Elgar’s Legacy: The Composer
Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857–23 February 1934) was an English composer, with his best known compositions being orchestral works (Classic FM, 2021a). Such works included concertos for violin and cello, along with two symphonies, which were considered to be his finest as they easily stood in comparison “with that of his late-romantic contemporaries Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler” (Clements, 2020). Working during the late 19th century, with the emergence of Romanticism, Elgar’s works were “characterized by bold tunes, striking colour effects, and mastery of large forms,” which subsequently evoked or stimulated a “renaissance of English music” (Britannica, 2021). His pieces were often seen as “epitomising the smug Victorian world” and seemed to have both the influences and outlook that were “profoundly European rather than home-grown” (Clements, 2020). Certainly, his music would have been influenced by the surroundings that he was born in. Given that he was born Lower Broadheath, near Worcester, the countryside idyll would have heavily dominated his creativity (Classic FM, 2021b). While Elgar did write his share of “patriotic” pieces, he was not observed to be a “flag-waving imperialist” (Clements, 2020), especially as his other works were of a religious, cosmopolitan, or programmatic nature (Britannica, 2021). Although Elgar regarded himself as an outsider, specifically to the world of music, his works continue to be performed, cropping up in seemingly unexpected places (Clements, 2020). Undoubtedly, his compositions have withstood the test of time, as they seem to resonate with each passing decade. Such works are recognized worldwide for not only being magnificent and beautiful, but also prolific and charming (Elgar Foundation, 2021a; Elgar Foundation 2021b). By his final year, Elgar had created over 200 classical pieces (Elgar Foundation, 2021a).
Elgar’s Growth as a Musician: Major Influences and Figures
Feasibly, inspiration came to Elgar in many different forms and at different times. When opportunities were available, Elgar studied “every music book and organ instruction manual he could get his hands on,” he learned to play a variety of instruments, and he attended “concerts in which top rate orchestras played the likes of Schumann, Brahms and Wagner” (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Among these musicians, Schumann was a fast favorite with Elgar (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). It is also likely that his friends and family had some influence, either positive or negative, on his development. Particularly, Elgar was expected to “repeat the career of his father, with perhaps a wider, though at best a local, success” (Murray, 1935). Seemingly, “no one could have foreseen the brilliant future that lay before him,” despite the growing support from his friends (Murray, 1935). Among Elgar’s many works, his 'Enigma' Variations (Op. 36), are supposedly cryptic tributes to those “who stood behind the composer” (Classic FM, 2021a; Classic FM, 2021b; Grogan, 1994). It has been speculated that these included his wife (Caroline Alice Roberts), his dog (Mina), his publisher, and an unspecified number of students (Classic FM, 2021b; Grogan, 1994). While this is one of Elgar’s most popular works, it is also one of his most puzzling.
Additional influences could be found in Elgar’s societal, historical, and religious surroundings. Particularly during the 1900s, it was a “period of intense productivity” (Clements, 2020). Elgar, who was a Roman Catholic, had ambitiously planned to complete a large-scale trilogy of religious otarios (Britannica, 2021). However, only the first two were realized: The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906). The third part of this endeavor never made it “beyond a few sketches,” suggestively, due to his diminishing faith (Clements, 2020). Perhaps the fears of mediocrity and criticism discouraged, if not hindered, his progress. Critics were often “polite rather than enthusiastic” (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Moreover, many of Elgar’s works had “lukewarm” receptions and little success (Britannica, 2021; Clements, 2020). Regardless, “there were some whose admiration for the work and whose belief in the composer were not to be shaken” (Murray, 1935). With the outbreak of war (World War I), Elgar’s compositions from 1918 to 1919 were produced in reaction to the hostilities (Britannica, 2021; Clements, 2020). Initially, these works provided a “welcome escape from the horrors of the war,” but as the carnage continued, his despair “emerged most poignantly” (Clements, 2020). On the other hand, Elgar “ignored the currents of modernism that swirled around European music from the 1890s onwards” and “disdained the tropes of English folksiness” (Clements, 2020). Displaying the traits of a pioneer, he fully embraced recorded music, regularly meeting with the “bods at HMV to make premiere recordings of his works” (Classic FM, 2021b). Conclusively, Elgar’s works vary greatly and seem to mirror the changing values, and changing backdrop, of his life.
