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Classical Composers A-Z: Edward Elgar

Peter Wintersgill provides us with details of the life of Edward Elgar, the quintessential English composer.

2nd June, 1857, in Broadheath, near Worcester.

William, piano tuner and owner of music shop.

Anne, well-read, encouraged his reading.

Brother, Frank.

Family moved to Worcester when he was three, lived in a flat above the shop. Like Beethoven, came early to love the countryside, a love he kept all his life. Never had any formal teaching until later, taught himself the violin and the piano. He used to spend hours, like Schumann before him, browsing round his father's shop, especially the books.

Left school at 15, wanted to study in Leipzig, but father unable to afford the cost. Played in several amateur orchestras and at the Three Choirs Festival as a violinist. Formed a wind quintet with three friends, himself and brother Frank and wrote some pieces for it.

Early Adult Life
Became conductor of local Glee Club and of brass band at the County Lunatic Asylum, an early example of music therapy. He had some violin lessons in London, hoping to become a soloist, but found he wasn't good enough. On his return home he followed his father as organist at St. George's R.C. church in Worcester.

His first notable work was the overture Sevillana, given first at the Crystal Palace in 1884; the same year the Three Choirs Festival coincided with the 800th anniversary of the cathedral, when Dvorak came and conducted his Stabat Mater and 6th Symphony.

In 1889 he married Caroline Alice, daughter of a major general, despite opposition from her family (her parents being dead), who felt she was marrying beneath her. Alice was a musical girl, singing in the local choir, while he played his violin in the orchestra.

In 1890 two notable events took place, the birth of their daughter Carice and the commissioning of his overture Froissant. The family then moved to London, thinking it an advantage to be near publishers, etc. However, this was not as they had hoped, so they moved back to the West Country.
A series of minor choral works followed: Black Knight (1893), Bavarian Highlands (1896) following a holiday in that country, and Caractacus (1898) for the Leeds Festival, dedicated to Queen Victoria.

Finally in 1900, his choral climax, The Dream of Gerontius, based on Cardinal Newman's poem, for the Birmingham Festival. The premiere was a flop, but the work was praised by Richard Strauss. It was also heard by a German critic and as a result was given a German performance in Dusseldorf. It caught on in England eventually and is now a great favourite with choral societies everywhere.

Later Adult Life
In 1899 he wrote Variations on an Original Theme, commonly known as the Enigma Variations. Each variation is supposed to represent one of his friends, of whom he had a great many. Alice moved in high society, thus giving her husband access to all sorts and conditions of men, eg: business men, financiers, etc. He later wrote the Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906), which were to have been part of a trilogy which was never completed.

Elgar was prone to throat infections and was therefore advised to seek a warmer climate; he therefore spent many winters in Italy, which he enjoyed very much. He wrote the overture Alassio there in 1904, the same year he was knighted, and also wrote the third of his five Pomp and Circumstance Marches.
The best known of these is number one, which was heard by Edward VII at its premiere; he said that such a fine tune should have words, hence of course "Land of Hope and Glory", sung at its premiere by Dame Clara Butt. It is certain that Elgar never imagined that his tune would become a sort of second national anthem!

In 1905 he was appointed the first Professor of Music at Birmingham University. The same year he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Yale Universities, became a freeman of the city of Worcester and wrote the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. In 1911 he was made Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and received the O.M. His first symphony (1908) was a great success all over Europe, to be followed in 1910 by the Violin Concerto and in 1911 by the Second Symphony, which was dedicated to Edward VII.

The Music Makers followed in 1912, in which year he moved to Hampstead, then a country village. By this time he had really 'arrived' and was in great demand, not only at the great festivals like Leeds and Birmingham, but on the continent and in the USA. He worked hard in World War I, writing patriotic songs, eg: Carillon Polonia and The Spirit of England, also in 1914 Give unto the Lord, a setting of Psalm 29.

After the war he wrote three chamber works -The Violin Sonata (1918), a string quartet (1918) and a piano quintet (1919). The Cello Concerto (also 1919) was his last major work. The premiere was a flop, but the work caught on later and became a great favourite.

After his wife's death in 1920 he went 'off the boil' to use his own words, and only wrote a few minor works, eg: Incidental Music to King Arthur (1923) and The Nursery and Severn Suites (1931). He was made Master of the King's Musick in 1924.

He was a great pioneer in the use of the gramophone, which was quite a novelty in those days. He made many recordings of his own music, including one of his violin concerto in 1932, with the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin as soloist.

His music was influenced by those he admired, like Schumann, Brahms and Wagner. He survived Alice by 14 years, finally dying on 23rd February, 1934, in Worcester, of cancer, aged 77. He was buried with Alice at Little Malvern.

In 1882 at a Worcester meeting of the British Medical Associacion he was conducting a concert on the final evening, when he met Dr Charles Buck, a GP from Settle, who had been invited to play the cello. Later that year he paid the first of many visits to the doctor, with whom he used to walk in the Dales and later in the Lakes.


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