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Elgar’s Explosion

by Eva Amsen

Composer Edward Elgar had a chemistry lab in a shed in his yard. There’s an anecdote about this lab in Elgar’s biography by W.H. Reed, and it’s quoted verbatim in pretty much every other source about it. Because it’s only a second-hand anecdote in one biography, it’s hard to say whether it’s entirely true, so the only way to cite it is to quote it. I went for a different interpretation… (The full quote from Reed is below.)

Elgar's explosion
Elgar's explosion
Elgar's explosion

The section from “Elgar as I knew him”, by W.H. Reed, that inspired this comic:

“One day he made a phosphoric concoction which, when dry, would “go off” by spontaneous combustion. The amusement was to smear it on a piece of blotting paper and then wait breathlessly for the catastrophe. One day he made too much paste; and, when his music called him and he wanted to go back to the house, he clapped the whole of it into a gallipot, covered it up, and dumped it into the water-butt, thinking it would be safe there.

Just as he was getting on famously, writing in horn and trumpet parts, and mapping out wood-wind, a sudden and unexpected crash, as of all the percussion in all the orchestras on earth, shook the room, followed by the “rushing mighty sound” he had already anticipated in The Kingdom. The water-butt had blown up: the hoops were rent: the staves flew in all directions; and the liberated water went down the drive in a solid wall.

Silence reigned for a few seconds. Then all the dogs in Herefordshire gave tongue; and all the doors and windows opened. After a moment’s thought, Edward lit his pipe and strolled down to the gate, andante tranquillo, as if nothing had happened and the ruined water-butt and the demolished flower-beds were pre-historic features of the landscape. A neighbour, peeping out of his gate, called out, “Did you hear that noise sir: it sounded like an explosion?” “Yes,” said Sir Edward, “I heard it: where was it?” The neighbour shook his head; and the incident was closed. “

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2 comments

Marion O'Leary January 11, 2015 - 2:48 PM

Elgar reportedly patented his device for making hydrogen sulfide, which has now fallen out of favor because of easier ways of obtaining this nasty substance. But does anyone know of a picture or detailed description of Elgar’s apparatus?

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Eva January 13, 2015 - 10:45 PM

I looked for an image or description when I was working on this comic and couldn’t find one anywhere. There is an Elgar museum somewhere, though, and they will probably know.

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