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The Starlight Express (1915)

Algernon Blackwood

Elgar needed little persuasion when approached in 1915 to compose music for The Starlight Express, an adaptation for the stage of Algernon Blackwood’s fantasy novel, A Prisoner in Fairyland. The storyline and its author’s sympathies – an identification with childhood, reverence for patterns and processes in the natural environment, and a sense of otherworldly mysticism – immediately struck a chord with the 58-year-old composer. Happily diverted from the depressing bleakness of wartime London, Elgar threw himself heart-and-soul into the project, the closest he came to writing an opera.

In the mountains and forests of neutral Switzerland the children of a close-knit family form themselves into a secret ‘Star Society’, where each child identifies with a familiar constellation: Jane Anne with the Pleiades, Jimbo the Pole Star, Monkey the Great and Little Bear, and Cousin Henry Orion. They realise that adults have become ‘wumbled’ – a Lewis Carroll-like conflation of the words ‘worried’ and ‘jumbled’ suggesting disorientation and confusion – owing to a lack of ‘sympathy’, or ‘understanding the feelings and needs of others’.

At night the children play among the stars, collecting stardust – in effect grains of sympathy – to sprinkle on the adults to release them from their sorry state. The children are helped by a group of ‘sprites’ who travel on the eponymous Starlight Express, a ‘train’ of thought, which serves as a portal into the star world. The Lamplighter lights up hope, the Tramp personifies instinctive simplicity, the Laugher laughs troubles into fun, the Gardener makes things grow, the Sweep sweeps the blues away, the Dustman brings the stardust of sympathy and the Woman-of-the-Haystack, mother of them all, is borne on the winds. An additional character, the Organ-Grinder, introduces and comments on the action. Following a successful ‘un-wumbling’ of the adults, the stage version adds a seasonal twist, not in Blackwood’s original story, where the Christmas star extends a promise of universal harmony, neatly echoed by Elgar’s working of the carol ‘The First Nowell’ into the musical texture of the Finale.

Lena Ashwell, the producer who commissioned Elgar to write the music, was a great believer in the power of music, ‘the straightest road to the unseen world of spiritual beauty’. She told Elgar of ‘a great mystic quality in the play which I am sure will help people to bear the sorrows of the war’. Elgar later said that he had ‘been waiting a generation for just such a story to set’. He and Algernon Blackwood would enjoy a profound partnership, sharing juvenile japes and erudite philosophising in a bond that lasted many years. The inaccurate image handed down to us of Elgar the stuffy country squire belies the fun-loving rascal revealed in the accounts of those close to him. His was no mawkish nostalgia for a lost childhood, but a vibrant preservation of a childlike sense of wonder: at the height of his fame he would pop into the local Woolworths store to purchase children’s novelty toys for his own amusement.

Fired up with enthusiasm, Elgar recalled that as a youngster he wrote a musical play in which children ostensibly redeem befuddled adults after crossing into a magic world. Although a fortuitous resemblance to The Starlight Express scenario may have been overstated, many key motifs in this late work are recycled from Elgar’s winsome childhood sketches, which he had arranged eight years earlier into two orchestral suites known as The Wand of Youth. Elgar’s instinctive identification with the narrative inspired a sustained outpouring of much imaginatively original material. The music’s subtle charm and evocative tone-painting become immediately apparent in the Organ-Grinder’s opening song, ‘O children, open your arms to me’.

The other aspect of the tale that appealed to Elgar was Blackwood’s overt nature mysticism. Elgar, too, was a child of nature. At one with his local landscape he literally immersed himself in its rhythms when composing – in a tent outside, surrounded by rustling breezes in the trees. He marvelled at the patterns revealed in his chemistry lab, and under his microscopes, and also at those in the heavens, declaring that music was ‘written on the sky’. He went stargazing with his daughter Carice, in one letter exclaiming, ‘I seem to miss a star out of the constellation of Orion: do you know anything of it?’ Elgar spoke with awesome reverence of the beauty in these natural symmetries – which, when echoed in his music, seem to beguile the listener into a transcendental engagement with the soul of the universe.

A serious interest in kite-flying and the Aeolian harp, or wind harp, exemplified Elgar’s particular fascination with the musical effects of the wind. The breath of the wind as it blew across these taut strings produced haunting utterances that many Victorians believed were the voices of ethereal spirits, an effect emulated in the Starlight Express music, for example, in the solo violin cadenzas. Blackwood described the rails supporting the Starlight Express as a network of ‘filmy lines’ joining the mountain tops and trees, ‘threading the starlight … they would twang with delicate music if the wind swept its hand more rapidly across them’.

Audiences gave enthusiastic support to the play, and the music was well received, but the story was dismissed by critics as ‘preachy and pretentious’, a ‘delicate fancy’ turned into a ‘heavy sermon’. After just 40 performances the play mysteriously closed ahead of schedule. The Starlight Express was more than wartime escapism and its thinly disguised pacifist message would have been deeply unsettling for the Establishment. By contrast, its main rival in wartime escapist children’s theatre, Peter Pan, enjoyed a long and successful run. Its comforting dualistic theme, where the swashbuckling heroes’ excusable violence firmly trounces the ‘baddies’, struck a more appropriate triumphalist tone.

Though loyally patriotic, Elgar was distressed by the war and doubted its purpose. By including cowbells, a wind machine and organ in his instrumentation for The Starlight Express, as used by Strauss in An Alpine Symphony, was Elgar subtly empathising with his German friend and admirer? Elgar’s pioneering recording of The Starlight Express in 1916 provided balm for the forces. An officer wrote to Elgar that among even the roughest of the soldiers, ‘all care for your music … the whole thing is unreal, and music is all that we have to help us carry on’. It was a sad irony that the talented young baritone who played the Organ-Grinder, Charles Mott, died of battle wounds in 1918 after returning to the front.

Woefully neglected for many years, the sentiments of The Starlight Express were prophetic in urging selfless understanding between peoples and a harmonious reverence for the natural environment. The work is ripe for a new generation raised on stories of children who plunge through magic portals and ride magical trains in a quest to save the world (the parallels with Harry Potter are unmistakable). Elgar’s richly apposite music deserves to find a place among his greatest works, as well as in the realms of incidental music and of music for children. Its universal message is a potent parable for our time.

Programme note © Kevin Jones

Until recently Professor of Music at Kingston University, Kevin Jones researches and writes about historical, contemporary and cross-cultural relationships between science and music. He has a particular interest in the influence of science and use of codes in Elgar’s music.

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