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Elgar

Elgar's Life & Essential Works

The familiar photographs of Edward Elgar give the impression of a pillar of the Edwardian establishment. But Elgar's other works reveal a tender, melancholic lyricist, haunted by troubling visions, acute mood swings and unfulfilled longing. In many ways Elgar was an outsider.

(1857 - 1934)

Early Life

Born the son of a piano-tuner and music-shopkeeper, Elgar left school at 16 to become a freelance musician, teaching, arranging and playing in local orchestras until well into his thirties. Self-taught in orchestration, harmony and counterpoint, Elgar had given himself an excellent education, but his lack of formal training only added to his sense of inferiority.

Elgar was a Roman Catholic in a deeply Protestant country. Today his choral-orchestral masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius (1900), based on a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, is a national treasure. But when the work was proposed for performance at the 1902 Three Choirs Festival, the Bishop of Worcester objected and there were letters of protest. Performance in the Cathedral was only permitted once the text had been purged of 'Popish' elements.

Prone to depression, Elgar needed the support and encouragement of others. Fortunately he met Alice Roberts, daughter of an Indian Army general. They married in 1889, despite her family's strong disapproval. Alice believed in Elgar determinedly, and made it her life's work to nurture his genius. Elgar's first break was a commission for an orchestral piece from the Worcester Festival. The result was an overture, Froissart, which was published by Novello.

Cello Concerto in E minor

The crowning masterpiece of Elgar's final period is infused with nostalgia for a world all but extinguished by the Great War.

Edward Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 1. Adagio - Moderato Mischa Maisky, Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Enigma Variations Orchestral

A brilliantly contrasted series of character portraits dedicated 'To my friends pictured within'.

Edward Elgar Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36 "Enigma" 9. Nimrod (Adagio) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Norman Del Mar

Introduction and Allegro

One of Elgar's most inspired and popular pieces. After its disappointing premiere, the composer complained: 'Nothing better for strings has ever been done, and they don't like it!'

Edward Elgar Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op.47 Wiener Philharmoniker, Küchl Quartet, John Eliot Gardiner

Pomp and Circumstance Marches

For the first of these indelible marches, Elgar borrowed the title from Shakespeare's Othello, little suspecting that his melody would rival the National Anthem in popularity.

Edward Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 in G, Op.39, No.4 Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Salut d'amour

Enchanting miniature that started out as a piece for solo piano. Elgar lost no time in arranging it for violin, after which it quickly became one of the bestsellers of its day.

Edward Elgar Salut d'amour, Op. 12 Daniel Hope, Jacques Ammon, Ensemble des Deutschen Kammerorchesters Berlin

Serenade for Strings

The central Larghetto has a vein of gentle nostalgia that would become a definitive feature of Elgar's later music.

Edward Elgar Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra, Op.20 1. Allegro piacevole Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Symphony No.2

Less direct in expression than its predecessor, Elgar's Second Symphony is more about subtle mood painting and melodic radiance than full-blown lyricism.

Edward Elgar Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 2. Larghetto Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Violin Concerto in B minor

Often plagued by self-doubt, Elgar said of his Violin Concerto: 'It's good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional...but I love it.'

Edward Elgar Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61 1. Allegro Itzhak Perlman, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim

Career

August Jaeger, a leading figure at Novello, recognized both Elgar's potential and his need for encouragement. His help was crucial, and in gratitude Elgar chose him as the subject of the noble 'Nimrod' variation from his Enigma Variations. The title was a typically Elgarian piece of wordplay: in German 'Jaeger' means 'hunter', and Nimrod was the 'mighty hunter' mentioned in the Biblical book of Genesis.

During the 1890s Elgar produced a number of impressive large-scale choral works, including The Black Knight, The Light of Life, King Olaf and Caractacus, but it was with a purely orchestra score, Enigma Variations (1899) that he achieved his breakthrough. After conducting the London premiere Hans Richter became a dedicated champion of Elgar's music, and the composer's reputation began to spread internationally.

Although The Dream of Gerontius was received poorly at its British premiere, a performance the following year in Düsseldorf was a huge success. Soon afterwards Richard Strauss hailed Elgar as 'the first English progressivist'. Elgar now set himself the task of composing a trilogy of oratorios about the Biblical Apostles. Two of these - The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) - were completed, but were not received as warmly as Elgar had hoped. Then the influential English critic Ernest Newman weighed in, telling the composer bluntly that he should stop wasting his time on religious works and turn his attention to the symphony.

This was the stimulus Elgar needed, and in 1908 he completed his First Symphony. The premiere that same year was a sensation. Critics hailed it as the first great English symphony, Richter compared the slow movement to Beethoven, and within a year it had notched up nearly a hundred performances. Despite these accolades, Elgar continued to be tortured by self-doubt. With his friends he could be lively and very entertaining, yet according to Alice he often contemplated suicide.

This emotional complexity becomes increasingly apparent in his later works. The Second Symphony (1911) opens with an exuberant theme Elgar called 'Spirit of Delight', but the Rondo third movement culminates in a terrifying vision associated with a passage in Tennyson's poem Maud. The narrator imagines himself as a suicide, cast into a shallow grave beneath a road where 'The hoofs of the horses beat, beat into my scalp and brain.'

Despite its bravura ending, the Violin Concerto (1910) is haunted by an acute sense of loss, and in the Shakespeare-inspired 'symphonic study' Falstaff (1913) Elgar's insecurities undermine the comic exuberance of the musical portrait, leading to a strangely desolate ending. Though Elgar was too old to take active part in World War One, the war years were an ordeal. He continued to write works for patriotic purposes, but the conflict caused him pain. Many of his most influential supporters had been Germans, and Alice once remarked that she only ever saw Elgar truly relaxed in Bavaria and Italy.

Towards the end of the war he turned to the more private arena of chamber music, composing three masterpieces: the String Quartet and Violin Sonata (both 1918) and the Piano Quintet (completed 1919). The Cello Concerto that followed in 1919 is more spare and intimate than any of his previous works, though it overflows with some of Elgar's finest instrumental lyricism.

Alice Elgar died in 1920, after which Elgar largely retreated from the musical world. During the next ten years he composed very little. He confessed to feeling 'disillusioned and old', and 'unwanted'. Tastes had changed, and in a country desperate to forget the war Elgar was an uncomfortable reminder of the past. Yet in the 1930s there were signs that Elgar's creative energy was beginning to return, possibly inspired by falling in love with the young violinist Vera Hockman.

He began working on an opera and a piano concerto, but most impressive are the extensive sketches for a Third Symphony. Anthony Payne's 'performing version' of the incomplete symphony shows that contrary to established opinion Elgar's musical imagination was once again working at full power. If Elgar hadn't fallen victim to cancer in 1934, the Third Symphony might well have taken its place amongst his finest works, and given the world another inspiring example of a creative 'Indian summer'.

Death

Alice Elgar died in 1920, after which Elgar largely retreated from the musical world. During the next ten years he composed very little. He confessed to feeling 'disillusioned and old', and 'unwanted'. Tastes had changed, and in a country desperate to forget the war Elgar was an uncomfortable reminder of the past. Yet in the 1930s there were signs that Elgar's creative energy was beginning to return, possibly inspired by falling in love with the young violinist Vera Hockman.

He began working on an opera and a piano concerto, but most impressive are the extensive sketches for a Third Symphony. Anthony Payne's 'performing version' of the incomplete symphony shows that contrary to established opinion Elgar's musical imagination was once again working at full power. If Elgar hadn't fallen victim to cancer in 1934, the Third Symphony might well have taken its place amongst his finest works, and given the world another inspiring example of a creative 'Indian summer'.