Composer Profile: Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Elgar aged about 60
The composer Edward Elgar, aged around 60

A Roman Catholic in fiercely Protestant England; the son of a tradesman pursuing upper-middle-class interests in a determinedly class-based society; a self-taught composer at a time when formal musical education was considered essential; and a composer in the Romantic and Nationalist traditions as the 20th century turned its musical ear towards Atonality, Minimalism, and the many and varied forms of ‘Popular’ music – Edward Elgar seems to have lived much of his life as an outsider.

 

Yet it was Elgar who, in spite of his relatively meagre output (around fifty works, including only two symphonies), brought English classical music back onto the world stage after some two hundred years spent languishing in the shadow of the great Continental composers.

Born in Lower Broadheath, a village just outside Worcester (the city to which his family would move just a few years later), Edward was the fourth of seven children born into a decidedly musical household. His father, William, was a piano tuner, music-store owner, organist at St. George’s Roman Catholic church (his wife, Ann, would convert to the Catholic faith after accompanying her still-staunchly-Anglican husband to the Sunday services, much to his consternation), and locally-recognised violinist. His mother was the daughter of a farm labourer, whose love for music, literature, and the English countryside was passed down to her son.

Although the family was far from poor, employing three servants, these comparatively modest roots would prevent the young Elgar from pursuing his dream of a musical education at Leipzig or elsewhere on the Continent. Instead, he completed his education at Littleton House School at the age of fifteen and went to work as a solicitor’s clerk. His childhood sweetheart, Helen Weaver, was more fortunate, and Elgar did at least have the opportunity to visit her at Leipzig. Sadly, the relationship ended, and Helen emigrated to New Zealand where she married John Monroe and bore two children including a son, Kenneth, who Elgar would meet in 1915 shortly before he died in WWI.

Elgar c1891
Edward Elgar with his wife, Alice, c.1891

At the age of 29, Elgar himself married Caroline Alice Edwards, eight years his senior and his music student. By that time, Elgar had long since left the solicitor in favour of working in his father’s shop and, of course, as a tutor of violin and piano. He began to achieve recognition locally as a musician and composer, and in the 1890s his reputation, primarily as a composer of choral works, had begun to spread. But real success eluded him until, in 1899 (at the age of 42), his Enigma Variations were premiered in London. They were an overnight success, throwing Elgar at last firmly into the musical spotlight.

His next major work was The Dream of Gerontius which, in spite of having decidedly Catholic overtones, was similarly successful. His most widely-known work, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, was composed in 1901, and in 1904 he became the first English composer to see a festival of his work held at Covent Garden. He was knighted in 1905 and a professor of music at the University of Birmingham from 1905-1908 (where he made himself unpopular by criticising British musical tastes). He continued to compose and tour but, by 1918, he was in poor health and retired to the country. Perhaps ironically, it was his beloved wife Alice who would die just two years later, in 1920.

Her death devastated Elgar, who seemed to lose a great deal of his inspiration. If his Cello Concerto in E Minor was a eulogy for the war dead (including Kenneth Monroe), it was also a eulogy for his wife: he never completed another major work. He did, however, pursue a series of recordings of his existing works for gramophone.

Elgar died of cancer on 23rd February 1934 and is buried next to his wife, Alice, at St. Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern.

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