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Sir Edward Elgar

picture of Elgar

Born into Music

Edward Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857 at Broadheath near the city of Worcester in the English West Midlands. His father tuned pianos for a living, played the violin in local orchestras, and was organist of St George's Catholic Church ( in which post Elgar succeeded him in later years). His father extended his piano tuning business and opened a shop in Worcester where he sold sheet music. Nothing remains of this shop today, its location being marked on a modern building by a plaque. The family lived above this shop from the time Elgar was six years old. Elgar had violin lessons from an early age and he played violin, together with his father, at social events and in the orchestra accompanying the Three Choirs Festival. This musical environment, and the availability of music scores in the shop, was a stimulus to Elgar's natural talent. He taught himself to play the cello, double bass, bassoon and trombone. Remarkably, his skills of musical composition were also largely self taught. From an early age Elgar showed a sensitive and kindly disposition, but there was also a mischievous side to his nature, and he enjoyed playing pranks on people. (A portent of the Enigma Variations!) His first recorded composition, in 1867, was written for a play to be enacted by children in the Elgar family. He used elements of this composition in his work Wand of Youth published in 1907.
Although Elgar achieved great fame in England in his lifetime, success did not come to him quickly or easily. In the period from the late 1870's to the 1890's, he wrote a wide range of music whilst at the same time teaching and conducting local music groups. One such group was an orchestra formed from the attendants and staff at the Powick County Lunatic Asylum. It is open to doubt whether the form of music which he wrote for this orchestra provided the inmates with the therapy for which the enlightened governors had hoped when they invited him to conduct, but he was able to draw on some of the themes of this music in his later works.

Love, Marriage, Friendship and Fatherhood

In 1889, aged thirty two, Elgar married one of his pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of a major general, despite some opposition from her family. Seven years his senior, she proved to be a driving force behind his career, which started to develop more strongly from the time of the marriage. She organised his household, helped him with his manuscripts and encouraged him when he was dispirited, always showing her faith in him. In the early days he set some of her lyrics to music. Some authorities have questioned the nature of this marriage, which at times seemed more like mother and son relationship than a union of lovers. Alice (by which name she was usually called) was not his first love, for he was engaged to one Helen Weaver, but this relationship came to an unhappy end in 1884, at which time he confided to a friend, 'I am disappointed, disheartened and sick of this world altogether'. Elgar wrote several works pledging his love to Alice . His Leibesgrüss, renamed by his publisher Salut d'Amour became very popular and he later wished he had insisted on royalties rather than a two guinea once and for all sale.
After the marriage, a honeymoon in the Isle of Wight, and a spell at a house in Malvern, where Alice had the lease on a house, Edward and Alice settled in Kensington, London. In the year of his wedding he formed friendships with a group of amateur musicians, some of whom became the subjects of his famous Enigma Variations. Because of his financial situation, Elgar was forced to return to teaching at the Mount School in Malvern in 1891. Teaching was obviously not his forte, since the young headmistress who engaged him, Rosa Burley, observed that he was not much interested in the progress of the pupils. She tolerated this however, recognising his genius as a composer.
His baby daughter, Carice*, who arrived in 1890, did not get the undivided tender loving care and attention which all children deserve. Although not ill-disposed to children, Elgar was absorbed with his composition, and Alice thought it her duty to protect him from any distraction. When they went abroad Carice* was left in the care of a nanny. Later in her life she was packed off to boarding school. Notwithstanding, she remained a good and loyal daughter until his death.
Elgar enjoyed the company of many women in his life, and they often accompanied him on his outdoor pursuits, such as horse riding in the Malvern Hills. There were numerous stories of affairs, but none reached the point of outright scandal. These women were undoubtedly a source of inspiration for his music in a way that his wife could not be. That is not to say that he did not love his wife, since all the evidence shows he had great affection for her. These other women were mostly married and thus, in Victorian times, unobtainable.

