Edward Elgar (June 2, 1857–February 23, 1934) was a leading figure in the last generation of European Romantic composers, which includes Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943).
Late Romanticism belongs to the absolute pinnacle of European civilization’s self-confidence and global hegemony, although, as with all full-blown flowers and ripened fruit, the discerning eye can see the first spots of decay, the inner decadence that became apparent to all only with the catastrophe of the First World War.
Elgar’s music is often dismissed as “bombastic” and “jingoistic,” which is rubbish. “Bombastic” music sounds magnificent and elevated but is actually empty. Bombast is a striking opening that does not deliver, a magnificent crescendo that is not emotionally earned. But Elgar never promises more than he delivers and never takes more than he earns. He is too conscientious, too Aryan, a composer to do that.
The charge of “bombast” may also refer to the fact that Elgar’s music, like Brahms’, has an unmistakeably masculine quality, which couples drive and ardor with the dignity and nobility of self-restraint. Some people just can’t relate to that.
As for the charge of “jingoism”: Elgar was a proud and patriotic Englishman, but he felt himself first and foremost to be a European. His music is rooted in European Romanticism and has always been appreciated on the Continent. Moreover, unlike many late Romantic composers who were self-consciously nationalistic and sought to incorporate elements of their national musical traditions, including folk-song, Elgar had little regard for most serious English music (save Purcell) and even less interest in the vast treasury of English folk music. But for all that, Elgar’s music is ineffably but unmistakeably English. He was English. He didn’t need to try sounding that way.
The charge of “jingoism” is based largely on the fact that Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory,” written in 1902 with words by A. V. Benson, rapidly became regarded as England’s unofficial national anthem. But Elgar was horrified at the outbreak of the First World War, which he regarded as a fratricidal tragedy. And when he heard “Land of Hope and Glory” sung in the context of the Great War, he cringed at the words, for when he created the song, he wanted to laud England, but not England over and against other European nations.
The fourth of seven children born to a middle class musical family in the small village of Lower Broadheath, outside Worcester, Edward Elgar showed an early talent for music which his family cultivated and encouraged. After a few months as a clerk in the office of a solicitor, Elgar rectified his error and made music his profession. As a young man, he distinguished himself as a violinist and an organist, as well as a conductor and arranger.
Elgar truly started at the bottom and worked his way to the top. Some of his early jobs included conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum and professor of the violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.
In his 20s, Elgar traveled to the continent to expose himself to the leading composers and musicians. During his 30s, he also frequently attended the Crystal Palace concerts in London.
In the 1890s, Elgar slowly built his reputation as a composer, primarily of works for the great choral festivals of the English Midlands. Works from this period include The Black Knight (1892) and King Olaf (1896) (both inspired by Longfellow), as well as The Light of Life (1896) and Caractacus (1898). Instrumental works from this time include the Serenade for Strings (1892) and Three Bavarian Dances (1897). But as far as the London establishment was concerned, Elgar was a minor provincial composer.
Elgar’s breakthrough came in 1899 at the age of 42 with the premier of his orchestral piece Variations on an Original Theme (op. 36), universally known as the Enigma Variations. It established Elgar’s national and international reputation and remains a staple of the concert and recorded repertoire to this day. Here is Daniel Barenboim conducting Variation IX, “Nimrod.”
(I prefer Barenboim’s version to the others available on YouTube because Barenboim’s tempo is closest to Elgar’s preference. Other conductors tend to drag it out to enormous length at the expense of dramatic intensity. The recording of the Enigma Variations that I most highly recommend is conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.)
In 1900, when Sir Arthur Sullivan died, Elgar was proclaimed the leading British composer (it is a monarchy, after all). From then until the Great War, Elgar’s life was a series of musical triumphs and social honors. In 1900, his great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius premiered. In 1901, he composed the first of his five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the “trio” of which became “Land of Hope and Glory” and in the United States is played at practically every graduation. Here is a stirring performance of the first march which includes a chorus singing “Land of Hope and Glory”:
(Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of the Enigma Variations also contains an excellent version of all five Pomp and Circumstance Marches.)
Other successful works include the concert overture Cockaigne (In London Town) (1901), another concert overture In the South (Alassio) (1904), the Introduction and Allegro for Strings (1905), the wildly popular Symphony No. 1 in A-flat
(1908), the Symphony No. 2 in E-flat (1911), and the symphonic poem Falstaff (1913).
To my ears, Elgar’s greatest work is his Violin Concerto in B minor (1910). In truth, it is the violin concerto I wish Brahms had written instead of the unworthy piece that bears his name. The two best versions of this concerto are played by Nigel Kennedy (now just “Kennedy”) conducted by Vernon Handley and Simon Rattle. Unfortunately, there are no really good videos of performances available on YouTube, but this video of the first movement gives a sense of the work:
In the wreckage of European civilization after the Great War, Elgar’s music fell out of fashion. His last major work was his Cello Concerto in E minor (1919). Although the Cello Concerto is one of his greatest works, it was poorly received at the time. My favorite recording is Jacqueline Du Pre with John Barbirolli conducting (paired with Janet Baker’s definitive performance of Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures, 1899). Fortunately, there is a superb performance by Yo-Yo Ma on YouTube. Here is the first movement:
Elgar’s wife Alice, who was eight years his senior, died in April of 1920. After her death, Elgar lost interest in composing, preferring to distract himself with various hobbies. Fortunately for us, one of those hobbies was the infant art of sound recording. Elgar had already begun conducting recordings of his major works in 1914. But when the electrical microphone was invented, it revolutionized sound recording. So, starting in 1926, Elgar began conducting and recording new performances of his major works, including the Enigma Variations, Falstaff, the first and second symphonies, and the concertos for cello and violin. Elgar’s recordings of the Enigma Variations and the violin concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist are available on CD from EMI in the US. (In the UK and Europe, where copyright laws are less restrictive, one can purchase three budget-priced Naxos recordings: Symphony 1 & Falstaff, Symphony 2 & the Cello Concerto, and Enigma Variations, Cockaigne Overture, & Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1-5.) If you can wait until next month, you can get Elgar’s complete electrical recordings from EMI in a budget-priced boxed set: The Elgar Edition: The Complete Electrical Recordings of Sir Edward Elgar
Elgar was also one of the first composers to be filmed conducting his own work. In November 1931, Pathé made a newsreel film of Elgar recording Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London:
In the early 1930s, interest in Elgar’s work revived. In honor of his 75th birthday in 1932, the BBC organized a festival of his works. The BBC also commissioned a third symphony, which was never finished. (The sketches have been elaborated into a performing version by Anthony Payne, which gives a sense of what a magnificent work it might have been. The sketches are magnificent enough, and have now firmly established themselves in the repertoire, with recordings by Sir Colin Davis, Richard Hickox, Paul Daniel, and Andrew Davis.)
Elgar attained not only artistic but personal fulfillment. He and Alice had a long and happy marriage. Even though Alice was more than 40 when they were married, they were blessed with one daughter, Carice Irene, born in 1890. Elgar was knighted in 1904, the first of a steady stream of honors. He also became quite wealthy. He died in 1934 of cancer, aged 76.
The definitive biography is Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Elgar, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987). The best collection of Elgar’s music is Elgar: The Collector’s Edition, which comprises 29 CDs of Elgar’s major works and most of the minor ones — many of them in definitive recordings — plus a 30th disc of Elgar conducting his own works. At around $50 (i.e., the price of three full-price CDs) it is certainly one of the greatest bargains on CD.