What was Elgar doing in a mental institution in the 1880s? Writing polkas and quadrilles, apparently!

It’s well known that the composer of the Enigma Variationscame from humble roots, but not everyone will know that his first professional conducting job was down at his local lunatic asylum. Few of his compositions from this period survive, but back in the 1980s, Elgar’s extant music for Powick Asylum came into the hands of the pioneering musicologist and conductor Barry Collett who immediately realised their historical value. “I was researching Elgar’s music written in the First World War, for a CD I was about to do,” he says. “I came across the Powick pieces in bound volumes stamped ‘Powick Hospital’. Of course they were in badly hand-written manuscripts. They had never been printed or published.” Now these charming dance pieces have been dusted down, newly edited and receive their first professional recording on the enterprising Somm label. So what kind of thing was Elgar writing back then, and for whose benefit exactly?

The village of Powick is midway between Worcester and Malvern and the imposing Asylum had opened in August 1852 to accommodate 200 “pauper lunatics from the city and county...

Access our paywalled content and archive of magazines, regular news and features for the limited offer of $3 per month. Support independent journalism.

Subscribe now or log in to continue reading.