Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934)

Sir Edward Elgar was the first major British composer of the 20th Century and one of the most dominant musical figures of Edwardian England. He was born near Worcester and raised in Dover. Elgar’s father, William, was a professional violinist, church organist, and operated a music store and piano tuning business. Edward received his early musical training from his father, learning the violin and piano. He also played the bassoon in a woodwind quintet alongside his brother, Frank, an oboist. (He later a wrote a Romance for bassoon and strings.) He also developed a love of literature from his mother and was an avid reader. Elgar began writing music as a child and was virtually self-taught in composition, claiming that the music he heard at the cathedral growing up was his teacher. He also checked out several books on music theory and musical scores to study from. In his early twenties, he began conducting and obtained a small post as conductor of a small ensemble for the workers of a mental hospital. He arranged many works for the variable instrumentation of this band and learned a great deal about orchestration from this position.

Elgar eventually took over his father’s duties as organist and wrote several sacred motets during this time. He also took on a student, Caroline Roberts, who would become his wife three years later. She would be a great asset to him as business manager, personal secretary, and music critic. Although she lacked extensive musical training, she would offer her opinions on his newest compositions. Elgar almost always took her advice and revised them. He wrote his first popular success, the Salut d’Amour for violin and piano, as an engagement present to her. It became one of his most popular melodies and was published in over 20 different arrangements for various solo instruments or ensembles.

Elgar continued to compose and gained a growing reputation, but had not achieved any real success until 1899, when he wrote two of his most acclaimed masterworks. The first was the Variations on an Original Theme, usually referred to as the Enigma Variations. The piece contains 14 variations, each inspired by a friend or relative. The “Enigma” is that Elgar stated there was an overall “unplayed” theme that is suggested by the variations. Many guesses have been suggested to solve the riddle of the unknown theme, but none have been universally accepted. The Enigma Variations were the first English work to enter the standard orchestral repertoire. The ninth variation, “Nimrod”, is often played for funerals and is always performed for Remembrance Day, (the English equivalent to Memorial Day). The other masterwork from 1899 was his oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, based on the epic poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Although its initial reception in England was not always successful, due to objections from the Anglican clergy about its Catholic text, it was well received across Europe and has remained a popular work.

In 1901, Elgar was commissioned to write the coronation music for the new British King, Edward VII, (which became the Coronation Ode. King Edward later knighted him.) Elgar also wrote two large-scale oratorios, The Apostles and The Kingdom, parts of a planned trilogy meant to portray the entire New Testament. He also wrote a set of five marches titled Pomp and Circumstance. The trio to the first march, known by the title “Land of Hope and Glory”. This melody, (Elgar’s most famous), was later set to words and was also used in the Coronation Ode. It is played annually at the BBC Proms Concerts and is known throughout the United States for its almost universal use in commencement and graduation ceremonies.

In addition to these works, Elgar is best-known for his Cockaigne concert overture, the Wand of Youth suites, a symphonic study, Falstaff (based on the Shakespeare character), the Serenade and Introduction & Allegro for string orchestra, and two symphonies, (a third was left unfinished). He also wrote violin concerto and a late cello concerto. The public reception of the Second Symphony and Cello Concerto was lukewarm during his life, but have since been more successful, especially the Cello Concerto, which was championed by the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and is widely acknowledged as one of the main masterworks for the instrument. (Her husband, conductor Daniel Barenboim, has been a huge advocate for Elgar’s music and has recorded most, if not all, of the orchestral works.)

Elgar always felt somewhat out-of-place, both musically and socially. Although he was hailed as an English composer, his main influences were continental European composers, such as SchumannBrahms, Dvořák, and Wagner. (He disliked folk song and the Elizabeth madrigal composers, such as Gibbons, Byrd, and Dowland.) His faith as a Roman Catholic made him stand out in from his mainly Anglican contemporaries. (His in-laws opposed his marriage due to his faith and disowned Catherine.)  Even though he was the first major English composer since the death of Henry Purcell in 1695, by the time of his death, he was considered old-fashioned, (similarly to Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius), compared to the more modern music of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg. Nonetheless, his fame and success ushered in a new era in England’s musical culture and paved the way for subsequent British composers, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, and Michael Tippett. He was one of the first composers to pursue the new medium of vinyl records and released many recordings conducting his works. Since the later part of the 20th Century, Elgar’s popularity has been restored with concert audiences.

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Diana McVeagh. Elgar The Music Maker.

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