Classical Composer Biography: Edward Elgar
by Betty Fry
Internationally known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, and so called because audiences could walk around during performances, ‘The Proms’ were founded in 1895, and for many years were performed at the Queen’s Hall in London. When this was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War in 1941, the Proms transferred to the Royal Albert Hall, where they remain to this day.
Always they end with Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1′, and is what I have chosen to play as I begin to write. Principally because there can be few English men or women unfamiliar with the great central theme of this magnificent piece of music.
Best known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the words of which were added by A.C. Benson to form part of a Coronation Odefor Edward VII in 1902, it is always played and sung by the audience at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’.
Jingoistic as the words may be, and scarcely relevant in the world as it is today, they still evoke, along with the wonderful music, a strong uniting emotion. As anyone who has ever attended on the last night of the Proms, or watched the scene on televison can testify.
The British Empire was at its peak when Elgar wrote this march. The opening swagger, with a clash of cymbals and fanfares on the brass instruments, is the very stuff of Imperial splendour. Then, with a sudden change of mood, in comes one of the most regal and elevated melodies ever written. It is all the more effective for being introduced quietly on the strings. “A tune that will knock ‘em flat” as Elgar himself so eloquently said.
Edward Elgar was the son of a piano tuner from Dover, who arrived in the cathedral city of Worcester in 1841, and married his landlord’s daughter. They set up home in the hamlet of Broadheath just outside the city, and it was there that Edward was born, in a cottage which is now a museum devoted to the composer.
Elgar’s father ran a music shop in Worcester, and eventually the whole family moved to live above it. Everyone was expected to serve behind the counter and Elgar later recalled the experience as giving him the chance to ‘read everything, play everything, hear everything’.
However, Elgar senior did not think music was any career for his son and placed him with a firm of solicitors as a trainee clerk. But Edward was not so, easily dissuaded. He taught himself harmony, counterpoint and form, and studied theory and scores, including those of Beethoven’s symphonies.
With his brother Frank, he formed a wind quintet, and, in 1877, paid his first visit to London to hear a concert. He continued to attend concerts there whenever he could afford the train fare.
In 1878, Elgar was appointed bandmaster of the attendants’ orchestra at – of all things – what was then called a lunatic asylum. He also took a teaching post in Malvern and began to offer his own compositions to publishers and conductors.
There was unanimous rejection. Having a provincial background worked against Elgar as, he was convinced, did being a Catholic.
Then, during 1886, the daughter of a major general, Caroline Alice Roberts, came for music lessons. She was nine years Elgar’s senior, but the relationship blossomed – much to the Roberts family’s disapproval. But in 1889 the pair moved to London and married.
Alice Elgar was convinced of her husband’s genius and gave him every encouragement in his composing, even undertaking the laborious task of drawing the bar lines on his score paper – they could not afford to buy the real thing.
Following the birth of their daughter, Carice, Elgar composed the lovely ‘Serenade for Strings’ Knowing I would mention this piece of music I put the CD into my player, so that as I write it is coming to the end of playing the third movement of what is known to have been one of Elgar’s favourite compositions.
The opening melody rose lightly and elegantly up the scale. Then a brief new melody entered towards the end and captured the serenity of a bright English summer morning. It was indeed a lovely piece of music.
Back in the 18th century serenades were originally composed as music to be performed in the evening. But with the passing of time, the title of serenade has taken on a broader meaning. Today it often describes a composition in a generally relaxed and genial mood, with no particular time of day or night in mind.
Although the romantic mood of much of his music conveys the peace of the English landscape, Elgar was prone to frequent bouts of despair. Committing his feelings to paper drained him emotionally, and completing a major work always left him in an agonizing vacuum.
Even when success finally came, Elgar remained insecure over his music, and tormented himself over the smallest criticism.
He was also an extremely talented violinist, but his exacting standards prevented him from becoming a professional, since he did not feel he could produce a sufficiently full tone.
But for many Elgar is inextricably linked with imperial pomp and ceremony. He loved grand marches, and some of his finest were written for royal occasions.
There was the ‘Imperial March’ of 1897 for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. And then the ‘Coronation March’, composed for the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary in London’s Westminster abbey on 22nd June 1911 – perfectly combined his two great loves of specatacle and the Empire.
Introduced by noble calls on brass and strings, the pace and mood of the piece settle appropriately into that of a solemn and majestic procession.
Elgar’s five ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches form a set, and have the same opus number, but in fact were written over a total period of three decades.
Elgar ‘s status was finally secured by his ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ performed to an enthusiastic audience on 19th June 1899. Each of these ‘Enigma Variations’ are so called because the theme on which they are based is said to conceal yet another secret theme which is never stated in the music.
Take for example ‘Nimrod’, which I am listening to now. It began softly on the strings, the solemn melody gradually rose up through he orchestra to reach a magnificent high point and quickly subsided again.This work was a tribute to the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique Sonata – a work dear to Elgar’s friend, August Jaegaer, and having heard it, I can understand. It is a truly wonderful piece of music.
But each of the Enigma variations is a portrait of one of Elgar’s friends. ‘Nimrod’ has been decoded as of the German musician August Jaeger who settled in England and worked for a music publisher. Jaeger’s name means, in German, ‘Hunter’, and ‘Nimrod’ was a biblical hunter. Hence the title.
In 1920 Elgar’s beloved Alice died. Lonely and very sad, he retreated into the study of science, especially biology, and in 1923 left the Sussex cottage he had shared with Alice to return Worcestershire.
He composed very little in his final years, but he did make a number of recordings for the Gramophone Company HMV label which included a celebrated one of the Violin Concerto with a sixteen year old prodigy called Yehudi Menuhin.
But honours at home had followed his success. He received a knighthood; the freedom of the city of Worcester; and a guest lectureship at Birmingham University. Thus Edward the provincial boy, died peacefully in his home as Sir Edward Elgar OM , musician supreme.