Great Malvern
Sir Edward Elgar
(1857-1934)
 
 

One of England’s greatest composers, Edward William Elgar, had no formal musical education yet he wrote some of England’s best loved compositions and rose to great heights. Among his accomplishments he was knighted, made a Baronet, awarded the Order of Merit, and appointed Master of the King’s Musick.

This mercurial man was a musical genius from humble origins. The odds against Edward Elgar’s abilities being recognised were enormous and national recognition did not come until middle age. For many years he had to contend with apathy, and with the prejudices of the entrenched musical establishment.

For a start, Elgar’s father was considered a “tradesman” and Edward was born into a late Victorian provincial society where class consciousness pervaded everything. He also suffered from religious bigotry at a time when Roman Catholics were a minority in Protestant England.

His father, William Henry Elgar (1821–1906), was raised in Dover and had been apprenticed to a London music publisher. William was an accomplished musician and in 1841 he moved to Worcester where he worked as a piano tuner and set up a small shop selling sheet music and musical instruments.

The shop was located at one end of Worcester’s High Street; the spot is now marked by a statue of his son, Sir Edward Elgar.

Whilst living in Worcester, William met his wife, Ann Greening (1822–1902). She was the daughter of a farm labourer. They were married in 1848 and had seven children.

Edward Elgar born 2 June 1857
Edward Elgar was the fourth child and was born while they were living in a cottage at Lower Broadheath, a village just three miles from the small Cathedral City of Worcester.
 
Two years before his marriage, William was appointed to the post of organist at St George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester. He held this position for 39 years. Shortly before Edward’s birth his mother converted to Roman Catholicism, and he was baptized and brought up as a Roman Catholic, to the disapproval of his father.
 
The Elgar household was a haven of music with friends dropping in for impromptu concerts and choral get-togethers. All the children were taught to play a musical instrument and engaged in family performances.
 
William’s shop and piano tuning did not bring in very much money so life was fairly frugal. Nevertheless, at age eight Edward received violin and piano lessons. His father, who tuned the pianos at many grand houses in Worcestershire, would sometimes take him along, giving him the chance to display his skill to important local figures.
 
His mother, Ann, was interested in the arts and she encouraged Edward’s musical development. He inherited from her a discerning taste for literature and a passionate love of the countryside. He never tired of walking his beloved Malvern Hills and moorlands, flying kites on windy days and cycling every lane in Worcestershire and Herefordshire.
 
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Early Years
As a child, Edward studied the music available in his father's shop and taught himself how to compose, and to play a wide variety of instruments. At age ten he composed a musical score for a play written and enacted by the Elgar children. Forty years later, he arranged and orchestrated this same piece of music with only minor changes, publishing it as two orchestral suites entitled The Wand of Youth.
 
Edward received a general education at Lyttleton House, a school, near Worcester. However, his only formal musical training beyond piano and violin lessons from local teachers was more advanced violin studies with Adolf Pollitzer, during brief visits to London in 1877–78. Although Pollitzer thought he had potential as a soloist, Edward was not of the same opinion and he did not pursue a career as a virtuoso.
 
When describing his musical education, Edward said "...my first music was learnt in the Cathedral ... from books borrowed from the music library, when I was eight, nine or ten."
 
He worked through manuals of instruction on organ playing and read every book he could find on the theory of music. Edward was influenced by European music and was keen to further his musical studies at the Leipzig Conservatory so he began learning German.
 
Unfortunately, when he left school at 15, family finances would not permit further study in Leipzig, and Edward was engaged as a clerk in a local solicitor’s office. He hated being cooped up in an office all day and, after a few months, left.
 
In 1872, as a young fifteen-year old, he became assistant organist to his father at St George's Catholic Church, Worcester. Edward decided to embark on a musical career; he turned not only to music but to literature, becoming a voracious reader. Around this time, he made his first public appearances as a violinist and organist.
 
