1896 was an important year in Elgar's development, with premières within a few
weeks ofeach other of his two most substantial works to date: The
Light of Life on 10 September and King Olaf
on 30 October. Both works considerably enhanced his provincial reputation, but he still lacked
the same level of recognition in London .... and still spent a considerable amount of time giving
music lessons to make ends meet.
1897 was to be Queen Victoria's Jubilee year. Hoping to profit from celebrations to be held
throughout the country (and, indeed, the Empire), the publishers Novello's commissioned a range
of works of varying styles and standards of complexity. Hoping to capitalise on the growing
popularity of their young new composer (for Novello's had published both works
premièred in 1896), they turned to Elgar to set to music a libretto they had already
commissioned from one Shapcott Wensley. Elgar readily accepted, returning sketches
for Novello's approval (and also writing the Imperial
March for the Jubilee celebrations). This was somewhat out of character for Elgar -
perhaps financial benefits weighed uppermost in his mind - for, while he regularly accepted
commissions for choral works, the subject and libretto were usually of his own choosing. Not
until The Crown of India in 1912 would he again take
on a commission to set to music a libretto specified by the commissioning body.
Shapcott Wensley's libretto is solid and uninspired and Elgar's music, while lyrical and
avoiding the excesses of bombast that the occasion perhaps expected, fails to overcome the
libretto's limitations. After The Light of Life and King Olaf, the work is a disappointment, rising above the
mundane only in a rousing epilogue. It is therefore somewhat ironic that, in the prevailing carnival
atmosphere, critical appraisal was set aside : both this work and the Imperial March were warmly received in London,
considerably enhancing Elgar's status there and setting the scene for the triumph of the Enigma Variations two years later.