Handwashers’ Newsletter 17th May 2020


It was announced earlier this week that the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester has been cancelled this summer. No great surprise to anyone, I’m sure, but with this in mind, I thought we might return to Worcestershire this week for another work by the county’s greatest musician. Most of you will be familiar with ‘Nimrod’, a piece that is used (and abused!) in all sorts of settings from funerals and memorial services to television adverts and instrumental arrangements. There is even a successful choral version – some of you may have sung it. However, how many of us actually know the whole of the Enigma Variations from which ‘Nimrod’ is taken?

The story of the piece is quite interesting. One day Elgar returned home after a long day teaching (which he described as “like turning a grinding-stone with a dislocated shoulder!”). After dinner, he sat down at the piano and began to doodle. After a while his wife interrupted by saying, ‘Edward, that’s a good tune.’ He continued to play around with it for some time, although he himself did not recognise anything particularly worthwhile. He later called this tune – which became the theme for these orchestral variations – ‘Enigma’. Were it not for Alice Elgar’s interruption, we might never have had one of the greatest of all English orchestral works.  

Simply for fun, Elgar began toying with the tune, adapting it to make musical caricatures of some of his friends. He’d try the different treatments on Alice, asking her to guess the subject, and within no time, the serious idea of a set of orchestral variations had taken shape. Each section was headed by the initials of the friend portrayed, beginning with “C.A.E.” (Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice) and closing with “E.D.U.” (Variation XIV), a self-portrait of the composer himself, the three letters short for Eduard, Alice’s pet name for her husband.

The Variations were scored between 5 and 19 February 1899, dedicated “…to my friends pictured within” and given the title ‘Variations on an original theme, Op.36’ – no mention of “Enigma”, though the word appears in pencil on the autograph score. Elgar was 42, and the work sealed his fame.

Here is Sir Adrian Boult’s interpretation: https://youtu.be/1QiKkl1BykY

ALRIGHT ON THE NIGHT?? Gill Hornby recollects:

It was to be a summer concert of well-known operatic pieces and all had been going well at rehearsals with the choir as ready as choirs ever are for the performance.  Things started to go awry during the afternoon rehearsal when it was found that the professional pianist hired in had apparently failed to learn the music and so left.

Some of the music to be performed called for piano and harmonium to play together.  Thus, the fun began with the soprano kicking off her high heels to accompany the choir on the piano.  Unfortunately, when the conductor took over at the piano to accompany her, he had to kick away the high heels she had left behind.  The soloist, now without those heels, was barely visible to the audience and with all the upheaval, she missed a verse.  Consummate professional that he was, the conductor instantly adjusted his accompaniment.  The soloist finished, apologised and started again.

Although the conductor was mortified by how the concert had turned out, the audience thought it highly entertaining and one lady was heard to say, “It was just like being at the opera with everyone moving around and changing places”.

HOW TO MAKE A FACEMASK Sonia La Fontaine’s friend teaches us all we need to know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4c5eo_3-y0

. . . and this is Bernard Crooks’ solution:


 THE GILKS’ MEMORIES Here’s one from Vic:

I sang the Robert Levin version of Mozart’s Requiem with the San Francisco Chorale. We had a 3- hour lecture on the work by a University professor as it now included an Amen chorus after the Lacrimosa.

Warm-ups were interesting in line with “touchy feely” associated with SF. We had to massage each other’s shoulders and necks, either gender, whilst the pianist played soothing music. This took a bit of getting used to doing! I’m not recommending it, but you never know after “lockdown”!

(Don’t you dare get touchy feely with me, Vic! Ed.)

AMADEUS QUARTET How Tim met four great musicians: I recently read of the death of Martin Lovett, cellist and last survivor of the famous Amadeus String Quartet (1948 – 1987).

Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Schidlof who had fled from Vienna at the Anschluss met in internment in the Isle of Man. Martin Lovett joined them in London after their release.

The company I worked for sponsored a concert by the Amadeus in Cheltenham Town Hall in 1987 and we met the Quartet at the post-concert reception. Brainin showed us his Stradivarius, saying ‘You may look but not touch.’ Lovett smiled away my embarrassment when I mistook his manager for his wife with, ‘That is a frequent error but not one I make.’

After the concert the players were leaving for their separate summer holidays. Within a few days the music world was shocked to hear that violist Peter Schidlof had died. The other three declared that the Amadeus Quartet had died with him so that was their final concert, which I still feel privileged to have attended and to have met such engaging personalities.

Here are those four great men playing as one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTTB_vEC5Kg

(Name-dropping is the height of snobbery; as the Duke of Edinburgh told me. Ed.)


This was spotted by Andy Hayman, husband of Ruth, who, though not a singer himself, is one of our staunchest expert Stagers: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52589449


President Trump is walking out of the White House and heading towards his limo when a possible assassin steps forward and points a gun.

A secret service agent, new to the job, shouts ‘Mickey Mouse!’ This startles the would-be assassin and he is captured.

Later, the secret service agent’s supervisor takes him aside and asks, ‘What in the hell made you shout ‘Mickey Mouse’?’

Blushing, the agent replies, ‘I got nervous. I meant to shout, ‘Donald duck!’’