Elgar had first considered composing a symphony, to be based on
the life of General Gordon, as early as 1898 but the work never
materialised. He continued to toy with the idea of a symphony in the years
that followed, prompting his close friend Alfred Rodewald to offer him a
commission to produce it. Elgar declined that offer but accepted a commission
from the Leeds Festival Committee to write a symphony for the 1904 festival,
before soon changing his mind again. This incurred some displeasure with
the committee, but Elgar realised that a work on the scale he intended could
not be rushed.
Eventually, shortly after his fiftieth birthday in 1907, he settled down
to work in earnest on the symphony. What emerged proved to be a totally
different work from the Gordon symphony he had for so long contemplated. It
begins with a broad, noble theme which binds the work together,
recurring at intervals throughout the four movements before
eventually emerging as a triumphant march at the very end of the
symphony. The third movement (adagio) is widely considered to
be the most perfect and lyrical of all Elgar's output.
The symphony was an immediate success, with Elgar being recalled
to the platform several times both during and after the
symphony's first performance and the first London performance
four days later. The symphony received around 100
performances during its first year and remains a standard of the
classical repertoire, still performed regularly today.