Express & Star

House opposite Molineux that turned Elgar into a musical giant

"When Elgar came here in 1895, he couldn't ride a bike, and frankly, he had written tiddly squat," jokes David Guest to the small crowd that has assembled at the former rectory opposite Molineux.


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But after meeting Dora Penny, he learned to ride a bike, developed an affinity for Wolverhampton Wanderers, and wrote the piece of music that would define his career.

The name of Dora Penny may not roll of the tongue like that of Beverly Knight or Liam Payne, but the influence she had on British music should not be underestimated.

Because Dora Penny was the real-life Dorabella, No. 10 in the Enigma Variations which catapulted a little-known musician from the West Midlands into one of the great composers of the 20th century.

And Dora Penny is now the latest Wulfrunian – or adopted Wulfrunian at least – to be honoured with a blue plaque by the Wolverhampton Society.

The plaque was unveiled in a ceremony at the house where Dora lived with her father the Rev Alfred Penny, who was rector of St Peter's Collegiate Church in the town. It was at this house where the composer and his wife would stay when he wrote some of the music that would define his career. It was while staying here that Dora accompanied him to his first Wolves match – and reputedly wrote the world's first football chant.

"He didn't just come here for a Saturday afternoon to watch the Wolves," says Mr Guest, a retired teacher who funded the £900 cost of the plaque.

"He had his holidays here, he stayed for weeks at a time.

"He was playing around in there with Caractacus, his cantata, and his mind wandered, he was thinking about Malapass, his Wolves hero, and suddenlty he's writing 'he bangs the leather for goal', that was how his mind worked."

Dora was born 150 years ago, on February 8, 1874, when her father was vicar of Swindon, near Dudley. Her mother died from scarlet fever a week after her birth and, reputedly in a fit of grief, he sailed to the Solomon Islands to carry out missionary work, leaving Dora to be brought up by her grandmother. It was not until 1895, at the age of 21, that she took up residence with her father, by this time Rector of St Peter's, moving into the impressive rectory in Waterloo Road, opposite Molineux.

By this time, Alfred had remarried, to a friend of Elgar's wife Alice, and the couple would stay at the spacious house. It was at this time that Elgar, then a music teacher in his late 30s, took an interest in the emerging sport of football. Wolves' first celebrity fan, he is said to have created the world's first football chant. And, according to the legend at least, it was Dora who accompanied him to his first match in 1896.

In 1899, after years as a struggling musician little-known outside the Midlands, he was catapulted to global fame when his Enigma Variations was premiered in London under the baton of eminent German conductor Hans Richter. Describing the work – originally titled 'Variations on an Original Theme – Elgar said: "The Variations have amused me because I've labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends.

"I've written the variations each one to represent the mood of the 'party', and have written what I think they would have written, if they were asses enough to compose."

Dora was known for her love of dancing, so Elgar gave the variation dedicated to her a dance theme. In her diaries, she described going to dances on three consecutive nights, not returning until the early hours of the morning, leaving herself feeling 'quite dead'. The Enigma Variations brought Elgar to worldwide attention, and over the next 30 years he would establish himself as one of the great composers of the 20th century.

While Dora herself never reached these heights, she too was an accomplished musician, blazing a trail when women struggled to be taken seriously in the world of music.

According to Mr Guest, Dora regularly sang solo parts with Wolverhampton Choral Society, whose conductors included Sir Henry Wood who later went on to found the Proms concert series.

"It was Sir Henry who suggested to Dora that she could become a conductor," he says.

"Not wanting to wait 100 years before it was accepted that a woman could conduct a symphony orchestra, Dora formed and conducted her own string orchestra.

"She did, however, draw some criticism, not for the quality of the music, but for including music from the comic operas – very unseemly for the rector's daughter."

Dora, who lived at the house until 1914, was also the recipient of the 'Dorabella Cipher', one of two letters from Elgar written in an unexplained code, believed to relate to the Enigma Variations. The letter lay undiscovered until Dora revealed it in her 1937 memoirs Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation. She said that she never managed to decipher the message, and despite the attempts of subsequent scholars to crack the code, Elgar took the meaning of the message with him to the grave.

An early advocate of cycling, Dora persuaded Elgar to buy a Wolverhampton-made Sunbeam bike at the age of 42. She regularly cycled 40 miles to visit the Elgars at their home in Worcestershire, and once completed a 398.5-mile solo cycle tour.

In recognition of this, the plaque – unveiled by Renee Young, widow of Elgar's biographer Percy Young at a ceremony on Saturday –features an image of Dora riding her bicycle.

However the story about the composer himself regularly cycling from Malvern to Molineux was a myth, says David Guest.

"He took his bike on the train, and then cycled to Molineux from Paul Street," he says.

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