- Elgar’s Education and Career
It was with his father, William, that young Elgar first began his music lessons (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Provided that his father was a church organist, instrument tuner, and music dealer, he was fully capable of teaching Elgar to play the piano, organ, and violin (Britannica, 2021; Classic FM, 2021a; Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Notably, his mother, Ann, had a “keen interest in the arts and encouraged an interest in music within all of her children” (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Aside from this instruction, Elgar was primarily self-taught in music (Classic FM, 2021a). This was essential for Elgar, especially since his parents “could not afford for him to study in Leipzig as he had hoped” (Clements, 2020). He proved to be an excellent violinist, later taking up the bassoon as well (Britannica, 2021). While he “had no formal training in composition,” he began composing as early as the age of 10 (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). To be expected from a musically inclined household, Elgar’s first composition was both written and performed by his family (Elgar Foundation, 2021a).
Regarding his formal lessons, Elgar attended the Littleton House School (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Although Elgar halted his education at the age of 15, he did briefly obtain work experience at a lawyer’s office. Aside from this, Elgar spent his time serving as a bandmaster and a church organist (Britannica, 2021). Strikingly, Elgar never took a permanent job for a majority of his life (Classic FM, 2021a). With his work experience mostly isolated to London, between 1889 and 1891, Elgar took to freelance for the remainder of his life (Classic FM, 2021a). Unfortunately, his works “did not provide Elgar with an income on which they [his wife and daughter] could live” (Elgar Foundation, 2021a). Certainly, his career path could not be considered a lucrative one. Elgar was often revered as a “musical odd-jobber,” as he regularly accompanied the local groups and choirs (Classic FM, 2021b). To make ends meet, Elgar would occasionally seek employment as a clerk at the local solicitor’s office (Classic FM, 2021b; Elgar Foundation, 2021b). This position, although financially crucial, was heavily disliked by Elgar, who “spent every spare moment reading” (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Regarding his freelance work, or the “shaky early days of his career,” Elgar conducted locally, taught, composed, and performed publicly (Classic FM, 2021a).
Creating Compositions: Motivation and Grief
Unquestionably, Elgar’s marriage was a massive turning point in his life, affecting his career and his compositions (Murray, 1935). His wife was seen as a “hugely dominant force” behind his creativity, and unsurprisingly, several pieces were dedicated to her, including Salut d'Amour (Classic FM, 2021b). She not only exhibited a selfless devotion for Elgar, but she provided lifelong encouragement for his musical endeavors (Murray, 1935). In an article of The Times, it was noted that she “set to work by every means in her power to strengthen and support the composer both by her sympathy and her practical aid” (1920). The publication goes on to praise her many contributions to Elgar’s processes: “She made herself a good copyist, since an amanuensis would have been too expensive a luxury. She "laid out" his scores, copied in the voice parts, planned the barring—all this for several thousands of pages of 40-line score.” Essentially, Alice fulfilled the role of her husband’s business manager and social secretary (Elgar Foundation, 2021b). Furthermore, she was his motivation, constantly and tirelessly pushing for the “recognition she felt he deserved” (Elgar Foundation, 2021b).
Sadly, with her death in 1920, Elgar’s compositions quickly curtailed (Britannica, 2021). By this time, his brand of late Romanticism had “become unfashionable in the jazz age” (Clements, 2020). Debatably, Elgar’s period of greatness, which began only a year after his marriage, “practically ended with Lady Elgar’s death thirty years later” (Murray, 1935). His rise to fame was exceedingly slow and “fraught with indifference to his earlier works” (Elgar Foundation, 2021a). With that in mind, it was his wife who “first saw Elgar’s gifts in all their promise. It was her inspiration and constant cooperation that enabled those gifts to develop into the magnificent fullness of later years” (Murray, 1935). Without her efforts, Elgar may have never obtained such merit as “a composer of more than usual ability” (Murray, 1935), who “liberated his country’s music from its insularity” (Britannica, 2021) and “defined English music” (Clements, 2020). With the help of his friend, George Bernard Shaw, Elgar was eventually stimulated to return to his compositions; he would begin working on a third symphony, a piano concerto, and an opera (Britannica, 2021). With his death, however, he would leave these pieces unfinished.
Classic FM (2021a). Edward Elgar (1857–1934).
Classic FM (2021b). Elgar: 15 facts about the great composer.
Clements, A. (2020). Elgar: where to start with his music. The Guardian.
Elgar Foundation (2021a). A tribute to his life and music.
Elgar Foundation (2021b). BIOGRAPHY OF EDWARD ELGAR 1857 – 1934.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021). Sir Edward Elgar: English composer. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Grogan, C. (1994). Edward Elgar: A Guide to Research.
Murray, G. (1935). Edward Elgar. The Downside Review, 53(1), 19-47.
The Times (1920).