Elgar's love of the Malvern Hills is well known but it was his
mother, Ann Elgar, who first suggested that he should write a
work set on the hills. Caractacus tells the story of a British
chieftain who fought the Roman invaders. Eventually defeated at
the British Camp on the Malvern Hills (the earthworks of which
can still be visited today), Caractacus was taken to Rome for
trial but so impressed Emperor Claudius that he was pardoned.
Elgar chose a neighbour in Malvern, H A Acworth, as his
librettist. Acworth took some liberties with history by
introducing a love interest, while Elgar himself responded to the
patriotic fervour of the times - he began composition some months
after Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee - with a swaggering
triumphal march which dominates the final scene. This remains
the best known of the work's music but it gives a false
impression of what is otherwise a notably pastoral work. The
third scene begins with a woodland interlude which in particular
reflects the woods and trees of the Malvern area in which Elgar
found his inspiration.
The work is rarely performed today and cannot be counted as one
of Elgar's best works. It does however represent an important step
in Elgar's development, coming only two years before
The Dream of Gerontius.