Sir Edward Elgar Edward William Elgar was born in the small village of Lower Broadheath outside Worcester, Worcestershire, to William Elgar, a piano tuner and music dealer, and his wife Ann. The fourth of six children, Edward Elgar had three brothers, Henry, Frederick and Francis, and two sisters, Lucy and Susannah. His mother, Ann, had converted to Catholicism shortly before Edward's birth, so Edward was baptised and brought up as a Roman Catholic.
Surrounded by sheet music and instruments in his father's shop in Worcester's High Street, the young Elgar became self-taught in music. On warm summer days, he would take manuscripts into the countryside to study them (he was a passionate and adventurous early cyclist who learnt to cycle from the very early age of 5). Thus there began for him a strong association between music and nature. As he was later to say, "There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require."
Having left school at the age of 15, he began work for a local solicitor, but after a year embarked on a musical career, giving piano and violin lessons. At 22 he took up the post of bandmaster at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, three miles south-west of Worcester. He composed here too; some of the pieces for the asylum orchestra (music in dance forms) were rediscovered and performed locally in 1996.
In many ways, his years as a young Worcestershire violinist were his happiest. He played in the first violins at the Worcester and Birmingham Festivals, and one great experience was to play Antonin Dvorak's Sixth Symphony and Stabat Mater under the composer's baton. Elgar was thrilled by Dvorak's orchestration and this remained an influence on his own style for more than a decade.
At 29, through his teaching, he met (Caroline) Alice Roberts, a Major-General's daughter (shades of Gilbert and Sullivan) and an author of verse and prose fiction. He married her three years later against the wishes of her family, giving her as an engagement present the short violin and piano piece Salut d'amour. The Elgars moved to London to be closer to the centre of British musical life, and Edward started composing in earnest. The stay was unsuccessful, however, and they were obliged to return to Great Malvern, where Edward could earn a living teaching.
During the 1890s Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer, chiefly of works for the great choral festivals of the Midlands. The Black Knight, King Olaf (1896), The Light of Life and Caractacus were all modestly successful and he obtained a long-standing publisher in Novello and Company.
In 1899, at the age of 42, his first major orchestral work, the Enigma Variations, was premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter. It was received with general acclaim, establishing Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation. This work is formally titled Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma). The enigma is that although there are thirteen variations on the "original theme", the 'enigma' theme, which Elgar said 'runs through and over the whole set' is never heard. Many later commentators have observed that although Elgar is today regarded as a characteristically English composer, his orchestral music and this work in particular share much with the Central European tradition typified at the time by the work of Richard Strauss. Indeed, the Enigma Variations were well-received in Germany.
The following year saw the production in Birmingham of his choral setting of Cardinal Newman's poem The Dream of Gerontius. Despite a disastrous first performance, the work was established within a few years as one of Elgar's greatest, and it is now regarded as one of the finest examples of English choral music from any era.
Elgar is probably best known for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901). Shortly after their composition, Elgar was asked to set the first march to words by A C Benson as a Coronation Ode to mark the coronation of King Edward VII. The suggestion had already been made (allegedly by the future King himself) that words should be fitted to the broad tune which formed the trio section of this march. Against the advice of his friends, Elgar suggested that Benson furnish further words to allow him to include it in the new work. The result was Land of Hope and Glory, which formed the finale of the ode and was also issued (with slightly different words) as a separate song.
Between 1902 and 1914 Elgar enjoyed phenomenal success, made four visits to the USA including one conducting tour, and earned considerable fees from the performance of his music. Between 1905 and 1908 Elgar held the post of Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham. His lectures there caused controversy owing to remarks he made about other English composers and English music in general; he was quoted as saying "English music is white -- it evades everything". The University of Birmingham's Special Collections contain an archive of letters written by Elgar.
Elgar's Symphony No. 1 (1908) was given one hundred performances in its first year, and in 1911, the year of the completion of his Symphony No. 2, he had the Order of Merit bestowed upon him.
Elgar's musical legacy is primarily orchestral, but he did write for soloists and groups of other instruments. His one work for brass band, The Severn Suite (later arranged by the composer for orchestra), remains an important part of the brass band repertoire. It is occasionally performed in its arrangement by Sir Ivor Atkins for organ as the composer's second Organ Sonata; Elgar's first, much earlier (1895) Organ Sonata was written specifically for the instrument in a highly orchestral style, and remains a frequently-performed part of the English Romantic organ repertoire.
During World War I his music began to fall out of fashion. After the death of his wife in 1920 he wrote little of importance. Shortly before her death he composed the elegiac Cello Concerto.
Elgar lived in the village of Kempsey from 1923 to 1927, during which time he was made Master of the King's Musick.
At the end of his life Elgar began work on an opera, The Spanish Lady, and accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a Third Symphony. His final illness prevented their completion.
He died on 23 February 1934. Within four months, two more great English composers - Gustav Holst and Frederick Delius - were also dead.