He started work as a music teacher, giving piano and violin lessons and helping occasionally in his father's shop. He was an active member of the Worcester Glee Club, along with his father, and he accompanied singers, played the violin, composed and arranged works, and conducted for the first time.
 
Although rather solitary and introspective by nature, Edward thrived in Worcester's musical circles. Soon he was playing the violin in several local orchestras or chamber groups and became conductor of several. One of his greatest experiences was to play Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Stabat Mater under the composer's baton.
 
Edward, his brother Frank, and friends formed a wind quintet. Frank played the oboe and conducted, and Edward played the bassoon. He honed his arranging and compositional skills by arranging numerous pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and others, for the quintet.
 
In 1879, aged twenty-two, Edward took up the post of conductor of the staff band at the local Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum. The band consisted of: piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium, three or four first and a similar number of second violins, occasional viola, cello, double bass and piano. Edward coached the players and wrote and arranged their music, including quadrilles and polkas, for the unusual combination of instruments. He held this post for five years and it was an incredibly useful learning experience for the young man.
 
Another post he held in his early days was professor of the violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.
 
When his father eventually retired as organist at St George’s Church, Edward, then aged twenty-seven, became resident organist and held the post for four years. During this period, he wrote his first liturgical works in the Catholic tradition.
 
Elgar’s organ was refurbished in 1970, including a new console. Visitors to St George’s Roman Catholic Church will see the old console preserved in its original place. The stops on the new console which relate to the old organ are marked with the letter ‘E’ so that it is still possible to play the organ as Elgar knew it.
 
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1880-1890
Throughout the 1880s and the 1890s his experience grew and his style matured as he conducted and composed for local musical organisations. In his first trips abroad, Elgar visited Paris in 1880 and Leipzig in 1882. He heard Saint-Saëns play the organ at the Madeleine and attended concerts by first-rate orchestras. In 1882 he wrote, "I got pretty well dosed with Schumann (my ideal!), Brahms, Rubinstein & Wagner, so had no cause to complain."
 
He often went to London in an attempt to get his works published, but this period in his life found him frequently despondent and low on money. He wrote to a friend in April 1884, "My prospects are about as hopeless as ever ... I am not wanting in energy I think, so sometimes I conclude that 'tis want of ability. ... I have no money – not a cent."
 
Throughout his life, Elgar was often inspired by close women friends. He almost got married in 1884 to music student, Helen Werner but she called it off much to Edward’s distress. However, in 1886 he did meet the love of his life.
 
Marriage
When Edward was twenty-nine, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Roberts. Alice was eight years older than Edward and a published author of verse and prose fiction.
 
They married three years later much to the horror of Alice’s family. They were appalled that she intended to marry an unknown musician who worked in a shop and was a Roman Catholic, so she was disinherited. As an engagement present, Edward dedicated his short violin and piano piece Salut d’Amour to her.
 
Alice and Edward were married on 8 May 1889, at Brompton Oratory in London. From then until her death she acted as his business manager and social secretary, dealt with his mood swings and was a perceptive musical critic. She did her best to gain him the attention of influential society, though with limited success. In time he would learn to accept the honours given him, realising that they mattered more to her and her social class, and recognising what she had given up to further his career.
 
In her diary she wrote, "The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman."
 
Move to London
With Alice's encouragement, the Elgars moved to London to be closer to the centre of British musical life, and Elgar started devoting his time to composition. Their only child, Carice Irene, was born at their home in West Kensington on 14 August 1890. Her name, revealed in Elgar's dedication of Salut d'Amour, was a contraction of her mother's names Caroline and Alice.
 
London gave them an opportunity to hear new music by composers such as Berlioz and Richard Wagner but Edward’s own compositions made little impact on London's musical scene. His only important commission while in London came from his home city: The Worcester Festival Committee invited him to compose a short orchestral work for the 1890 Three Choirs Festival. The resultant Froisart, was first performed at Worcester in September1890 under the baton of Edward Elgar himself. This first major work was described as “assured and uninhibited”.
 
