Edward Elgar was born on June 2nd, 1857 in the
village of Lower Broadheath outside Worchester, England. The son of William
Elgar, a violinist of professional caliber that instead made his living as a
piano tuner and running a shop selling sheet music and instruments, Elgar
received a musical upbringing. By the age of eight, Elgar was learning to play
both the piano and violin. He also sometimes accompanied his father as he tuned
pianos at the grand houses of Worchestershire, giving Elgar the opportunity to
display his talents to the more important members of local society.
Despite his musical upbringing, Elgar was largely
self-taught. He read and studied any books he could get his hands on, particularly
those concerning music theory. He also attempted to teach himself German with
the hopes of attending the famous Leipzig Conservatory where he could receive a
more formal music education. His father, however, was unable to afford to send
his son to school in Germany and upon completing his general education Elgar
instead went to work as a clerk in the office of a local solicitor. The work
was less than appealing and he left the job only after a few months.
Setting out with the intention of making a career in music,
Elgar began by giving piano and violin lessons as well as occasionally working
in his father's music shop. In addition, he found opportunities to play locally
as well as compose and arrange works. Chief among these experiences was his
chance to play in the violin section at the Worchester and Birmingham Festivals
under the baton of Dvořák himself. Elgar's career, however, was slow taking off
and it would be many years before he would gain any prominent recognition or
In 1889, Elgar married Caroline Alice Roberts, the daughter
of a senior officer in the British army. Elgar being still an unknown musician
and, to make matters worse, a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, the
engagement caused quite a stir among Roberts's family. In fact, she was
disinherited. Alice, however, proved to be the support and encouragement that
Elgar needed. Until her death, she filled the role of Elgar's business manager
and secretary. She attempted to bring her husband to attention of influential
members of society but to only partial avail. Following their marriage, the
couple moved to London—the center of England's musical life. His compositions,
however, failed to make any lasting impact and they left London in 1891,
returning to Worchestershire.
During the 1890s, Elgar had managed to garner some repute as
a composer of choral works. Several of his works from this time, including The Black Knight and King Olaf were both moderately
successful. Though he was well-known locally in Worchestershire, Elgar finally
achieved national fame in 1899 with the premiere of his Engima Variations. Premiered in London under the baton of the
German conductor Hans Richter, the work was well-received and catapulted
With the success of the Engima
Variations and the timely death of Sir Arthur Sullivan, Elgar found himself
suddenly at the forefront of British music. The very next year he achieved another
success with the premiere of The Dream of
Gerontius, a setting of a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Despite its
ill-prepared premiere, its worth was instantly recognized among music critics.
Its success even drew the praise of Richard Strauss. The piece did, however,
meet with resistance from some members of the Anglican establishment but it was
not enough to diminish Elgar's success.
Further successful compositions followed. Between 1901 and
1930, he composed the Pomp and
Circumstance Marches of which the first is undoubtedly his most famous
composition. The trio section of this march soon became a sort of unofficial
British national anthem in its vocal version. Today, the trio is heard at
nearly every graduation ceremony throughout the United States. In March 1904,
Elgar was bestowed the extremely rare honor of having a three-day festival of
his music presented at Convent Garden, which the king and queen attended on the
first night. A few months later in July, he was knighted at Buckingham Palace.
Elgar's most resounding success came in 1908 with the
premiere of his First Symphony. He had worked on the project in various forms
for the past ten years. It was an instant national and international victory.
Within only a few short weeks of its premiere, it was performed in New York,
Vienna, St. Petersburg and Leipzig. In the span of a year, it received an
astonishing hundred performances throughout Europe and the United States.
Following two years later came the Violin Concerto, commissioned by Fritz
Kreisler. A triumph by any standards—it received twenty-seven performances
within three years of its premiere, it no doubt pales in comparison to the
blinding success of the First Symphony. The Violin Concerto was to be, however,
his last popular composition though other works still followed. Most notably,
three large-scale chamber works were composed in 1918-19—the Violin Sonata in E
minor, the Piano Quintet in A minor and the String Quartet in E minor. All
three works were well received.
On April 7th, 1920, Alice died of lung cancer and
Elgar was suddenly without the unshakable source of support and inspiration
that had been so vital to him. Coupled with a lack of demand for his works,
Eglar allowed himself to be distracted from composition by various hobbies. In
1923, he returned to Worchestershire. He did not wholly abandoned composition,
producing a few works and arrangements.
Following the invention of the electrical microphone in
1925, Elgar took advantage of this technological advancement and made a series
of recordings of his orchestral and choral music. Later in 1931, a newsreel was
filmed of Elgar recording Pomp and
Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of EMI's Abbey Road Studios in
By the 1930s, a renewed interest in Elgar's music was
kindled. The BBC organized a festival in 1932 of his works as a celebration of the
composer's seventy-fifth birthday and he traveled to Paris the following year
to conduct his Violin Concerto. Perhaps spurred on by this revival, Elgar
undertook two large scale works—an opera titled The Spanish Lady and a Third Symphony. Both, regrettably, were
never finished. During an operation on October 8th, 1933, it was
discovered that Elgar had inoperable intestinal cancer. He died a few months
later on February 23rd, 1934.
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