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1857 1934

Sir Edward William Elgar

Elgar, Sir Edward William
The leading English composer at the beginning of the 20th century, Elgar was the first one in more than a century to earn a major international reputation. He was equally successful with small, popular works and large, symphonic ones.

Vital Statistics

Born: June 2, 1857, Broadheath, near Worcester, England
Died: February 23, 1934, Worcester
Nationality: English
Genre: Romantic
Performed as: Violinist; organist; conductor of choruses, bands, and orchestras
During the composer's lifetime: Two important public works projects are constructed, the Thames Embankment and the London sewer system, which almost entirely eliminates cholera in the capital. Antiseptics are introduced into hospitals. At the same time, overcrowding in slums increases with industrialization, and child labor and its conditions continue to be scandalous into the 1930s, despite legislation introduced to contain abuses.

Biographical Outline

  • Early years: The fourth of seven children, Elgar is born in a country cottage, where he spends the summers of his childhood. From age 6, he lives in Worcester, in the family apartment over his father’s music shop. He has little formal music training yet shows talent and is surrounded by music in the shop, at musical society concerts, and at the local Catholic church where his father is organist. At 15, his basic schooling over, he goes to work in a solicitor’s office, but quits a year later and declares himself a freelance musician. There is no money, however, to follow through on an idea to send him to Leipzig Conservatory.
  • Apprentice, 1873-89: Elgar becomes assistant organist to his father, eventually assuming the position (1885-89). On a few trips to London in 1878-79, he takes advanced violin lessons, and regularly goes to the city to hear concerts. He freelances as a violinist in Worcester and in the orchestra of the famous Three Choirs festival each year, takes students, plays bassoon in a wind quintet, conducts the Glee Club, and is “composer in ordinary” at the local asylum (yes, a mental asylum) where he coaches the staff.
  • Struggle for recognition, 1889-99: In 1889, Elgar marries one of his piano students, Caroline Alice Roberts, eight and a half years older and the daughter of a major general. They have one daughter, Carice. He moves to London to establish himself as a composer, and sees his overture Froissart published. But without pupils or commissions he is forced to return to the Midlands. Elgar begins to be known for his choral cantatas, performed at choir festivals.
  • Breakthrough, 1899-1902: In 1899, his Enigma Variations receives its first performance, in London. Its success catapults Elgar to the forefront of English music. Through 1900, Elgar works on his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. The premier performance of this masterpiece is poor, keenly disappointing the composer. Still, in the next year he writes the popular Cockaigne Overture and the first two Pomp and Circumstance marches. The famous trio melody for No. 1, with the lyrics “Land of Hope and Glory,” becomes a worldwide symbol of England and the British Empire under the new king, Edward VII.
  • Promoted, 1903-11: In 1904, he attends a three-day Elgar Festival, the first celebration of its kind for a living English composer; is knighted; and buys a large house at Plas Gwyn in Hereford. In 1905, he visits America to accept an honorary degree from Yale University (for which he composes his Introduction and Allegro), and makes several return visits through 1911. Many important compositions follow, including the First Symphony (1908), which is wildly successful, receiving more than 80 performances in its first year.
  • London and the war years, 1912-19: In order to pay the mortgage on their recently purchased London mansion, Elgar takes on more conducting engagements. He is horrified by the outbreak of war yet volunteers for the local Home Guard.
  • Last years, 1920-34: In 1920, Alice dies after a long period of failing health. In 1923, Elgar takes a cruise up the Amazon River, and then retires to Worcester, spending his days in recreation. He increases his recording activity, conducting most of his orchestral works for the Gramophone Company. He receives commissions for an opera and a symphony, but is felled by a tumor before he finishes sketching either one. He is buried in St. Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern, next to his wife.

