Elgar portrait -
			from a painting belonging to Arthur Reynolds

A Short Biography

by Ian Lace

Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857 at Broadheath, a village some three miles from the small city of Worcester in the English West Midlands. His father had a music shop in Worcester and tuned pianos.

The Elgar shop in the
centre of Worcester
The young Elgar, therefore, had the great advantage of growing up in a thoroughly practical musical atmosphere. He studied the music available in his father's shop and taught himself to play a wide variety of instruments. It is a remarkable fact that Elgar was very largely self-taught as a composer - evidence of the strong determination behind his original and unique genius. His long struggle to establish himself as a pre-eminent composer of international repute was hard and often bitter. For many years he had to contend with apathy, with the prejudices of the entrenched musical establishment, with religious bigotry (he was a member of the Roman Catholic minority in a Protestant majority England) and with a late Victorian provincial society where class consciousness pervaded everything.

Throughout the 1880s and the 1890s his experience grew and his style matured as he conducted and composed for local musical organisations. He also taught the violin and played the organ at St. George's Roman Catholic Church in Worcester.

Alice Elgar

In 1889 he married one of his pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major- General Sir Henry Roberts who had enjoyed a distinguished career with the British army in India. She married Edward in opposition to her aunts and cousins (her mother had died in 1887) who considered that in marrying the son of a mere tradesman, a music teacher without prospects, she was marrying beneath herself. Nevertheless, Alice with determination and a dogged faith in Edward's emerging genius, played a vital part in the development of Elgar's career.

Slowly, and through such early works as Froissart (1890), the Imperial March (1897) and the cantatas King Olaf (1896) and Caractacus (1898), his reputation began to spread beyond the area immediately around his native Worcestershire. His first big success came with the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) in 1899. Dedicated to "my friends pictured within", this work, which is a masterpiece of form and orchestration, showed that Elgar, by that time, had surpassed the other leading English composers of his day, both in technical accomplishment and sheer force of musical personality.

The final page of the
manuscript score of
The Dream of Gerontius

After Sea Pictures, a song cycle for contralto and orchestra (1899), came one of Elgar's greatest religious compositions - The Dream of Gerontius - based on Cardinal Newman's poem about a soul's journey through to its judgement and beyond. Unfortunately, due to inadequate rehearsals, the first performance at Birmingham in October 1900 of this complex and original work proved to be a failure, but the majority of the critics recognised the work's greatness. Fortunately, the composition was rescued from oblivion by a second performance under Julius Buths at Dusseldorf in December 1901, and again at the Lower Rhine Festival in Dusseldorf in May the following year. Following this latter performance, Richard Strauss praised Elgar as the first English progressive musician.

After the initial failure of the Dream of Gerontius in 1900, Elgar was understandably depressed, but within a few days he had characteristically started writing again - an ebullient concert overture - Cockaigne (In London Town) which was successfully premiered in 1901. Confirming this success, in the same year came the first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches - the first in D major containing the famous trio section that was later to becomeLand of Hope and Glory. Elgar appreciated its worth; he had prophesied: "I've got a tune that will knock 'em - knock 'em flat! … a tune like that comes once in a lifetime …" Elgar had 'arrived'. An all-Elgar festival at Covent Garden was held in 1904, which included an exuberant new overture, In the South, written after a visit to Alassio in Italy. In July of that year, Elgar was knighted by King Edward VII.

By this time, Elgar's works were being performed both in Europe and in the USA In 1905, came the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, a masterly essay in string writing dedicated to Professor Sanford of Yale University. In 1906, Elgar was busy working on his great oratorio, The Kingdom, the sequel to The Apostles of 1903. These two works were based on an intricate tapestry of linking leitmotives in the style of Wagner. Elgar originally intended that there should be a cycle of three oratorios but the third part of the trilogy was never completed.

Elgar conducting in EMI's
Abbey Road No 1 studio
in 1931

Elgar next began to concentrate on symphonic work. He had been planning a symphony (originally around the character of General Gordon) as early as 1898. Work began again in earnest during the winter of 1907-08, while he was staying in Rome. The Symphony No. 1 in A flat was first performed in Manchester in December 1908. It was dedicated to and conducted by Hans Richter who said of it: "Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer - and not only in this country". The work was received with tremendous enthusiasm and there were a hundred performances of it in Britain and all over Europe and in America, Australia and Russia, etc. in just over a year. August Jaeger of Novellos (the music publishers) - Nimrod of the Enigma Variations - believed that the symphony's slow movement was comparable to those of Beethoven.

A Violin Concerto in B minor followed in 1910 and then, in 1911, another symphony. The violin concerto was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler who gave the first performance. The score is headed with an inscription in Spanish: "Aqui esta encerrada el alma de ….." ("Here is enshrined the soul of …."). Some say that he was referring to Alice Stuart-Wortley, daughter of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais. She was closely associated with Elgar and his music at this time. The concerto is a difficult virtuoso piece similar in scale to the Brahms concerto but more richly orchestrated. The slow movement has a particular beauty and the last movement has a unique and magical feature - an accompanied cadenza where the strings are instructed that the pizzicato tremolando should be thrummed with the soft part of three fingers whilst the violin muses at length over ideas recalled from the earlier movements.

