision was made to send Helen to the Leipzig Conservatoire to continue her music studies, and although the two young people put on a brave face they must have been saddened. I don’t think either of them had many other friends, if any at all, other than their siblings. But the decision was made, and off Helen went, with Edward waving farewell at Worcester railway station, with, I am sure, a tear in his eye.

But the young composer wasn’t going to leave it there.

Somehow, he managed to persuade both his parents, and more surprisingly, Helen’s parents to let him travel to Leipzig for a couple of weeks to see Helen. How he managed no one knows, but on the 31st of December 1882, he caught the train and was on his way, no doubt with a recently invented cigarette firmly in the corner of his smiling mouth.

Helen and a seventeen-year-old fellow student, Edith Groveham, met him at the railway station, with all three travelling to the cheap lodgings they’d found for him, not far from the Conservatoire.

A fine time was had by all that January — with Edith leaving Helen and Edward to themselves after a while — with visits to galleries and concerts, suppers in cafés where singers, musicians and dancers entertained.

Elgar (photo credit: BBC)

Naturally the couple would play music together and take long walks under the stars, holding hands and stealing kisses, always talking, talking, talking. Then silences, and embraces, and promises, and more embraces, each overflowing with love for the other.

When Elgar returned to Worcester, he was happy and content. Mr Weaver got on with selling shoes, and the Elgar Brothers’ got on with selling trombones and sheet-music and tuning the pianos of the minor aristocracy. All seemed good and where it should be.

In the summer Helen returned and became engaged to Edward. Happy times. Edward’s father probably bought a new pair of shoes and Mr Weaver a new violin for Helen.

Then Mrs Weaver was taken ill.

At the end of summer Helen went back to Leipzig and Edward went on holiday to the Lake District with a friend, no doubt talking about Helen, which must have bored his friend to death.

While Elgar was still on holiday Helen suddenly returned from Leipzig to nurse her mother who had become very ill indeed, dying soon after her daughter returned.

Helen broke off the engagement, and within a very short time left for New Zealand for health reasons (which were never really explained) never to return.

And that was that.

The young Edward was left alone. Everything had suddenly changed. The tears poured and his heart was broken into a million pieces, and the music stopped. He didn’t want to speak to anyone. He just sat in the Cathedral, high in the gallery.

Sixteen years later, Elgar published his Enigma Variations, with the last but one variation a loving, heart-felt piece, during which a drum suggests a steamer’s engine, as a clarinet echoes briefly from Mendelssohn’s ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’.

It is a love letter to Helen Weaver.

Elgar was a great reader, especially of the works of Thomas Hardy, who, of course, was one of Lawrence’s favourite writers and a huge influence on the younger man. In fact, plans were drawn up in the mid-1920s for Elgar to turn one of Hardy’s novels (probably Tess) into an opera which, due to Hardy’s death in 1928, never materialised. Now, there’s a literary and musical what if for you.

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