Edward Elgar

(1857 - 1934)


Elgar was very largely self-taught as a composer which is evidence of the strong determination behind his original and unique genius. His long struggle to establish himself as a pre-eminent composer of international repute was hard and often bitter. For many years he had to contend with apathy, with the prejudices of the entrenched musical establishment, with religious bigotry (he was a member of the Roman Catholic minority in a Protestant majority England) and with a late Victorian provincial society where class-consciousness pervaded everything.

Throughout the 1880s and the 1890s his experience grew and his style matured as he conducted and composed for local musical organisations. He also taught the violin and played the organ at St. George's Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. In 1889 he married one of his pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts, whose determination and a dogged faith in Elgar's emerging genius, played a vital part in the development of Elgar's career.

Through such early works as Froissart (1890), the Imperial March (1897) and Caractacus (1898), his reputation began to spread beyond the area immediately around his native Worcestershire. His first big success came in 1899 with the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) – a masterpiece of form and orchestration. The following year saw the first performance of The Dream of Gerontius, based on Cardinal Newman's poem about a soul's journey through to its judgement and beyond. The first performance proved to be a failure, but the majority of the critics recognised the work's greatness. Fortunately, the composition was rescued from oblivion by a second performance in Dusseldorf in December 1901. After the initial failure of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar was understandably depressed, but within a few days he had characteristically started writing again: Cockaigne (In London Town) followed by the first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches (the first in D major contains the famous trio section that was later to become Land of Hope and Glory). By the mid-1900s Elgar had completed In the South, Introduction and Allegro for Strings, his great oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom.

Work began on his First Symphony in A flat during the winter of 1907-08, followed in 1910 by the Violin Concerto in B minor and then the Second Symphony in E flat a year after that, dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, who had recently died but the composition is much more than an expression of national mourning for a much loved monarch. Elgar admitted to his friends that it symbolised everything that had happened to him between April 1909 and February 1911, and its roots went back even further.

Between the period of the Second Symphony and the beginning of the First World War in 1914 there appeared only two major works: a symphonic study based on Shakespeare's Falstaff (1913) and The Music Makers, a deeply personal work with many self quotations from earlier works.  The First World War depressed Elgar deeply. Apart from a few patriotic pieces, some incidental music and some song settings it wasn’t until after the war that his final great period began which included the Violin Sonata, a String Quartet, the Piano Quintet in A minor and the Cello Concerto in E minor – his last great masterpiece.

In 1920, Lady Elgar died and with her died much of Elgar's inspiration and will to compose. She had organised his household and ministered to his comforts and saved him hours of drudgery, for instance by ruling bar lines on score paper. She walked miles in all weathers to post precious parcels of manuscript and proofs. In short, she had been the driving force behind his genius encouraging him and proclaiming his talents at every opportunity.

Throughout the 1920s, Elgar, saddened by his bereavement and by the social and musical changes brought about by the war, lived in virtual retirement, outwardly content to live the life of a country gentleman in his beloved Worcestershire with his dogs, sometimes emerging for the occasional visit to London or for a conducting or recording assignment. Honours continued to be conferred on him and in 1928 he was created Knight Commander of the Victorian Order (K.C.V.O). About this time, it seemed that he had taken on a new lease of life for he began work on a number of large projects including an opera, The Spanish Lady and a third symphony. In October 1933, Elgar was found to be suffering from a malignant tumour which pressed on the sciatic nerve. Further composition became impossible and he died just four months later on 23rd February, 1934.

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