#coachlearninginsport: Phoebus moments



I have been thinking about how coaches transform their own and others’ learning environments.
I thought it might be instructive to look at how Edward Elgar found Phoebus moments to stimulate his creativity.
I wondered too if a mention of Rebecca Solnit might be of interest.
At its heart, this is a lost and found post.

Edward’s Dark Place

Edward composed a work for voices and orchestra in 1900 titled The Dream of Gerontius. The first performance of  was in the Birmingham Town Hall on 3 October 1900. One account of the evening notes:

The performance was considered a complete catastrophe, although the work itself gained some recognition. The lack of adequate rehearsal time became apparent as the chorus clearly did not know their parts.

Another account refers to the evening as “one of the great fiascos of musical history”.
Edward is reported to have become very depressed as a result of the premier.

Finding Himself

Martin Buzacott has researched Edward’s life.  In his discussion of Elgar The Cyclist, he observes “cycling allowed him to recover quickly from the disappointment in Birmingham”.
Martin adds:

Within a year of first taking to Worcestershire’s country lanes on two wheels, he began writing those long, loping melodies for which he would become famous – the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the gorgeous viola tune of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, and the Symphony No 1, not to mention his majestic The Apostles, a work whose climax was well-documented as having emerged during cycling expeditions.

His first bike, a Royal Sunbeam, cost £21. He named this bike Mr Phoebus. The first version lasted three years.
The name, Mr Phoebus, came from a character in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel, Lothair.
His cycling career lasted a decade. He had covered 1300 miles by 1903 and moved on to his second Sunbeam bicycle.
When he moved to Hereford in 1904 he cycled most of the way from Malvern. Kevin Allen has written about these years in Elgar the Cyclist.
Martin Buzacott produced an Elgar travelogue for ABC’s Classic FM in 2014. He wrote:

Two things struck me about the places Elgar cycled. One was just how steep some of the hills that he cycled over were. I myself had just come from France where I’d ridden my bike up the toughest climbs of the Tour de France, and even though Birchwood where Elgar learned to cycle doesn’t exactly compare with Alpe d’Huez, its location made me realise just how physically fit Elgar must have been to ride up that, and so many other surrounding hills, on heavy fixed-gear and two-speed bicycles.
The second thing I noticed was just how dangerous the roads were for cyclists – narrow, pot-holed, locked-in by high hedges, and downright scary when speeding cars came careering around the blind corners. While taking evasive action, I understood all too well why the rise in popularity of motor vehicles caused Elgar to give cycling away at the end of his halcyon creative decade 1900-1910.

There is a general agreement that cycling had an immense impact on his composition. One of his riding partners, Rosa Burley, remembered:

Our cycling trips began in earnest after Gerontius… There cannot have been a lane within twenty miles of Malvern that we did not ultimately find … to Upton, to Tewkesbury or Hereford, to the Vale of Evesham … to the lovely village on the west side of the hills … as we rode, he would often become silent and I knew that some new melody or, more probably, some new piece of orchestral texture, had occurred to him.

Finding Yourself Whilst Lost

Edward’s decade of cycling had an immense impact on the composition of music in the early twentieth century. He found himself on Dr Phoebus after his experience in Birmingham in 1900. His Phoebus experiences created space for him to move away from his perception of failure and the related depression.
As I was researching his experiences of a change of focus, I came across Maria Popova’s review of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. This sentence struck me from an introductory essay:

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.

In a different essay, Rebecca writes about one aspect of loss as “the unfamiliar appearing”. She suggests:

Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience.


What space?

Edward and Rebecca offer some fascinating insights into how a change of environment can be transformative.
I am left thinking about how we support coaches and athletes to explore different spaces. I do see very strong resonances here with the #relearn conversations that will be occurring in the next month in England.
Edward had some well established maps to help him as well as experienced riding companions. Rebecca’s discussion of loss is itself a guide. Part of my next personal learning will be addressing how to be present during those wind blowing your hair back moments when coaches are greeted by new experiences.

Photo Credits

Edward Elgar and his Royal Sunbeam bicycle
Riding the Sunbeam 1903.
Elgar Birthplace Museum, Lower Broadheath.
In the clouds (Joe Hunt, CC BY 2.0)


  1. I have really enjoyed reading this post. Cycling and Elgar are both important to me and the way in which you have related this to ‘getting lost’ and transformative spaces makes perfect sense to me. Thanks 🙂

    • Good morning, Jenny. Thank you for finding the post. I really enjoyed researching it, Elgar playing in the background for much of the day. I am delighted you found it interesting. Best wishes, Keith


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