Return to Worcestershire
No further work eventuated, so in 1891 the Elgars returned to Worcestershire, where he could earn a living conducting local musical ensembles and teaching. They settled in Alice's former home town, Great Malvern.
 
During the 1890s, Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer, chiefly of works for the great choral festivals of the English Midlands. He obtained a longstanding publisher in Novello and Co thus bringing his moderately successful compositions to a wider public. One of his pieces that has stood the test of time is the Serenade for Strings (1892).
 
Elgar was catching the attention of prominent critics, but their reviews were polite rather than enthusiastic. Although he was in demand as a festival composer, he was only just getting by financially and felt unappreciated. In 1898, he said he was "very sick at heart over music" and hoped to find a way to succeed with a larger work.
 
His friend August Jaeger tried to lift his spirits: "A day's attack of the blues ... will not drive away your desire, your necessity, which is to exercise those creative faculties which a kind providence has given you. Your time of universal recognition will come."
 
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The Enigma Variations
In 1899, Jaegar’s prediction suddenly came true. At the age of forty-two, Elgar produced the Enigma Variations, which were premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter.
 
In Elgar's own words: "I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme. The Variations have amused me because I've labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends ... that is to say I've written the variations each one to represent the mood of the 'party' (the person) ... and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose."
 
He dedicated the work "To my friends pictured within". Probably the best known variation is "Nimrod", depicting Jaeger.
 
The large-scale work was received with general acclaim for its originality, charm and craftsmanship, and it established Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation.
 
The work is formally titled Variations on an Original Theme; the word "Enigma" appears over the first six bars of music, which led to the familiar version of the title. The enigma is that, although there are fourteen variations on the "original theme", there is another overarching theme, never identified by Elgar, which he said "runs through and over the whole set" but is never heard.
 
Nowadays Elgar’s music is considered to be typically English in style, but at the time of composing, his style was said to be more Central European. The Enigma Variations was extremely well received in Germany and Italy, and to this day remains a worldwide concert staple.
 
Success at Last
Elgar was on his way. England’s premier composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, had died in1900. Elgar slipped into this pre-eminent position, and his next major work was eagerly awaited.
 
For the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival of 1900, he set Cardinal John Henry Newman's poem The Dream of Gerontius for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Hans Richter conducted the premiere, which was marred by a poorly prepared chorus, which sang badly. Elgar was deeply depressed, but the critics recognised the mastery of the piece despite the defects in performance.
 
‘The Dream’ was performed again in Dusseldorf, Germany (1901) and again in 1902. The German press was enthusiastic; the Düsseldorfer Volksblatt wrote:
 
"A memorable and epoch-making first performance! Since the days of Liszt nothing has been produced in the way of oratorio ... which reaches the greatness and importance of this sacred cantata."
 
Richard Strauss, then widely viewed as the leading composer of his day, was so impressed that in Elgar's presence he proposed a toast to the success of "the first English progressive musician, Meister Elgar."
 
Performances in Vienna, Paris and New York followed, and The Dream of Gerontius soon became equally admired in Britain. The old preoccupation with Handel’s oratorios was replaced with a new choral tradition.
 
Elgar, as a Roman Catholic, was much moved by Cardinal Newman's poem about the death and redemption of a sinner, but some influential members of the Anglican establishment disagreed. One complaint was that “the work stinks of incense”! The Dean of Gloucester Cathedral banned ‘The Dream’ from his cathedral in 1901, and at Worcester the following year, the Dean insisted on deletions before allowing a performance.
 
Undeterred, Elgar continued to compose pieces with religious themes. The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906).
 
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Pomp and Circumstance Marches
The first of these five marches, composed between 1901 and 1930, is probably the most famous and best loved of Elgar’s works. It is familiar to millions of television viewers all over the world who tune in every year to watch ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ from London’s Royal Albert Hall.
 
