Sir Edward William Elgar

Edward Elgar is known as one of Britain’s most famous composers of classical music.  His works are known, performed, and respected throughout the world.  During his own lifetime, such highly regarded masters as Richter, Strauss, Steinbach, and Busoni conducted his compositions.  He was knighted in 1904, there are currently 65 roads in the United Kingdom that are named after him, and his image appears on a £20 note.  In addition to his success as a composer and musician, he was also fond of and accomplished at golf, cycling, chemistry, and woodworking.  He loved children, and they him, and he was very fond of wordplay, which he used in his associations with children, as well as in his musical compositions.    Elgar was born on June 2, 1857, in Lower Broadheath, a village near Worcester in the English West Midlands.  He was the son of William and Ann Elgar, and was fourth in a family with three brothers (Henry, Frederick, and Francis) and two sisters (Lucy and Susannah).  Edward Elgar was baptized in the Catholic Church, as his mother had converted to Catholicism shortly before his birth, during a time when England was predominantly Protestant.  William Elgar owned a music shop and tuned pianos, so young Edward was surrounded by music and instruments from a very young age.  As a result, he studied the music in his father’s shop, and taught himself to play a variety of instruments.   Even as a young child, Edward was fond of exploring.  At the age of five, he became enamored of cycling, and he would take manuscripts out into the countryside to study them.  He came to associate music and nature, and is quoted as saying, "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 seven, he began taking piano lessons, and he began violin lessons when he was 12.  The age of 15 seems to have been pivotal for Elgar.  It was that year that he finished his first compositions, The Language of Flowers and Chantant.  It was also when the young Elgar left school and took a job working for a local solicitor.  That post lasted only a year, after which he began giving piano and violin lessons.  Then, at the age of 22, he accepted a post at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum, working as a bandmaster.  This position gave him an opportunity to hone his ability as a composer, as the job involved arranging and composing music for staff concerts.   At the age of 32, Edward Elgar married Caroline Alice Roberts.  She had been one of his pupils, and was also an author.  Her father and mother were both deceased, and her remaining family were opposed to her union with Elgar.  Caroline’s family (aunts and cousins) believed that she was marrying beneath her own status, as Elgar was the son of a tradesman, and was a music teacher, so he did not appear to offer prospects for wealth or position in English society.  The couple married, nonetheless, and as an engagement gift, Edward gave to his bride a composition for violin and piano entitled Salut d’amour.  Shortly thereafter, the Elgars moved to London, where Edward attempted to establish himself as a composer.  Though it was not a successful career move, it did not deter him.  The couple returned to Great Malvern, and Edward pursued a living as a violin teacher while continuing to establish himself as a composer.   As is the case with most people who attain recognition for their artistic endeavors, Elgar’s ascent was gradual.  At first, he was known in and around the areas where he lived.  Then, over time, his reputation grew and he became widely recognized.  The 1890’s were a period during which his reputation grew gradually, with such works as The Black Knight, King Olaf, The Light Life, and Caractacus, all of which were modestly successful.  It was also during this time period that he established a relationship with the publishing house, Novello and Company.  To round out the decade, in 1899, his first orchestral composition, Variations on an Original Theme, later to be known as Enigma Variations, premiered in London, conducted by the German conductor, Hans Richter.  The piece was received with acclaim, and cemented Elgar in history as the pre-eminent English composer of his generation.  The piece itself is dedicated to “my friends pictured within,” as each movement is a musical tribute to the personalities and attributes of several of Elgar’s friends.  The history behind its more widely recognized title, Enigma Variations, stems from the fact that the theme upon which the variations are based is never actually played.  As Elgar himself stated, the theme “runs through and over the whole set.”  Though it is suggested, it is never actually articulated.   The following year, Elgar’s choral piece, The Dream of Gerontius, a choral piece based on Cardinal Newman’s poem involving a soul’s journey through judgement, was produced.  Initially, it was not well received, and that fact is generally attributed to poorly prepared performers.  