The story of Gervase Elwes
Gervase Elwes (1866-1921) was unique, not only in the use of his
considerable vocal talents, but because of the insight he demonstrated
in his charitable endeavours. Find out how the life of the tenor Gervase Elwes inspired the creation of a Fund for musicians.
Remembering how it all began
Born at Billing Hall, Northampton, Elwes did not begin formal singing lessons until his late 20s. He lived in an age when, as a country gentleman, his desire to sing professionally would have been met with some family resistance. Nevertheless, the call of the concert platform became too strong, and he began his professional career in his 30s.
What we know of Elwes is that he had great personal taste and judgement of his own abilities, possessing a strong professional sense of which musical repertoire suited his voice. He was a perfectionist and strived to be as good as he could be, yet he never found himself drawn to the opera stage, believing that his voice was not best suited to the medium. He was particular about what he sang, but was also a supporter of new works and would carefully sift the hundreds of new compositions he was sent.
Composers and audiences responded immediately to the striking qualities of passion and sincerity in Elwes’ voice. His singing on Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius prompted Vaughan Williams to comment, “The strength of his art lay in his power of making the candour and uprightness of his character an actual part of his singing – he sang as he spoke, from the heart.” Elwes was also famed as a singer of German Lieder. His German pronunciation was widely admired, with his one tour of Germany being met with considerable acclaim: “In his hands, the German love-song became a most amazing thing, full of passion – tumultuous and overwhelming.”
Another aspect of the life of Gervase Elwes that deserves particular attention is the compassion he showed to his fellow musicians. He found room at Great Billing for ill or down-and-out musicians, and recognising their need for recuperation, allowed his house to become an informal rest home. Elwes also sang in asylums, believing that people with psychiatric problems would benefit from the restorative qualities of good music. The young, too, benefited from his enthusiasm and instruction, with choirs and competitions being set up in the villages and schools of Brigg, Lincolnshire.
When Elwes was accidentally knocked down by a train in Boston, USA, his death was a terrible shock to fellow professionals and admirers alike. A great singer had been lost, but to all who knew him, Elwes was also a loyal friend and a man of exceptionally generous spirit. His legacy is testament to this, and his vision inspired the creation of a Fund for Musicians, set up by his close friends in the weeks after his death. In 1930 it became the Musicians Benevolent Fund.
Read more about the life of Gervase Elwes.