The Promenade Concerts were inaugurated by Sir Henry Wood whose bust is in the Hall’s auditorium. On the last night his bust is adorned with a laurel wreath, and the second half of the concert is made up of the first Pomp and Circumstance March, sea shanties and national songs. The ‘promenaders’ dress up for the occasion and erupt into a massed rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.
 
When the theme for the first march’s slower middle section (technically called the "trio") came into Elgar’s head he knew he had a winner. He told his friend Dora Penny, "I've got a tune that will knock 'em – will knock 'em flat".
 
When the first march was played in 1901 at a London Promenade Concert, it was conducted by Henry J. Wood, who later wrote that the audience "rose and yelled ... the one and only time in the history of the Promenade concerts that an orchestral item was accorded a double encore.
 
Land of Hope and Glory
To mark the coronation of Edward VII, Elgar was commissioned to set A. C. Benson's Coronation Ode for a gala concert at the Royal Opera House in June 1901. The approval of the king was confirmed, and Elgar began work.
 
The contralto Clara Butt had persuaded him that the trio of the first Pomp and Circumstance march could have words fitted to it, and Elgar invited Benson to do so. Elgar incorporated the new vocal version into the Ode. The publishers of the score recognised the potential of the vocal piece, "Land of Hope and Glory", and asked Benson and Elgar to make a further revision for publication as a separate song. It was immensely popular and is now considered an unofficial British national anthem.
 
In the United States, the trio, known simply as ‘Pomp and Circumstance or ‘The Graduation March’, has been adopted since 1905 for virtually all high school and university graduations.
 
National Honours
In March 1904 a three-day festival of Elgar's works was presented at Covent Garden, an honour never before given to any English composer.
 
The Times newspaper commented, "Four or five years ago if anyone had predicted that the Opera-house would be full from floor to ceiling for the performance of an oratorio by an English composer he would probably have been supposed to be out of his mind."
 
The King and Queen attended the first concert, at which Hans Richter conducted The Dream of Gerontius, and returned the next evening for the second, the London premiere of The Apostles (first heard the previous year at the Birmingham Festival).
 
The final concert of the festival, conducted by Elgar, was primarily orchestral, apart for an excerpt from Caractacus and the complete Sea Pictures (sung by Clara Butt). The orchestral items were Froissart, the Enigma Variations, Cockaigne, the first two Pomp and Circumstance marches, and the premiere of a new orchestral work, In the South (Alassio), inspired by a holiday in Italy.
 
Knighthood
Elgar was knighted at Buckingham Palace on 5 July 1904. The following month, he and his family moved to Plâs Gwyn, a large house on the outskirts of Hereford, overlooking the River Wye, where they lived until 1911.
 
Elgar’s greatest popularity was between 1902 and 1914.He made four visits to the U.S., including one conducting tour, and earned considerable fees from the performance of his music.
 
Between 1905 and 1908, he held the post of Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham. He had accepted the post reluctantly, feeling that a composer should not head a school of music. He was not at ease in the role, and his lectures caused controversy, with his attacks on the critics and on English music in general.
 
He didn’t like upsetting people but he felt compelled to express his views. His new life as a celebrity was a mixed blessing to this sensitive and highly strung man, as it interrupted his privacy, and he often was in ill-health. He complained to his friend August Jaeger in 1903, "My life is one continual giving up of little things which I love."
 
In 1905, Elgar’s principal composition was the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. He fitted in composing with visits to America to conduct and accept a doctorate from Yale University. The following year he wrote another oratorio (The Kingdom).
 
First Symphony
As Elgar approached his fiftieth birthday, he began work on his first symphony, a project that had been in his mind in various forms for nearly ten years. His First Symphony (1908) was a national and international triumph. In just over a year, it received a hundred performances in Britain, America and continental Europe.
 
Violin Concerto
In 1910 Elgar was commissioned to write a violin concerto by one of the greatest international violinists of the time, Fritz Kreisler.
 
Elgar wrote it during the summer of 1910, with occasional help from W. H. Reed, the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, who advised Edward on technical points. Elgar and Reed formed a firm friendship, which lasted for the rest of Elgar's life. The work was presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society, with Kreisler and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Reed recalled, "...the Concerto proved to be a complete triumph, the concert a brilliant and unforgettable occasion."
 
