Edward Elgar was born in the small village of Lower Broadheath outside Worcester to William Elgar, a piano tuner and music dealer, and his wife Anne (née Greening). He was the fourth of seven children. His mother, Anne, had converted to Catholicism shortly before Edward’s birth, so Edward was baptised and brought up as a Roman Catholic.
Elgar was an early riser, and would often turn to reading Voltaire, Drayton, historical classics, Longfellow and other works encouraged by his mother. By the age of eight, he was taking piano and violin lessons, and would often listen to his father playing organ at St. George’s church, and soon took it up also. His prime interest, however, was the violin, and his first written music was for that instrument.
Surrounded by sheet music, instruments, and music textbooks in his father’s shop in Worcester’s High Street, the young Elgar became self-taught in music theory. On warm summer days, he would take manuscripts into the countryside to study them (he was a passionate and adventurous early cyclist from the age of 5). Thus there began for him a strong association between music and nature. As he was later to say, “There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.”
At the age of 15, Elgar had hoped to go to Leipzig, Germany to study music, but lacking the funds, he instead left school and began working for a local solicitor. Around this time he made his first public appearances as a violinist and organist. After a few months, he left the solicitor and embarked on a musical career, giving piano and violin lessons, and working occasionally in his father’s shop. Elgar was an active member of the Worcester Glee Club, along with his father, and he accompanied singers, played violin, composed and arranged works, and even conducted for the first time. At 22 he took up the post of bandmaster at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, three miles south-west of Worcester, a progressive institution which believed in the recuperative powers of music. He composed here too; some of the pieces for the asylum orchestra (music in dance forms) were rediscovered and performed locally in 1996.
In many ways, his years as a young Worcestershire violinist were his happiest. He played in the first violins at the Worcester and Birmingham Festivals, and one great experience was to play Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 and Stabat Mater under the composer’s baton. As part of a wind quintet and for his musical friends, he arranged dozens of pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and other masters, honing his arranging and compositional skills, and applying them to his earliest pieces. Although somewhat solitary and introspective by nature, Elgar thrived in Worcester’s musical circles.
In his first trips abroad in 1880-2, Elgar visited Paris and Leipzig, attended concerts by first rate orchestras, and was exposed to Wagnerism, then the rage. Returning to his more provincial milieu increased his desire for a wider fame. He often went to London in an attempt to get his works published, but this period in his life found him frequently despondent and low on money. He wrote to a friend in April 1884, “My prospects are about as hopeless as ever…I am not wanting in energy I think, so sometimes I conclude that ‘tis want of ability…I have no money—not a cent.”
At 29, through his teaching, he met (Caroline) Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts and a published author of verse and prose fiction. Eight years older than Elgar, she became his wife three years later against the wishes of her family. Her faith in him and her courage in marrying ‘beneath her class’ were strongly supportive to his career. She dealt with his mood swings and was a generous musical critic. Alice was also his business manager and social secretary. She did her best to gain him the attention of influential society, though with limited success. In time he would learn to accept the honours given him, realizing that they mattered more to her and her social class. She also gave up some of her personal aspirations to further his career. In her diary she later admitted, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.” As an engagement present, Elgar presented her with the short violin and piano piece Salut d’amour. With Alice’s encouragement, the Elgars moved to London to be closer to the centre of British musical life, and Edward started composing in earnest. The stay was unsuccessful, however, and they were obliged to return to Great Malvern, where Edward could earn a living teaching and conducting local musical ensembles. Though disappointed at the London episode, the return to the country proved better for Elgar’s health and as a base of musical inspiration, bringing him closer to nature and to his friends.
During the 1890s Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer, chiefly of works for the great choral festivals of the Midlands. The Black Knight and King Olaf (1896), both inspired by Longfellow, The Light of Life and Caractacus were all modestly successful and he obtained a long-standing publisher in Novello and Company. He also generously recommended the young composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to the Three Choirs Festival for a concert piece, which helped establish the younger man’s career. Elgar was catching the eyes of the prominent critics, although their reviews were still lukewarm, and he was in demand as a festival composer, but he was just getting by financially and not feeling appreciated the way he wanted to be. In 1898, he continued to be “very sick at heart over music” and hoped to find a way to succeed with a larger work. His friend Jaeger tried to lift his spirits, “A day’s attack of the blues…will not drive away your desire, your necessity, which is to exercise those creative faculties which a kind providence has given you. Your time of universal recognition will come.”
In 1899, that prediction suddenly came true. At the age of 42, Elgar’s produced his first major orchestral work, the Enigma Variations, which was premièred in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter. In Elgar’s own words, “I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme. The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends…that is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ (the person)… and have written what I think they would have written—if they were asses enough to compose”. Elgar dedicated the work “To my friends pictured within”.
