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Edward Elgar was an English composer, celebrated for bringing a direct national appeal to his music. He possessed great vision and individuality in his musical character, drawing inspiration from his own surroundings, the culture and the landscape of Britain. He composed in many forms except for opera, and excelled at symphonic writing, producing one of Britain’s finest oratorios.
Elgar was born in Broadheath in 1857 near Worcester and grew in a house above the family music shop, Elgar Bros. in the centre of Worcester. Elgar spent most of his summers on a family farm at Broadheath, close to the Malvern Hills, which coloured his imagination and later inspired a certain pastoral style in his composition. Elgar’s father, as well as running a music shop, was also the organist at the nearby Saint George’s Roman Catholic Church and all the Elgar children received a musical upbringing. Elgar had hoped to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, but since his father could not afford to send him, he instead worked as a clerk at a local solicitor’s office.
The fact that he never made it to study at conservatory level was a sort of a blessing in disguise by all accounts, because it meant that he developed in a very personal way, contrary to the dogmatism in the music colleges.
In his twenties, he held two jobs – one as a violin teacher at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen as well as the post of conductor of the staff orchestra of the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum, a post which gained him valuable experience in conducting, arranging and composing. A quote from The Musical Times says ‘This practical experience proved to be of the greatest value to the young musician… He acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of these different instruments...’ Elgar played violin and bassoon and thrived in the Worcester music scene.
Elgar made his first trip abroad in 1880, to Paris and in 1882 to Leipzig. He immersed himself in the musical language ofSchumann, Saint-Saens, Brahms <>, Rubinstein and Wagner, played by various first-rate orchestras such as that of the Gewandhaus, the like of which was not easily available to him in Worcestershire. The experience had a profound effect on his composition style and he was moved to write his first piece for full symphony orchestra soon after:Sérénade mauresque, which was performed in Birmingham in 1883.
From the 1900s onwards, Elgar reached many milestones that very few English composers had previously come close to, and a level of fame never reached since Purcell: Richard Strauss hailed him the ‘first English progressivist’; In 1904, a three-day festival celebrating the works of Elgar at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden was an honour that had never been given to an English composer before Elgar. In November 1900, the University of Cambridge awarded Elgar an honorary doctorate on the strength of his Enigma Variations;. Later in life, Elgar was appointed Master of the King’s Musick, in 1924.
Elgar wrote his lyrical, passionate Violin Concerto in 1910 and his Second Symphony in 1911, during which time he lived in Hereford. Soon after, the Elgars moved to London where he heard ‘The Land of Hope and Glory’ sweeping through the city with the onset of war.
As an engagement present to his fiancée Alice, he composed a short violin and piano piece,Salut d’Amour. Alice was from a prominent family, who disowned her for marrying a lowly Catholic music shop assistant and teacher eight years her junior. They were married on 8 May 1889. Alice was known for ‘dealing with his mood swings’, becoming his business manager and social secretary.
Perhaps his most famous work, Enigma Variations, op. 36, brought Elgar to prominence at its first performance at St. James’s Hall in London on 19 June 1899. The set of variations consist of musical portraits of friends, colleagues and acquaintances of Elgar. The most famous variation is 'Nimrod', dedicated to A.J. Jaeger, the office manager at Novello publishers as well as Worcestershire friends, amateur musicians, Elgar’s wife Alice and Elgar himself. The mystery behind the work has puzzled listeners ever since. Elgar synopsised ‘The enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed…a larger theme “goes” but is not played’. It was thought that only Alice Elgar and A.J. Jaeger knew the answer.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto, op. 85 was his last notable masterpiece. Although the concerto is now a staple in the cello repertoire, it did not begin life as a well-loved work. It was premiered on October 27, 1919 with a disastrous result due to lack of rehearsal time. It was first recorded in 1920 by the cellist Beatrice Harrison using the acoustic recording process, followed by the first electrical recording of it eight years later, again with Harrison, Elgar and theLondon Symphony Orchestra. Later recordings by Jacqueline du Pré and Pablo Casals made it a huge seller in the second half of the twentieth century and now it remains a cornerstone in the cello repertoire.
Throughout his composing career, Elgar worked mostly in traditional forms and although many passages are diatonic, he brings tonality to its outermost limits without entirely abandoning fundamental tonal language. He made a point of not quoting folksongs likeVaughan Williams or Delius - the continental influence was well assimilated into his work and his Englishness can be perceived but not easily defined.
The year after, Elgar began work on a musical setting to John Henry Newman’s 1866 catholic poemThe Dream of Gerontius. The poem had personal significance for Elgar, particularly around the time of his marriage. The premiere, however, was disastrous. The conductor only received the score 10 days in advance and underestimated the piece’s complexity, unable to keep the chorus in tune, since the majority of performers felt apprehensive about the ‘new-sounding’ idiom. To add to it, the chorus master died during the preparation period. Although many prominent German musicians in the audience regarded it as impressive and worthy of more performances, which were indeed soon granted in Germany, the bad reception in England led Novello to publish less of Elgar’s work, which had a direct impact on Edward and Alice Elgar’s day-to-day life for the following year, in which they could not even afford to light the fire.
Over a 30-year period, Elgar composed six Pomp and Circumstance Marches, op. 39. The first four marches were written before World War I, the events in which society’s beliefs of splendour of war came crashing down.