Second Symphony
The Violin Concerto was Elgar's last popular triumph. The following year he presented his Second Symphony in London, but was disappointed at its reception. Unlike the First Symphony, it ends not in a blaze of orchestral splendour but quietly and contemplatively.
 
Although Elgar was recalled several times to the platform to acknowledge the applause, he knew the acclamation was not as heartfelt and rapturous as on previous occasions. He asked his friend W. H. Reed, "What is the matter with them, Billy? They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs."
 
Order of Merit
In June 1911, as part of the celebrations surrounding the Coronation of King George V, Elgar was appointed to the Order of Merit, an exclusive honour limited to twenty-four holders at any time. The following year, the Elgars moved back to London, to a large house in Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead.
 
Last major works
At Hampstead, Elgar composed his last two large-scale works of the pre-war era, the choral ode The Music Makers (1912) for the Birmingham Festival, and the symphonic study Falstaff (1913) for the Leeds Festival. Both were received politely but without enthusiasm.
 
First World War
When World War I broke out, Elgar was horrified at the prospect of the carnage, but his patriotic feelings were nonetheless aroused. He signed up as a special constable in the local police and later joined the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve of the army.
 
He composed patriotic works, Carillon, a recitation for speaker and orchestra in honour of Belgium, and Polonia, an orchestral piece in honour of Poland. However, he was appalled when his popular song Land of Hope and Glory was being used to recruit volunteers. He tried in vain to have less nationalistic words sung to the tune.
 
During the war years, Elgar suffered from undiagnosed depression and started composing in a less romantic, patriotic style. He composed incidental music for a children's play, The Starlight Express (1915); a ballet, The Sanguine Fan (1917); and The Spirit of England (1915–17)
 
His last large-scale composition of the war years was The Fringes of the Fleet, settings of verses by Rudyard Kipling, performed with great popular success around the country, until Kipling for unexplained reasons objected to their performance in theatres.
 
Move to Sussex
Towards the end of the war, Elgar was in poor health. Alice decided a move to the country would be beneficial. She rented 'Brinkwells', a cottage near Fittleworth in Sussex and they lived there from 1917 to 1921.
 
Elgar recovered his strength and, in 1918 and 1919, he produced four large-scale works. On hearing the work in progress, Alice Elgar wrote in her diary, "E. writing wonderful new music."
 
The first three were chamber pieces: the Violin Sonata in E minor, the Piano Quintet in A minor, and the String Quartet in E minor. All three works were well received both by the public and the critics. When reviewing the Quartet, The Manchester Guardian wrote "This quartet, with its tremendous climaxes, curious refinements of dance-rhythms, and its perfect symmetry, and the quintet, more lyrical and passionate, are as perfect examples of chamber music as the great oratorios were of their type."
 
The fourth work however, the Cello Concerto in E minor, had a disastrous premier mainly through lack of adequate rehearsal time. The piece itself was lauded but the performance was lambasted.
 
The critic of The Observer, wrote: "There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever the explanation, the sad fact remains that never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra [the London Symphony] made so lamentable an exhibition of itself. ... The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar's music in the last couple of years – but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity."
 
Unlike the First Symphony, the piece was not played in London again, for over a year.
 
Lady Elgar’s Death
Although in the 1920s Elgar's music was no longer in fashion, his admirers continued to present his works when possible. Lady Elgar attended as many of the public performances as she could, but in early 1920 she fell ill. After a short illness, Alice Elgar died of lung cancer on 7 April 1920, at the age of seventy-two. She is buried in the churchyard of St Wulstan Church, Little Malvern .
 
Elgar was devastated by the loss of his wife. She had been his rock for over thirty years, freeing him from the drudgery of ruling up musical scores, meeting persistent admirers and refusing unnecessary social engagements. She gave him the time to explore his beloved countryside to gain inspiration from nature.
 
