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Fitness Advice from Edwardian England

This whole fitness thing is a bit exhausting. Every time I check my Facebook or Twitter feed, I am bombarded with ads showing impossibly toned people doing all sorts of intimidating feats at the gym. Their chiseled six-pack abs feature prominently, and those of us who are naturally a little more soft-edged are apparently supposed to be shamed into sweaty action. And the means by which to achieve the end are myriad—CrossFit, yoga, hot yoga, pilates, strength training, marathon running. How’s an ab-free person to choose?


This may come as a surprise to you, but if you do a little digging, advice for most of life’s dilemmas can be extracted from the wisdom of so-called Classical music’s masters. When dealing with crippling anxiety and depression, Tchaikovsky reminds us that, “There are many thorns, but the roses are there too.” On the question of professionalism, Mozart’s father wisely tells us “not to become over-familiar with people of our own profession.” The great English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, has advice for us on this fitness quandary: take up golf.


Elgar wrote: “Golf...is the best form of exercise for writing men, as it involves no risk of accident, is always ready without much preliminary arrangement, and has the inestimable advantage of being solidly respectable, inasmuch as it is seldom worth seeing and rarely worth reading about.” Backhanded compliments notwithstanding, Elgar really was an unabashed golf enthusiast. He played his first holes at age of thirty-five and never looked back.


Elgar’s time predates the era of the shirtless selfie, so we may never know how close his golfing brought him to a six-pack. Regardless of the outcome of his regimen, there is a strong case for trusting his advice in many things. Elgar was the greatest composer England had produced since the 17th century days of Henry Purcell, and he left us a legacy of extraordinary music, including the great Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, two remarkable symphonies, and his iconic Cello Concerto.


Finished in 1919, the Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last major work for orchestra. It came after a particularly dark time in the composer’s life. He was sixty-one years old and in ill health, but his physical state had less of an impact than the state of the world. World War I, or the Great War, ended the year before, and it had destroyed life as Elgar knew it. He was deeply affected by the loss and destruction the war left in its wake, and the Cello Concerto was the outlet for his desperation and his disillusionment. It is an anguished cry for innocence lost, and an impassioned hymn to the inextinguishable hope of the human spirit.


I haven’t consulted my personal trainer on this one yet, but I have a hunch that there may be some collective doubt about taking fitness advice from Edwardian England. In the meantime, I guess it’s back to the gym.

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© 2020 by GORDON GERRARD. Photos by Brent Calis and Ryan Stewart.