Fun Facts

  • Public/Private: Elgar was uncomfortable in formal situations, extremely touchy about perceived criticism, and often tactless to the point of being rude. Among friends, he was high-spirited, enjoying jokes and company and playing the genial country squire. But he was also keenly aware of being an outsider — a Catholic in a Protestant country, whose father had been “in trade.” (A merchant’s son would normally not be socially accepted by the upper classes.) He also reacted badly when a work was received poorly by the public, suffered stress-related depressive episodes, and at one low point contemplated suicide.
  • Sweat of the brow: Although slightly built (he stood 5'9" and weighed 146 pounds), Elgar drove himself relentlessly, composing long hours in between his teaching and conducting. Even after he stopped taking on students, his workload was formidable.
  • Hobbyist: Elgar liked being outdoors in the country, so it’s natural that he took up golf (in 1892) and then bicycling (in 1900). Less predictable was his longtime interest in chemistry. He had a laboratory set up in his house at Plas Gwyn; chemical stains can even be noted on the manuscript of his oratorio The Kingdom (1906). Later, at his Sussex cottage, he began woodworking.
  • Eminent Edwardian: Success eluded Elgar for a long time (he was 42 when the Enigma Variations made his name), but when it came, he was showered with honors: his knighthood; honorary degrees from Cambridge, Yale, and numerous other universities; membership in the Order of Merit, conferred by King Edward VII, who founded the order; and the honorary title Master of the King’s Music (1924), among others.
  • Home, sweet home: Not including extended stays with friends, or vacations, Elgar lived in more than 25 houses or apartments during his life. He loved the countryside and found it necessary and inspirational for composing. Aside from his birthplace cottage, his favorite residences were the cottages he rented away from town — Birchwood Lodge, near Worcester (1898-1903), and Brinkwells (1917-21) in Sussex.

Recommended Biography

  • Michael Kennedy, The Life of Elgar. Musical Lives (Cambridge, 2004). Excellent short biography that includes contemporary Elgar research.
  • Diana McVeagh, Elgar the Music Maker (Boydell Press, 2007). A short study of the music, relating it to the composer’s time and circumstances, without too many technical terms. McVeagh’s 1955 biography was one of the first in the field, and her lifetime of thinking about Elgar’s music shows in this later volume.
  • Jerald Northrup Moore, Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Clarendon, 1999). Originally published in 1984, this large, exhaustive biography remains a touchstone.

Explore the Music

Elgar wrote in all genres except opera, yet he is best known for the Pomp and Circumstance marches and his orchestral works — the Enigma Variations, two symphonies, three concert overtures, a concerto for violin and one for cello, the “symphonic sketch” Falstaff, and so on. Like many late-19th-century composers, Elgar in his larger works was influenced by German music, notably Wagner’s. The oratorios have leitmotifs, and The Dream of Gerontius was influenced by Wagner’s Parsifal. Many of his best works are also confessional and personal, mixing an original formal sense with the nervous energy that was one of Elgar’s defining traits.

  • A real enigma: The puzzle of the Enigma Variations is not merely the identities of the individuals who inspired each variation — their initials are in the score, so they soon became known. (“Nimrod,” the famous adagio variation, for example, is A. J. Jaeger, the office manager at Elgar’s publisher, who was a supporter and friend.) But Elgar mentioned that a second theme is a subject for variation in the piece, yet it is hidden because the orchestra never plays it. Does this theme actually exist? What is it based on? Elgar never said, though many guesses have been made ever since.
  • Graduation exercise: If you’ve been at a school graduation where Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 was not played, you’re likely in a minority, or were in a foreign country. In England, of course, it’s a second national anthem, and was written for the coronation of King Edward VII (1902). It was first used at a graduation ceremony by Yale, as a recessional, in 1905, the year that the college gave Elgar an honorary degree.) After Yale, Princeton took it up as a processional, and with all that Ivy League prestige it quickly became the music to graduate to.
  • Concerto as elegy: Many writers have pointed out that Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919), his last major work, was his response to the disillusionment and tragedy brought by World War I. Its opening is striking — a long, formal recitative for the solo cello, followed by a main theme sung by the violas alone. As with all the composer’s works, it is as much a deeply personal statement as a public one.

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