The large-scale work was received with general acclaim, heralded for its originality, charm, and fine craftsmanship, and it established Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation. It is formally titled Variations on an Original Theme; the word “Enigma” appears over the first six measures of music, which led to the familiar version of the title. The enigma is that, although there are fourteen variations on the “original theme”, the ‘enigma’ theme, which Elgar said ‘runs through and over the whole set’ is never heard. Many later commentators have observed that although Elgar is today regarded as a characteristically English composer, his orchestral music and this work in particular share much with the Central European tradition typified at the time by the work of Richard Strauss. Indeed, the Enigma Variations were well-received in Germany, and persist to this day as a world-wide concert favourite.
The following year saw the production at the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival of his choral setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius. Despite a disastrous first performance due to poorly-prepared performers, the German première was much better received and the work was established within a few years as one of Elgar’s greatest. It is now regarded as one of the finest examples of English choral music from any era.
Elgar is probably best known for the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, composed between 1901 and 1930. Shortly after he composed the first march, Elgar set the trio melody to words by A. C. Benson as a Coronation Ode to mark the coronation of King Edward VII. The suggestion had already been made (allegedly by the future King himself) that words should be fitted to the broad tune which formed the trio section of this march. Against the advice of his friends, Elgar suggested that Benson furnish further words to allow him to include it in the new work. The result was Land of Hope and Glory, which formed the finale of the ode and was also issued (with slightly different words) as a separate song. The work was immensely popular and became a second national anthem. At last, he had made the leap from accomplished back-country musician to England’s foremost composer. It also gained Elgar the highest recognition he could have dreamed of—honorary degrees, a knighthood, special royal audiences, and a triumphal three-day festival of his music at Covent Garden attended by the King and Queen.
Between 1902 and 1914 Elgar enjoyed phenomenal success, made four visits to the USA including one conducting tour, and earned considerable fees from the performance of his music. Between 1905 and 1908 Elgar held the post of Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham. His lectures there caused controversy owing to remarks he made about other English composers and English music in general; he was quoted as saying “English music is white - it evades everything”. The University of Birmingham’s Special Collections contain an archive of letters written by Elgar. His new life as a celebrity was a mixed blessing as it often provoked ill-health from his high-strung nature and interrupted his privacy. He complained to Jaeger in 1903, “My life is one continual giving up of little things which I love.”
Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 (1908) was given one hundred performances in its first year, the violin concerto (1910) was commissioned by the world-renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler, and in 1911, the year of the completion of his Symphony No. 2, he had the Order of Merit bestowed upon him. In 1912, he moved back to London, again to be closer to musical society but to the detriment of his love of the countryside and to his general mood.
Elgar’s musical legacy is primarily orchestral and choral, but he did write for soloists and smaller instrumental groups. His one work for brass band, The Severn Suite (later arranged by the composer for orchestra), remains an important part of the brass band repertoire. This work was dedicated to his friend George Bernard Shaw. It is occasionally performed in its arrangement by Sir Ivor Atkins for organ as the composer’s second Organ Sonata; Elgar’s first, much earlier (1895) Organ Sonata was written specifically for the instrument in a highly orchestral style, and remains a cornerstone of the English Romantic organ repertoire.
During World War I his music began to fall out of fashion. The war was overturning his world and his time. He himself grew to hate his ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ March No.1 with its popular ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ tune, which he felt had been made into a jingoistic song, not in keeping with the tragic loss of life in the war. This was captured in the film Elgar by Ken Russell. After the death of his wife in 1920, loneliness and declining interest in his art fostered little in the way of new works of importance. Shortly before her death he composed the elegiac Cello Concerto, often described as his last masterpiece.
Elgar lived in the village of Kempsey from 1923 to 1927, during which time he was made Master of the King’s Musick.
He was the first composer to make extensive recordings of his own compositions. HMV (His Master’s Voice) recorded much of his music acoustically from 1914 onwards and then began a series of electrical recordings in 1926 that continued until 1933, including his “Enigma Variations,” “Falstaff,” the first and second symphonies, his cello and violin concertos, all of the “Pomp and Circumstance” marches, and other orchestral works. Part of a 1927 rehearsal of the second symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra was also recorded and later issued.
Elgar’s recordings of his violin concerto and the Enigma Variations have been reissued on CD by EMIIn November 1931, Elgar was filmed by Pathe for a newsreel depicting a recording session of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. It is believed to be the only surviving sound film of Elgar, who makes a brief remark before conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, asking the musicians to “play this like you’ve never played it before.” Silent films of the composer have also survived.
In the 1932 recording of the violin concerto, the ageing composer worked with the American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who was then only 16 years old; they worked well together and Menuhin warmly recalled his association with the composer years later, when he performed the concerto with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Menuhin later conducted an award-winning recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and much of the major orchestral music.
Elgar’s recordings usually featured such orchestras as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (which reverted in 1928 to its earlier name, New Symphony Orchestra) and, in 1933, the newly-founded London Philharmonic Orchestra. Elgar’s recordings were released on 78-rpm discs by both HMV and RCA Victor. In later years, EMI reissued the recordings on LP and CD.
In his later years, Elgar befriended young conductors such as Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent who championed his music when it was out of fashion.
At the end of his life Elgar began work on an opera, The Spanish Lady, and accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a Third Symphony. His final illness prevented their completion.
