The University of Birmingham Newsletter

‘Snapshots of Days Gone By’
A Reason for Resignation

The recent purchase by Special Collections of a letter written by Sir Edward Elgar sheds an amusing light on his resignation from the Chair of Music here in 1908. The Chair was endowed by the local J P and musical patron, Richard Peyton, with a donation of £10,000. His one condition, set out in a letter to Joseph Chamberlain on 28 November 1904, was ‘that it should in the first instance be offered to, and accepted by, Sir Edward Elgar… His name would, I feel sure, at once command a universal respect and confidence’. Elgar accepted the post with some misgivings, mainly because he needed the money, but on the understanding he could resign after three years if it interfered with his composing. He gave his inaugural lecture on 16 March 1905. Entitled A future for English music it took place in the lecture hall of the Midland Institute and attracted a large audience. The editor of The Mermaid, Mildred Lightfoot, reported on it in that month’s issue. Referring to the new professor as Sir Edwin Elgar she was cautiously complimentary: ‘It can hardly be said that our new professor is a born speaker and we fear that a number of those present were hardly so interested as they had expected to be, but there was, nevertheless, a great deal of very sound matter in what was said, and the lecture was seasoned with a fair amount of dry humour. Sir Edwin Elgar had not very much to say that was complimentary to English music at the present time’. The lecture in fact caused a great deal of controversy and Elgar is said to have considered buying some strychnine afterwards. Instead of doing this he remained in post, but gave only six lectures in his first year, two in the second and none in the third, which he spent in Italy. He resigned the Chair in August 1908 and in the letter mentioned above, dated 1 September 1908 to his publisher, Alfred Littleton, he gives the reason: ‘I have resigned my Birmingham post – this will not be known until announced from B. I give up on the grounds that I cannot remain in England during the winter… The weather here is truly awful’. (And that was only September!)
Elgar was succeeded by another composer, Sir Granville Bantock, who held the post until 1934. He was evidently made of sterner stuff as far as the local weather was concerned, but perhaps this was something to do with the excellent menu in the men’s lunch club at the University. A joint was always provided and the portly Bantock enjoyed his food. The late Professor W V Thorpe recalled how he would come in, survey the joint, decide what he was going to have and instruct the carver which piece to cut for him.