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.