Edward Elgar

1857 - 1934

British

Summary

Edward Elgar was born at Lower Broadheath, on 2nd June 1857, within
sight of the Malvern Hills and the tower of Worcester Cathedral,
features that meant much to him throughout his creative life. In
boyhood, he showed a precocious gift for keyboard improvisation; later,
he became a competent organist, an outstanding violinist and a conductor
of nervous energy and much flexibility, proving notably successful in
recordings of his own music.

Biography

Edward Elgar was born at Lower Broadheath, on 2nd June 1857, within
sight of the Malvern Hills and the tower of Worcester Cathedral,
features that meant much to him throughout his creative life. In
boyhood, he showed a precocious gift for keyboard improvisation; later,
he became a competent organist, an outstanding violinist and a conductor
of nervous energy and much flexibility, proving notably successful in
recordings of his own music.

Towards his instruction, in Worcester, there was a high standard of
music in St. George's Roman Catholic Church, where his father was
organist, a fine tradition at the Cathedral, the Three Choirs Festivals,
opportunities for performance in local concerts and ready materials for
study in his father's music shop. As a violinist, he had expert lessons
for a time in London; otherwise he was largely self taught. Many of his
earliest compositions were written for the St. George's, where he
succeeded his father as organist in 1885. He kept up a supply of wind
quintets for a local group in which he was bassoonist, also polkas and
quadrilles for the band at Powick Lunatic Asylum.

He had hoped for study in Leipzig, but family finances would not allow
it. On marriage to Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889 his inspiration took
wing and he began to plan works on a scale notably more ambitious. The
Froissart Overture was a commission for the Worcester Three Choirs
Festival of 1890. It was succeeded by a series of choral works,
beginning with The Black Knight, which Elgar was later to describe as a
'symphony' in four movements, continuing with Scenes from the Saga of
King Olaf, The Banner of St. George commissioned by Novello to celebrate
Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and culminating with
Caractacus, 1898, dedicated to the Queen herself. The originality and
brilliance of his orchestration attracted attention at once, as did his
progressive absorption of Wagner's structural methods, based ultimately
on visits to Bayreuth and Munich.

The Imperial March of 1897 showed him playing the role of the national
laureate to so great effect, one he was to pursue in the Coronation Ode
of 1902 ("Land of Hope and Glory" was featured in the finale), that it
was to make him 'Sir Edward', Master of the King's Musick, and first
baronet of Broadheath. It was the Enigma Variations of 1899, premiered
by Hans Richter, that launched his international fame. European and
American conductors were quick to recognise the quality of the
Variations, and it was in Germany that Elgar's masterpiece, The Dream of
Gerontius, first achieved success and the praise of Richard Strauss.
Gerontius had been a Birmingham commission of 1900. The Apostles and The
Kingdom, planned for a scheme of Wagnerian proportion, and both to
librettos by the composer, were produced at the succeeding triennial
festivals. Elgar had raised oratorio to a new level of achievement; but a
projected sequel, The Last Judgement, was never written.

Each of the major choral works was followed by orchestral music of
utmost virtuosity, such as the Cockaigne Overture (1901), In the South
and four Pomp and Circumstance Marches. At the end of 1907, Elgar made a
formal start to his First Symphony. Its success was immediate,
resulting in a hundred performances in little more than a year after its
premiere. The Austrian conductor, Arthur Nikisch, dubbed it 'Brahms's
5th' and Elgar took his proper place in Europe's musical tradition. This
success was followed by the triumph of the Violin Concerto in 1910,
which consolidated his position among the most significant of
late-Romantic composers, one maintained by his Second Symphony,
dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, the Symphonic Study
Falstaff, based on Shakespeare's Henry IV and V plays.

During the First World War, Elgar wrote works expressing his sympathy
with the plight of Belgium and Poland. The aspiration and appalling
waste of those years were summed up in the three movements of The Spirit
of England. Elgar escaped also to the playful enchantment of The
Starlight Express and the old-world elegance of The Sanguine Fan ballet.
More significant were the three chamber works of 1918-9 and, above all,
the Cello Concerto, at once effective, concise and elegiac. This was
music matured in the Sussex countryside, where the Elgars had rented a
cottage since 1917.

Throughout his career, Elgar produced a notable series of partsongs,
pieces that show him working with equal success on a small scale and
writing as sensitively for voices as he did for instruments. My Love
Dwelt in a Northern Land brought him in 1890 his first contact with the
publishing house of Novello. These works take him from the spectral
nihilism of Owls, a setting to his own words, via the bitonal
originality of There is Sweet Music, to Tennyson, to the generous
lyricism of Go, Song of Mine, the poem translated from Cavalcanti by
Rossetti. Such partsongs can be reckoned among Elgar's finest
achievements.

When Lady Elgar died in 1920, Elgar's creative mainspring seemed broken.
With utmost panache, he arranged for full orchestra Bach's Organ
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor; he also wrote touching incidental music
to Laurence Binyon's play, Arthur. But it was not until 1930, when
already over 70, that Elgar turned again to composition with apparent
relish, producing the Severn Suite for brass band, Pomp and Circumstance
March No. 5 and the Nursery Suite. In his final years, he was working
on an opera, The Spanish Lady, a piano concerto and the third symphony.
His death on 23rd February 1934 prevented their completion. An Elgar
Complete Edition was launched in 1981. This important project, to which
Novello will continue to make a significant contribution, has been taken
over by the Elgar Society.

Robert Anderson

News

Performances

25th July 2020

SOLOISTS
Marta Fontanals-Simmons mezzo-soprano
PERFORMERS
Three Choirs Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra
CONDUCTOR
Samuel Hudson
LOCATION
Worcester Cathedral, Worcester, United Kingdom

26th July 2020

SOLOISTS
Anita Watson soprano / Catherine Carby mezzo-soprano / Ed Lyon tenor / David Stout bass
PERFORMERS
Three Choirs Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra
CONDUCTOR
Geraint Bowen
LOCATION
Worcester Cathedral, Worcester , United Kingdom

7th August 2020

PERFORMERS
Students from the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme
CONDUCTOR
Antonio Pappano
LOCATION
Snape Maltings / Snape Bridge / United Kingdom

21st September 2020

PERFORMERS
Berliner Philharmoniker
CONDUCTOR
Robin Ticciati
LOCATION
Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

24th April 2021

SOLOISTS
Leicester Philharmonic Choir
PERFORMERS
The Bardi Symphony Orchestra
CONDUCTOR
Steven Bullimore
LOCATION
De Montfort Hall / Leicester / United Kingdom

Photos

Discography