Sir Edward Elgar was one of the leading European composers of his generation and one of the greatest British composers. His music is often considered to be quintessentially English in nature, yet its qualities owe much to the mainstream continental European tradition.
Elgar was born in Broadheath, a village near Worcester, on 2 June 1857, to William Henry Elgar and Anne Greening. Elgar’s father was a capable all-round musician, playing piano, violin and organ. He worked as a piano tuner in Worcester and was organist at St George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. He and his brother also ran the ‘Elgar Brothers’ music shop.
The parents having no financial resources to provide their son with formal musical training, Elgar was largely self-taught as a musician and composer. He became much involved and established in local music-making in Worcester, performing, teaching, conducting and composing for local societies, concerts and festivals. These included the Worcester Glee Club, the Worcester Instrumental Society, the Worcester Philharmonic Society and the County Lunatic Asylum at Powick. He also helped his father in the family music shop and eventually succeeded him as organist at St. George’s Church in 1885. Realising that he would not become a first-class violinist, he began to turn more seriously to composition. Throughout his life he kept sketchbooks of his compositions which demonstrate how hard he worked to develop an initial creative idea into a final form with which he was satisfied.
Years of success
In 1886 Elgar met Caroline Alice Roberts (1848–1920), the daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts, and despite the difference in their social standing and religious backgrounds, they were married in May 1889. The couple moved to London and their only child, Carice, was born there the following year. Elgar attempted to establish himself professionally in the musical life of the city, but did not achieve the success he hoped for, so the family returned to the West Country, settling in Malvern. There he immediately became involved in local music-making, teaching, performing and conducting. A commission from the Three Choirs Festival for a short orchestral work resulted in the overture Froissart, which received its first performance at Worcester Cathedral in September 1890.
Elgar’s reputation as a composer began to grow after this, and important commissions that followed include his Imperial March for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the cantata Caractacus, written for the Leeds Festival in 1898. Between October 1898 and February 1899 Elgar composed the Variations on an Original Theme op.36, known as the ‘Enigma’ Variations. This was the work that first marked his greatness as a composer and earned him the recognition of a much wider audience, although throughout his career he was to experience disappointments and setbacks. Other major works that followed include a setting of John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, for three soloists, choir and orchestra, written for the Birmingham Festival (1900), and the oratorio The Apostles (1903). In March 1904 a three-day festival of music by Elgar was held at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
In June 1904 Elgar moved to Hereford and his recognition as a composer continued to grow. He was knighted the following month, with numerous further honours bestowed in subsequent years. He was appointed the first Chair of Music at Birmingham University in 1905, a post endowed by the benefactor Richard Peyton on condition that Elgar became its first incumbent. Honorary doctorates followed from the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Yale, as did honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music. He was admitted into the Order of Merit in 1911. Important works composed during this period include the Introduction and Allegro (1905) for string quartet and string orchestra, the oratorio The Kingdom (1906), and the First Symphony (1907–1908).
Unlike Gerontius, the First Symphony was received with great acclaim at its first performance, by the London Symphony Orchestra, and remained extremely popular thereafter. In 1910 Elgar completed his Violin Concerto, committing his interpretation as conductor to disc in 1932 with a youthful Yehudi Menuhin as soloist in a recording that has remained available in various formats ever since. The first performance of the Second Symphony (1911), however, was a great disappointment, and that work was slow to achieve recognition as a masterpiece of equal stature, though perhaps of quite a different nature, to his First. For the following season he was appointed the London Symphony Orchestra’s permanent conductor.
Elgar moved back to London in 1911, to a large house in Hampstead befitting a composer enjoying national and international acclaim. A number of important works were composed over the next decade or so, with the Straussian symphonic poem Falstaff appearing in 1913 and the Spirit of England (1915–1917) from the war years reflecting a quite different musical persona from the confidence of the Edwardian period. In 1918 he embarked on a series of chamber works including a Violin Sonata, a String Quartet and a Piano Quintet. His last masterwork was the Cello Concerto, completed in June 1919. After the death of his wife, Caroline, in April 1920, Elgar’s creative muse wanted for inspiration. A Severn Suite for brass band appeared in 1930, as did a Nursery Suite dedicated to two royal princesses and their mother, the Duchess of York. There were arrangements, too, of Bach and Handel, which in their flamboyance are wonderful studies in orchestration rather than historically informed performance. But Elgar’s final years are marked by a number of works left incomplete at his death, including a piano concerto, a symphony, and an opera entitled The Spanish Lady, based on a story by Ben Jonson. Honours continued to be awarded, nonetheless. In 1924 Elgar was appointed Master of the King’s Musick and in 1931, 1st Baronet of Broadheath. He died on 23 February 1934 from cancer.
Elgar Manuscripts at the British Library
The British Library’s acquisition of autograph manuscripts of works by Elgar began with the loan of a handful of manuscripts by Carice, his daughter, a few months after her father’s death. To these she very generously added further gifts in the 1950s and a final major bequest on her death in 1970. Since then the Library has continued actively to acquire not only music manuscripts, but also sketches, correspondence and other associated material. Most recently, the Library received the most generous donation by the Elgar Foundation of the collection principally of manuscripts and correspondence formerly held at the composer’s birthplace in Broadheath, Worcester. As a consequence the Library’s holdings now constitute the finest collection of primary source material relating to this major British composer. The autograph sketches for the Third Symphony and a sixth Pomp and Circumstance March were used as the basis for the completion of those works undertaken by the composer Anthony Payne.
Further information about the life of Edward Elgar can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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Jeremy Dibble gives an overview of British composers in the early 20th century and their context.
- Article by:
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Julian Rushton discusses the early history of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations.
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Kate Kennedy examines the impact of the First World War on British composers and the music composed both during the war and in its aftermath.