26 October 2015

Finding modest tributes to
great composers in Lichfield

Oakley Close … a modest and misspelled tribute to Lichfield’s great but forgotten hymn-writer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I am carrying out some more research for features next month on Canon Frederick Oakeley, the author of the English version of ‘O Come all you faithful.’

Oakeley spent his childhood in the former Episcopal Palace in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, and later was a canon of Lichfield Cathedral. But while there is a memorial to Oakeley’s father in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral, the only monument to the writer of one the all-time favourite Christmas carols is a street name in which his name is misspelled.

I went in search of Oakley Close at the weekend, and found myself in what can only be called the “Musicians’ Corner” of Lichfield.

Oakley Close has no street-sign of its own, and I might have been forgiven for missing it altogether.

Purcell Avenue … recalling the greatest English composer until Elgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Purcell Avenue is a lengthy road on the north-east side of Lichfield. Perhaps it is named after Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He is considered to be one of the greatest English composers, and no other native-born English composer approached his fame until Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Appropriately then, one of the small streets off Purcell Avenue is Elgar Close, named after Edward Elgar.

The entrance to Elgar Close and Oakley Close off Purcell Avenue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

At the entrance to Elgar Close, the sign reads: “Elgar Close, leading to Oakley Close and Pearce Court Flats.

I walked along Elgar Close, passed by Pearce Court Flats, but when I found myself in Oakley Close there was no sign or plaque recalling Lichfield’s great carol writer. Not only was his name misspelled at the entrance through Elgar Close, but it was forgotten by the time I had arrived in this small corner of Lichfield.

Handel Walk … remembering a German composer who is often regarded as English (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Behind Purcell Avenue, a walkway linking many of the houses is called Handel Walk, although I could find no houses that have Handel Walk as their address.

Despite being German-born, Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is quintessentially English, with his coronation anthems, his choral works and his water music. But then, Dublin has a claim on Handel too.

Verdi Court … the Italian opera writer is also referred to in Penelope Lively’s book ‘The Road to Lichfield’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Close by is Verdi Court, recalling the Italian composer of operas, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). In her first adult novel, The Road to Lichfield (1977), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Penelope Lively has the character James Stanway asks Betty, who has developed a taste for opera that he has started to share: “I bow to your superior judgment, but I remain unconvinced that Carmen is a major work. What about Verdi, now? How do you feel about Verdi?”

Gilbert Road … WS Gilbert collaborated with Arthur Sullivan on 14 comic operas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Lighter opera has its place in this area too, though, in the names of Gilbert Way, Sullivan Way and Sullivan Walk.

The librettist Sir William Gilbert (1836-1911) and the composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), who was born to Irish parents, collaborated on 14 Victorian comic operas between 1871 and 1896, including HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.

But Sullivan seems to have done better than Gilbert in Lichfield, with two places named after the composer and only one after the librettist.

Sullivan Way and Sullivan Walk … two place names remember the composer (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

But two composers with Lichfield connections go without naming in this corner of Lichfield, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) and Muzio Clementi (1752-1832).

Caroline Sarah Darwin, the maternal grandmother of Vaughan Williams, was the eldest sister of Charles Darwin and a grand-daughter of Erasmus Darwin, whose house near Lichfield Cathedral is one of the major visitor attractions.

In the 1830s, Clementi lived at Lyncroft House, on the north-west fringes of Lichfield. In his time, he was a celebrated composer, piano-maker, conductor and music publisher. Although much of his music is forgotten today, he was once considered second only to Joseph Haydn as a composer. He was a friend of Mozart and it is said he had a notable influence on Beethoven.

Today Lyncroft House is the Hedgehog, a restaurant and bar in the Vintage Inn chain and one of my favourite places to stay in Lichfield. It is just a short walk there from the musical corner of north-east Lichfield.

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