With no public demand for new works, and deprived of Alice's constant support and inspiration, Elgar allowed himself to be deflected from composition.
 
Edward had inherited from his father a reluctance to settle down to work on hand but could cheerfully spend hours over some perfectly unnecessary and entirely unremunerative undertaking, a trait that became stronger after Alice's death.
 
Hobbies
For much of the rest of his life, Elgar indulged himself in his several hobbies. Throughout his life he was a keen amateur chemist, sometimes using a laboratory in his back garden. He enjoyed football, supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C. He even composed an anthem for the football club entitled , He Banged the Leather for Goal.
 
In his later years he frequently attended horse-races. His protégés, the conductor Malcolm Sargent and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, both recalled rehearsals with Elgar at which he swiftly satisfied himself that all was well and then went off to the races.
 
In his younger days, Elgar had been an enthusiastic cyclist, buying Royal Sunbeam bicycles for himself and his wife in 1903 (he named his "Mr. Phoebus"). As an elderly widower, he enjoyed being driven about the countryside by his chauffeur.
 
In November and December 1923, he took a voyage to Brazil, journeying up the Amazon to Manaus, where he was impressed by its opera house, the Teatro Amazonas. Almost nothing is recorded so we are left in the dark about his activities or the events that he encountered during this trip.
 
Return to Worcestershire
After Alice's death, Elgar sold the Hampstead house, and lived for a short time in a flat in the heart of London in St James's. In 1923 he moved back to Worcestershire, to the village of Kempsey, where he lived until 1927. While living there he was appointed Master of the King’s Musick on 13 May 1924.
 
Last Works
He did not wholly abandon composing. He made large-scale symphonic arrangements of works by Bach and Handel and wrote pieces for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition – the Empire March and Pageant of Empire (a collection of eight songs).
 
Recordings
Always keen to utilise modern technology, Elgar embraced recording for the gramophone. From 1926 onwards he made a series of recordings of his own works. Music writer, Robert Philip, described Elgar as "the first composer to take the gramophone seriously."
 
He had already recorded much of his music by the early acoustic-recording process for His Master's Voice (HMV) from 1914 onwards, but the introduction of electrical microphones in 1925 transformed the gramophone from a novelty into a realistic medium for reproducing orchestral and choral music.
 
Recordings were made of Elgar conducting his own major works. Captured on disc are Elgar’s own interpretations of major orchestral works, including the Enigma Variations, Falstaff, the first and second symphonies, and the cello and violin concertos. For most of these, the orchestra was the London Symphony Orchestra, but the Variations were played by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. Elgar also conducted two newly founded orchestras, Adrian Boult's BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham's London Philharmonic Orchestra.
 
When these recordings were reissued by EMI on LP in the 1970s, they caused surprise to many by their fast tempo, in contrast to the slower speeds adopted by many conductors in the years since Elgar's death. The recordings were reissued on CD in the 1990s.
 
Abbey Road Studios
In November 1931, Elgar was filmed by Pathé for a newsreel depicting a recording session of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London. It is believed to be the only surviving sound film of Elgar, who makes a brief remark before conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, asking the musicians to "play this tune as though you've never heard it before." A memorial plaque to Elgar at Abbey Road was unveiled on 24 June 1993.
 
Final Years
In his final years, Elgar experienced a musical revival. In 1932, the BBC organised a festival of his works to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday. Aged 76, he flew to Paris to conduct the Violin Concerto for Menuhin. While in France, he visited his fellow composer Frederick Delius at his house at Grez-sur-Loing. He was sought out by younger musicians such as Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent and John Barbirolli, who championed his music when it was out of fashion.
 
He started work on an opera and a third symphony but was unable to complete them before inoperable colorectal cancer was discovered during an operation on 8 October 1933.
 
Elgar died on 23 February 1934 at the age of seventy-six and was buried next to his beloved wife in St Wulstan's Roman Catholic churchyard in Little Malvern.