Fame and Honour at Last

In 1897, in his forty first year, Elgar's career started to take a turn for the better. He received commissions for various works, among these the Imperial March and The Banner of St George for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. In January 1998 he was commissioned to write a cantata for a music festival in Leeds, and a suggestion for a theme based on the Herefordshire Beacon came from his mother, Ann Elgar, then seventy six. The great British warrior Caractacus built fortifications in the hills near Malvern, as a defence against the Romans under Claudius, and this history was Elgar's inspiration for Caractacus. This work, and The Banner of St George, became associated with British patriotism in the Boer War.
The Dream of Gerontius, a work based on a poem by Cardinal Newman, gained Elgar international fame, particularly in Germany, where Richard Strauss gave his enthusiastic support. This work is generally considered to be his greatest masterpiece.
For the Coronation of Edward VII, Elgar wrote The Coronation Ode, and this music became part of the triumphant finale of the Promenade Concerts in London's Albert Hall. Music of this character was demanded by the times, but should not be seen as Elgar's preferred style. In fact he is quoted as saying: "My own interest in the thing ceased, as usual, when I had finished the M.S."
Elgar achieved the national recognition of his musical genius after the turn of the century. His Knighthood came in 1904 and he received the Freedom of the City of Worcester the same year. (His father, then aged 84, watching from the upstairs window of the old music shop.) He was invited to take a Professorship of Birmingham University and gave a series of six lectures there in 1905. Much later, in 1928, he was created Knight Commander of the Victorian Order (K.C.V.O).


Elgar suffered from depression, almost to the point of suicide according to his own account, the worst bouts usually occurring just after one of his major works had been performed. He was often dissatisfied with the commissions he received. "Why can't I be encouraged to do decent stuff and not be hounded into triviality" he wrote to his friend, confidant and champion, August Johannes Jaeger. (The man whose character he portrayed as Nimrod the Mighty Hunter in the famous Variations on an Original Theme - Enigma.) Jaeger often reproved Elgar for his self-pitying attitude, pointing out that a man who claimed that his heart 'beat to the sound of wonderful music', and who had easy access to outdoor pursuits like horse riding and golf, could not reasonably complain about his life.

Symphonic Work and Concertos

By comparison with other great composers, Elgar came to symphonic composition very late in his career, probably because all his effort was taken by the need to earn a living and, latterly, the demands of fame. His First Symphony was long in contemplation, probably ten years, and was inspired by material drawn from music he had written much earlier (even the Wand of Youth had its part). It was premiered in 1908 when he was fifty-one. The first performance of his Second Symphony was in 1911. Whereas the influence of the music of the Nineteenth Century is strong in his First Symphony, his Second Symphony owes its greater harmonic complexity to the contemporary style, notably that of his friend Richard Strauss. While not as immediately as successful as his First Symphony, it is regarded by many as the more profound. The score is prefaced by a quotation from Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight"
Fritz Kreisler was an admirer of Elgar, and it was he who encouraged Elgar to write a Violin Concerto as early as 1905, but it was not premiered until 1910, with Kreisler as soloist.
Elgar was greatly depressed by the Great War, 1914 - 1918, and his musical output was restricted to lighter music and settings of three war poems by Laurence Binyon in The Spirit of England. His last great orchestral masterpiece, the Cello Concerto, was written after the war, and its style shows a marked change from his earlier work with its introspective style and its intense, passionate and sometimes gloomy passages.

Final Years

The last performance of his music which his adoring wife Alice attended was a performance of his Second Symphony in 1919, conducted by the young Adrian Boult. In April that year she died in his arms of a cancer which was belatedly diagnosed. The Piacevole slow movement from Elgar's String Quartet, a work she loved so much was played at her funeral. "All that I have done was owed to her," he said. Without the support of Alice he fell into deep depression, a condition not helped by family disputes over her estate. However, the clouds lifted slowly and he wrote much great music during the 1920s and involved himself in conducting and recording - which was by then possible, but not of CD quality! His Nursery Suite was recorded in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York and Princess Elizabeth, and dedicated to the Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth. A third symphony was championed by George Bernard Shaw and agreed as a commission by Sir John Reith, director of the BBC, but although Elgar worked on the score, and completed the opening, it was not finished. After suffering illness with fortitude, he died on the 23rd February 1934, and was buried alongside Alice in the cemetary below the hills.

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