Critics, nevertheless, did not condemn the piece, recognizing the potential it held.  Subsequent performances over the next couple of years established it as one of Elgar’s finest choral pieces.    The year 1901 saw the composition of the piece for which Edward Elgar is most widely known, Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and from which evolved the patriotic song Land of Hope and Glory, which was used as an ode during the coronation of Kind Edward VII.    Between 1902 and 1914, one can see the apex of Elgar’s success.  He earned a fine living from the fees paid to perform his music, and traveled extensively, performing and conducting all over the world.  He made four trips to the United States during this period, was knighted in 1904 (which gave him the title “Sir”), and premiered his 1st Symphony in 1906, his Violin Concerto in 1910, and his 2nd Symphony in 1911.  He also became the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1911.  Between 1905 and 1908, he was a Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, and in 1911 he had the Order of Merit (that’s the O.M. in his title) bestowed upon him.  The music that he produced during this period was full of pomp and swagger, and is indicative of his mood throughout these years.    It is also during this time that he pursued several hobbies, among them golf, cycling, and chemistry.  In 1908, he set up a laboratory called “The Ark” so that he could conduct experiments.  The following is an excerpt from a letter from W.H. Reed, describing one particular experiment and its consequences:   One day he made a phosphoric concoction which, when dry, would "go off" by spontaneous combustion. The amusement was to smear it on a piece of blotting paper and then wait breathlessly for the catastrophe. One day he made too much paste; and, when his music called him and he wanted to go back to the house, he clapped the whole of it into a gallipot, covered it up, and dumped it into the water-butt, thinking it would be safe there. Just as he was getting on famously, writing in horn and trumpet parts, and mapping out wood-wind, a sudden and unexpected crash, as of all the percussion in all the orchestras on earth, shook the room, followed by the "rushing mighty sound" he had already anticipated in The Kingdom. The water-butt had blown up: the hoops were rent: the staves flew in all directions; and the liberated water went down the drive in a solid wall. Silence reigned for a few seconds. Then all the dogs in Herefordshire gave tongue; and all the doors and windows opened. After a moment's thought, Edward lit his pipe and strolled down to the gate, andante tranquillo, as if nothing had happened and the ruined water-butt and the demolished flower-beds were pre-historic features of the landscape. A neighbour, peeping out of his gate, called out, "Did you hear that noise sir: it sounded like an explosion?" "Yes," said Sir Edward, "I heard it: where was it?" The neighbour shook his head; and the incident was closed.     World War I began in 1914, and Elgar’s compositions from that point forward were far more contemplative and melancholy, with the exception of the patriotic pieces he wrote.  Elgar’s biographer, Ian Parrot, says of the Cello Concerto, "It is a work apart, by a lonely man in war-time who sees that artistic criteria have altered irreversibly.”  Indeed, the social, political, and musical climate had changed.  The war marked the end of the British Empire, which had dominated Europe since the time of Napoleon.  Elgar’s music from that period, which was, by and large, expressive of the opulence and confidence of that era, became derided.  By 1917, the Elgars had moved from London to a small rural cottage in Sussex, where the chamber works the Violin Sonata opus 82, the String Quartet opus 83 and the Piano Quintet opus 84 were penned.  They are considered to be his final masterworks.  While they lived there, Edward took to woodworking, abandoning completely his interests in golf, and chemistry.      In 1920, Caroline died, and with her much of Edward’s will to compose.  For the entirety of their marriage, she had been his companion, his assistant, and his staunchest supporter.  Edward spent the next 14 years living the life of a country gentleman in Worcestershire.  In 1928 he was made a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order, after which he began composing the opera The Spanish Lady and also his Third Symphony, both of which were unfinished at the time of his death, and which he forbade, on his deathbed, anyone to complete.  He also made numerous recordings in the last years of his life, perhaps the most famous of which was of his Violin Concerto with the then 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin.  In October of 1933, Edward learned that he had a malignant tumor which was pressing on his sciatic nerve.  It made it impossible to continue composing, and he died just four months later, on February 23, 1934.