Page 11, 1st June 2007

1st June 2007
Page 11
Page 11, 1st June 2007 — The message of Elgar's last anointing

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The message of Elgar's last anointing

F4 lgar wrote only one important work for the piano, a Piano Quintet, which, apart from the Cello Concerto, was his final significant work — written in 1919 in the dust after the Great War and after the collapse of his faith. The first movement especially is all fragments and fracture — a stopping and starting on a road backwards into memory and regret.

Elgar is much on my mind this week as I've been asked to say and write so much about him recently. The BBC has commissioned two separate talks, and Continuum is about to publish a book of essays to which I contributed one on Elgar and Catholicism. The Tablet is publishing a shortened version of this chapter. and now The Catholic Herald has sent me an email: "Would you like to write a Notebook piece for the Elgar anniversary?"

As Elgar is largely (with some help from the Holy Spirit) responsible for my conversion to Catholicism he has a special place in my affections, the more tenderly so as he appears to have lost his faith soon after writing the work which so inspired me: The Dream of Gerontius.

For him to stop going to Mass with Pius X on the throne was to send himself to hell by a direct route; but I hope that a German Pope, especially one with some musical taste. might find a way to rescue Elgar in his final moments (or even, as his mentor Hans Urs von Balthasar opined, rescue all of us). But refusing to go to Mass was only the beginning. Elgar later told a friend that a phrase from the Demon's Chorus of Gerontius was a good reflection of his mood: "The mind, bold and independent... must not think, must not hope." He refused to see a priest on his deathbed and he wanted his cremated ashes to be sprinkled on a favourite river in the Midlands. Many readers will remember that cremation was forbidden to Catholics, along with barbeques on Fridays, until after 'the Second Vatican Council.

A wise old Benedictine priest in the Warrington parish where I was received into the Church once told a fearful, doubting parishioner that people don't lose faith, they lose hope. In a number of places in his letters when he refers to God, Elgar writes "Providence" or "The Almighty" — telltale signs of a distant, respectful Victorian kind of faith: a formal "dressing for supper" which forgets that the real Supper was a feast of love where shoes had to be removed and feet washed by the host, despite St Peter's protest. And "faith" in the Gospels is not so much about assent to theological truth as it is trust in the Truthgiver — "0 you of little faith" was Christ's gentle complaint as the disciples' boat began to rest on tranquil waters again after the storm.

But that's not the end of the story. Elgar in fact did receive the Last Rites and was buried next to his wife, Alice, in St Wulstun's church. His last anointing — even were he at the time to have been beyond knowing, caring or believing — is a token of that mercy which is beyond our wildest dreams. Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace — grace which works, with profligacy, beyond the guide books; and He who made the world, who watched it fracture and fragment, is truly able to heal it too. Although the outward signs do not make or limit grace's power, they can help us hold it more safely and joyfully in our souls.

Stephen Hough will be discussing his new Mass for Westminster Cathedral with Petroc Trelawny in the Westminster Cathedral Clergy House Library at 7 pm on June 7. Tickets for the event cost £15 (tel 020 7798 9059)

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