He died on 23 February 1934 and is buried at St. Wulstan’s Church in Little Malvern. Within four months, two more great English composers - Gustav Holst and Frederick Delius - were also dead.
Froissart, Overture for orchestra, Op.19 (1890)
Serenade for string orchestra, Op.20 (revised version of Three Pieces for string orchestra, 1888-92)
Sursum corda for brass, organ and strings, Op.11 (1894)
Three Bavarian Dances for orchestra, Op.27 (1897)
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) for orchestra, Op.36 (1899)
Sea Pictures, Song cycle for contralto and orchestra, Op.37 (1897-99)
Chanson de Matin and Chanson de Nuit, for small orchestra (arrangement of the salon pieces for violin and piano), Op.15 (1899)
Cockaigne (In London Town), Overture for orchestra, Op.40 (1900-01)
Pomp and Circumstance, Marches No.1 and 2 for orchestra, Op.39 (1901)
Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid for orchestra, Op.42 (1902, from the incidental music to the play by W.B. Yeats)
Dream Children, Two pieces for chamber orchestra, Op.43 (1902)
In the South (Alassio), Concert Overture for orchestra, Op.50 (1903-04)
Pomp and Circumstance, March No.3 for orchestra (1904)
Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47 (1904-05)
Pomp and Circumstance, March No.4 for orchestra (1907)
The Wand of Youth, Suite No. 1 for orchestra, Op.1a (1867-71, rev. 1907)
The Wand of Youth, Suite No. 2 for orchestra, Op.1b (1867-71, rev. 1908)
Symphony No.1 in A flat for orchestra, Op.55 (1907-08)
Elegy for string orchestra, Op.58 (1909)
Romance for bassoon and orchestra, Op.62 (1909)
Concerto for violin and orchestra in B minor, Op.61 (1909-10)
Symphony No.2 in E flat for orchestra, Op.63 (1909-11)
Coronation March for orchestra, Op.65 (1911)
The Crown of India, Suite for orchestra, Op.66 (1911-12)
Falstaff, Symphonic Study for orchestra, Op.68 (1913)
Sospiri for string orchestra and harp, Op.70 (1914)
Polonia, Symphonic Prelude for orchestra, Op.76 (1915)
The Starlight Express, Suite for vocal soloists and orchestra, Op.78 (from the incidental music to the play by Algernon Blackwood, 1915-16)
The Sanguine Fan for orchestra, Op.81 (1917)
Concerto for cello and orchestra in E minor, Op.85 (1918-19)
Empire March for orchestra (1924)
Suite from Arthur for chamber orchestra (from the incidental music to Laurence Binyon’s Arthur, 1924)
Minuet from Beau Brummel for orchestra (1928-29)
Pomp and Circumstance, March No.5 for orchestra (1930)
Nursery Suite for orchestra (1931)
Severn Suite, Op. 87, for brass band (1930) or orchestra (1932)
Mina for chamber orchestra (1933)
Symphony No 3 for orchestra, Op.88 (sketches, 1932-34, elaborated by Anthony Payne 1972-97)
Piano Concerto, Op.90 (sketches, 1909-25, elaborated by Robert Walker)
Pomp and Circumstance, March No.6 for orchestra
Cantatas and oratorios:
The Black Knight, Symphony/Cantata for chorus and orchestra, Op.25 (1889-92)
From the Bavarian Highlands for chorus and orchestra, Op.27 (1895-96)
The Light of Life (Lux Christi), Oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.29 (1896)
Scenes From The Saga Of King Olaf, Cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 30 (1896)
The Banner of St George, Ballad for chorus and orchestra, Op.33 (1897)
Te Deum & Benedictus for chorus and orchestra, Op.34 (1897)
Caractacus, Cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.35 (1897-98)
The Dream of Gerontius, Oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.38 (1899-1900)
Coronation Ode for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.44 (1901-02, rev. 1911)
The Apostles, Oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.49 (1902-03)
The Kingdom, Oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.51 (1901-06)
The Crown of India, Imperial Masque for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.66 (1911-12)
The Music Makers, Ode for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.69 (1912)
The Spirit of England for soprano/tenor, chorus and orchestra, Op.80 (1915-17)
The Smoking Cantata for baritone soloist and orchestra. Written in 1919, this piece was probably never intended to be performed and was given the absurd opus number of 1001. Its duration is less than a minute.
“Is she not passing fair?” Text by Charles, Duke of Orleans; translated by Louis Stuart Costello. (1908) From Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
Salut d’Amour (Liebesgruss) for violin and piano, Op.12 (1888)
Sonata for violin and piano, Op.82 (1918)
String Quartet in E minor, Op.83 (1918)
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84 (1918-19)
Soliloquy for solo oboe (1930)
Concert Allegro (1901)
In Smyrna (1905)
Adieu (pub. 1932)
Sonata in G Major, Op. 28
“Second Organ Sonata”, Op. 87a (an arrangement by Ivor Atkins of the Severn Suite)
Edited by headey on 21 Nov 2013, 13:21
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