Elgar, Edward. (1857–1934)

"What I fear is this: there isn't going to be any singing by the soldiers." - Important Autograph Letter Signed

Important autograph letter signed from the influential English composer to Alfred Littleton, evidently regarding his marching song "Follow the Colors." Herefordshire, 23 October 1907; 4 pp.

In part, "I do not think the P.F. Piece in its present form entirely satisfactory. I have the M.S. now and may re-cast it. It's too long! I have written to Wood [influential English conductor, Henry Wood (1869-1944)] about the kind proposal you make to have the score and pulled parts ready for rehearsal...Now the marching song. I fear the consequences, I do not think it would be used for the purpose intended. Booseys, who are in touch with military band life, have a book of songs for soldiers with the band arrangements, but it has never been used. I wish you would get a copy and look at it, as far as I remember it is a good selection...What I fear is this: there isn't going to be any singing by the soldiers. Now I am keeping those songs you sent until Monday & will bring them with me & my final reply also..."

In January 1907 William Henry Ash, grandson of pioneer dental manufacturer Claudius Ash, as a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians offered a prize of 20 guineas for the words of "a marching song for British soldiers". The popular writers Kipling and Conan Doyle having refused, the offer was advertised in the newspapers. In November the company announced that the winner (of 96 applicants) was William de Courcy Stretton - a 45 year old retired Royal Artillery captain from Salcombe in Devon - and that the music was to be written by Elgar. Alfred Littleton, chairman of publishers Novello and also a Liveryman of the company, had to plead with Elgar to go ahead, as there was much Elgar disliked about the idea. Elgar eventually wrote an orchestral score to include the four verses, and this was posted to Novello's on 27 December. At Elgar's request, his score was arranged for military band by Capt. Arthur J. Stretton, Director of Music at the Royal Military School of Music (Kneller Hall), and first performed by a Kneller Hall band and chorus, conducted by Capt. Stretton, at the annual banquet of the Musicians Company at Stationers Hall on 28 April 1908, when it was for that occasion given the generic title "Marching Song". Then, with much publicity, and with the title "Follow the Colours" taken from the refrain, it was given its first public performance at the Empire Day concert in the Royal Albert Hall on 24 May 1908, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the tenors and basses of the Royal Choral Society, conducted by Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

A September 16th, 1907 letter from Henry Wood to the composer identifies the work to be rehearsed as the 1907 "Wand of Youth" Orchestral Suite No. 1 ("My dear friend, I have put down your dear little Suite for November 2nd is this quite agreeable to you, will the parts & Score be ready & can we have “first performance”). We have, however, been unable to identify the work which Elgar refers to earlier in the letter as the "P.F. piece." Though possibly an abbreviation of "pianoforte," Elgar's works list includes no keyboard works from 1907, nor indeed the immediately previous or following years. 

A key figure in Elgar's career and one of the composer's closest correspondents, Alfred Littleton (1845 - 1914) was Chairman and co-owner of the prominent London-based music publishers Novello, Ewer & Company during the years 1886–1914.  (20171)

Autograph Letter
Classical Music