On Writing ‘Edward Elgar Rehearses the Powick Asylum Staff Band’ / Nigel Jarrett

Journalists never estimate the number of words they’ve written during their careers. As a journalist who writes music criticism by dint of an avocation, a subsidiary activity, I’ve written infinitesimally more words on music than I have in the books I’ve had published to date: a novel, a collection of poetry, and two collections of stories.

When daily newspapers were edited by mavericks such as Kenneth Loveland, who doubled as the music critic of the South Wales Argus and chose me as his assistant before I took over from him years later, it was common for me to write 400-word music notices often three times a week. I’ve listened to a lot of music at concerts innumerable and on record and in broadcasts. Having listened, I’ve written, in the case of evening concerts at night and for delivery early the following morning. So, in at least one, practical, sense, words and music have been inseparable. For the last seven years, as a freelance, I’ve also written and reviewed for the international magazine Jazz Journal.

It would be gratifying to be told that my writing had become more melodious as a result of exposure to so much music. Patricia McCarthy, editor of the poetry magazine Agenda, called my poetry ‘musical’ (bless her), and a fawning reviewer (damn him), having read that I was a jazz critic as well, claimed to have identified some kind of jitterbugging quality in my verse. I’ve never noticed either myself; I certainly don’t try to be musical when I’m writing, though I have a common enough need for euphony and shape. Another thing I’d forgotten until someone pointed it out was that music has a role in a few of my stories.

In the first collection, there’s a tale called ‘Doctor Fritz’, about a retired ethno-musicologist who is losing his senses years after being humiliated in public by a jealous colleague. Dr Fritz had made important discoveries in prehistoric African caves and had established the existence of the first stringed instrument, the tsuhapa, a complete fabrication on my part. In the latest collection, a story called ‘Rhapsodie’ concerns another imaginary musical instrument, the Osculaphone, a new invention which a rich, 19th-century American heiress is trying to play and promote by commissioning a work from an important French composer. Then there’s ‘Grasmere’, in which a flawed but absent child prodigy, a pianist, overshadows the goings-on of a young family on holiday in The Lake District. Clearly, something is happening.

I have no special interest in musical history, so I don’t consciously go to it for ideas. I know a little bit more than the basics. In the case of individual composers’ lives, however, it does supply a cartload of incident: Beethoven’s deafness; Chopin’s relationship with George Sand; the tortured existence of almost any jazz musician you’d care to name; Janacek’s infatuation with a teenage girl; Rossini’s decades of creative silence after he’d composed his operas; Charles Ives’s dual existence as composer and lifelong insurance company magnate; and Elgar’s association with a Worcestershire asylum’s staff band.

Curiously for me as a writer of fiction, all these are resistant to close and detailed inspection, as though too much knowledge might cramp the imagination.That might sound absurd, even irresponsible, to anyone looking for an accurate historical account. But once such a treatment is accepted as fiction, its correctness and reliability are irrelevant. This is supremely the case with a classic of fictionalised fact: Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, a series of meditations on incidents in the lives of real jazz musicians. It always seems as though these people, like their wholly fictional relatives, are pleading for someone to tell their story. In the case of Elgar particularly, it’s quite likely that the incident I’ve imagined in ‘Edward Elgar Rehearses The Powick Asylum Staff Band’ might well have taken place. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have. Perhaps the most extreme liberty I’ve taken is in re-applying the word ‘Windflower’, the mysterious nickname the composer gave to one of his younger female friends. She is commemorated on the score of his Violin Concerto in B minor in the intriguing Spanish inscription ‘Aqui esta encerrada el alma de…..’ (‘Herein is enshrined the soul of…..’). For those who are interested in such extra-musical matters, scholars have more or less identified this woman. In the story, she is someone else, perhaps the original Windflower. Elgar’s minor and no doubt innocent dalliances, mostly platonic, may have sustained his creative powers; if that’s so, their more basic provenances are hinted at for me in the psycho-medical conditions of Nymphomania and Satyriasis. Elgarites will probably foam at the mouth. Then again, Windflower might be the poetical-prosaic wood anemone, as it is to most others.

Having included a musical element in my stories a couple of times, I will henceforth be conscious of doing so. In that case, Edward Elgar Rehearses The Powick Asylum Staff Band may be a finale. It does end with Elgar and his brother, Frank, departing pianissimo with their musical instruments through the asylum’s main gate. Music is everywhere in literature, if only one can recall it.

Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times, and long-listed for the Edge Hill prize. Parthian also published his first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool. His latest collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.

© Nigel Jarrett, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.