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Fringes of the Fleet

Fringes of the Fleet

Tom Higgins

(see photos)

On Sunday, 10th June 1917, four young baritones assembled at Sir Edward Elgar’s London Home, Severn House, for Lunch. It was, no doubt a pleasant, social occasion, but, more importantly, there was a professional reason for the gathering.


They were there to rehearse The Fringes of the Fleet, a new work by Elgar. This was one of the work’s final rehearsals and its premiere at the London Coliseum on the following day – Monday 11th June – was eagerly anticipated. It was programmed as part of a bill of twice daily Variety Performances


Chief among those looking forward to that first performance must have been Admiral, Lord Beresford, to whom the work is dedicated. The genesis for Elgar’s setting had come from a publication in 1916 by Rudyard Kipling, also entitled, The Fringes of the Fleet – a collection of poems interspersed with background prose all on the theme of life on board ship especially in times of conflict.


Elgar’s decision to set these poems must have seemed particularly exciting at the time: Britain’s leading composer and poet united in a work for the stage! Everything was in place for a notable success and so it proved to be. Within weeks of the show’s opening the Coliseum programme was announcing that The Fringes of the Fleet was ‘The Great ELGAR-KIPLING Success.’ It proved so popular that in quick succession it was recorded for His Master’s Voice and then taken on a provincial tour, eventually returning to the Coliseum later in the year.


But within a few short months Kipling, to general dismay, had forbidden further performances. He had, it seems, become increasingly dissatisfied with the presentation of his work in the music halls. Even at the outset he had not demonstrated much enthusiasm for the project possibly because not long after writing lines such as these –


The ships destroy us above

And ensnare us beneath.

We arise, we lie down and we move

In the belly of Death


– Kipling’s only son had been reported missing in action. To others, however, this poem designed as a tribute to the men who fought in Submarines and the rest of the Fringes’ poems, all patriotic in character, must have seemed like a golden opportunity to boost public morale. Eventually, Kipling reluctantly agreed and Elgar set four of the poems in what he called, ‘a broad salt-water style.’  In essence they capture Kipling’s descriptive turn-of-phrase excellently.


 In the first song, there is the affability yet friction among the crew of the Lowestoft Boat – a motley bunch drawn from all ages and walks of life. Fate’s Discourtesy comes next with its emphasis on team-work. Curiously, it strikes an almost religious note. Submarines, as can be seen above, paints a grim picture of life below the waves, while The Sweepers deals with the horrors of locating and dealing with mines.


Elgar’s Fringes was presented in a staged fashion with the singer’s appearing in costume outside a pub. The original four baritones were Charles Mott (the principal soloist), Frederic Henry, Harry Barratt and Frederic Stewart. By 23 July George Parker had replaced Charles Mott who had been called up for military service.


The popularity of the Fringes was immediate. The First World War was reaching its climax and Elgar’s new work caught the public mood at just the right moment. Its fame was demonstrated over and over again by the Coliseum management’s decision to extend its run week after week.


To understand how unusual that was, we must remember how music hall or variety performances were presented 90 years ago. The bill of Variety acts or ‘turns’ as they were called changed weekly. But demand for the Fringes proved so strong that it stayed on the programme right through June until the end of July. Elgar conducted every performance afternoon and evening ‘in person’.  By 27th June he had composed one more song (unaccompanied) for inclusion in the programme: Inside the Bar to words by Sir Gilbert Parker.


In the normal course of events then the Fringes would eventually have entered the circle of Elgar’s oft-performed works. But no-one reckoned on the unforeseen intervention of Kipling. By the end of 1917, to Elgar’s considerable distress,  Kipling succeeded in preventing further performances.


While Kipling’s motives were personal and should be respected, the result of his action was, unfortunately, to air-brush an important Elgar work out of the repertoire. Apart from a few sporadic performances it has lain virtually forgotten for nearly a century, and I am proud to have been the conductor of this, the first fully professional recording of the complete work since 1917.


Like most Elgar devotees, I knew of the work and upon acquiring a vocal score in a version for solo baritone, formed the view that it was an important part of Elgar’s war-time achievements. It may not be a work on the ‘grand scale,’ but ranks high among his pieces of more modest proportions.  As always, Elgar’s inspirational enthusiasm is infectious and finds its voice in an unexpected harmonic turn, a masterly stroke of orchestration, or quite simply a memorable tune for the man-in-the-street.


Happily, my determination to record The Fringes was echoed by Siva Oke of SOMM Recordings and Michael Letchford, who became our executive producer.


From the various manuscripts I studied and the original recordings of 1917 directed by the composer, I prepared a performing edition, which stays faithful to the composer’s original intentions while observing some performance practices that were not always annotated at the time. This has now been recorded by SOMM. I am confident it captures the spirit of the work and will assist in restoring The Fringes of the Fleet to its rightful place as an important Elgar work.

Tom Higgins © This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of Musical Opinion and is reprinted here by kind permission of the editor.

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