Elgar conducting at

The Symphony No. 2 in E flat, although by no means as immediately successful as its predecessor, is nevertheless probably Elgar's profoundest symphonic utterance. The score is prefaced by a quotation from Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight", suggesting that the work is not only about delight but also about the rarity of its occurrence. Elgar dedicated the symphony to the memory of King Edward VII, who had recently died but the composition is much more than an expression of national mourning for a much loved monarch. Elgar admitted to his friends that it symbolised everything that had happened to him between April 1909 and February 1911, and its roots went back even further. He marked the score with two place names - Venice & Tintagel. In fact the Larghetto, usually assumed to be a funeral lament for the late King, begins with an idea inspired by the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, which Elgar had visited in 1909.

Between the period of the Second Symphony and the beginning of the First World War in 1914, there appeared only two major works - The Music Makers, an ode for contralto, chorus and orchestra based on a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1912), and a symphonic study based on Shakespeare's Falstaff (1913). The Music Makers is a deeply personal work with many self quotations from earlier works. It expresses the positive influence on society of the creative artist but it also underlines his loneliness and vulnerability. Elgar considered Falstaff to be amongst his very best works - a view shared by many professional musicians - but after the personal outpourings of the great oratorios, the symphonies and the violin concerto, Falstaff seemed relatively detached and this probably explains its comparative neglect.

The First World War depressed Elgar deeply. Apart from a few patriotic pieces, incidental music for a children's play entitled The Starlight Express (1915), settings of three war poems by Laurence Binyon The Spirit of England (1915-17), now recognised as one of the composer's masterpieces, and the ballet The Sanguine Fan (1917), nothing major emerged. It was not until 1918 and 1919 that his final great period produced the three chamber works - the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet, both in E minor, the Piano Quintet in A minor and theCello Concerto in E minor, his last great masterpiece. Audiences were quick to note the change - no longer the pomp and swagger of earlier days.

Here was a new Elgar - less assured, more contemplative, more withdrawn. Speaking of the Cello Concerto, Elgar's biographer Ian Parrott says: "It is a work apart, by a lonely man in war-time who sees that artistic criteria have altered irreversibly".

In 1920, Lady Elgar died and with her died much of Elgar's inspiration and will to compose. She had organised his household and ministered to his comforts. For a long time she saved him hours of drudgery, for instance by ruling bar lines on score paper. She walked miles in all weathers to post precious parcels of manuscript and proofs. In the early days of their marriage she had collaborated with him to produce such works as Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands (1896) - Elgar's settings of his wife's poems inspired by holidays spent in Germany. At times when success seemed forever to be eluding him, she never lost faith. In short, she had been the driving force behind his genius encouraging him and proclaiming his talents at every opportunity.

Elgar with Marco,
his spaniel dog

Throughout the 1920s, Elgar, saddened by his bereavement and by the social and musical changes brought about by the war, lived in virtual retirement, outwardly content to live the life of a country gentleman in his beloved Worcestershire with his dogs, sometimes emerging for the occasional visit to London or for a conducting or recording assignment. (He made a fine series of recordings of his own compositions for HMV). Honours continued to be conferred on him: in 1928 he was created Knight Commander of the Victorian Order (K.C.V.O). About this time, it seemed that he had taken on a new lease of life for he began work on a number of large projects including an opera, The Spanish Lady and a third symphony. In 1933 he flew to Paris to conduct his violin concerto with the youthful Yehudi Menuhin, the soloist with whom he had recorded the work in London some weeks earlier. Whilst in France, Elgar took the opportunity of visiting Delius at Grez-sur-Loing. Both men had but one more year to live. In October, Elgar was found to be suffering from a malignant tumour which pressed on the sciatic nerve. Further composition became impossible and he died on 23rd February, 1934.



"For thirty years after his death in 1934, his music was considered to be 'out of fashion'. It was said to epitomise the Edwardian era and to have no relevance to a later age. I believe, however, that it is far too great to be tied to one short period of history and that, in any case, it is music of so personal a nature that it can be described accurately not as 'Edwardian' but only as 'Elgarian'."

Michael Kennedy - 'Portrait of Elgar'

(Oxford University Press -1968)


"… His greatest music was, and often is, regarded as quintessentially English… But when this has been done, there is still the paradox that appreciation of Elgar was shown in the first place by immigrants or foreigners of singular discernment…"

"They (the Elgars) were proud to be English; they were often concerned with the little as well as the large issues of national life; but they accepted it as axiomatic that national sentiment was valueless unless it was linked to the humane tradition of European thought …"

Dr. Percy M. Young - 'Elgar O.M.'

(Purnell Book Services - 1973 edition)


Edward Elgar (2nd June 1857 - 23rd February 1934) - "Those years had seen change accelerate as never before in human history. His response had been to seek the illumination of time remembered. For all those of his generation and the future who would feel the insight of retrospection, he had made of that evanescence his music."

Jerrold Northrop Moore - 'Edward Elgar - A Creative Life'

(Oxford University Press - 1984)

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