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Elgar, Sir Edward

Category: Musician or composer

Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO (2 June 1857 – 23 February 1934) was an English composer. Amongst the general public he is best known for his stirring marches and rousing anthems - the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, but Elgar had a wonderfully 'dark' side which appears in choral works like the Dream of Gerontius, or in his violin and cello concertos, both in the minor key.

All the Elgar children received a musical upbringing, but Elgar's gifts appear to have been inherited and there from an early age. He began composing when he was about ten, and all his life he drew on his early sketchbooks for themes and inspiration. "The habit of assembling his compositions, even large-scale ones, from scraps of themes jotted down randomly remained throughout his life", which is how inspiration works.

Elgar's life was in many ways one in which he stood alone. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer. His only formal musical training beyond piano and violin lessons from local teachers was informal "my first music was learnt in the Cathedral ... from books borrowed from the music library, when I was eight, nine or ten." Described as 'rather solitary and introspective by nature', Elgar thrived in a rural setting and through his mother gained a passionate love of the countryside.

In Protestant Britain, he was a Roman Catholic; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he had 'humble origins'. For comfort and support, he turned to women and women are without doubt the dominant influence in his life. Elgar was in part inspired by love, some of it unrequited and some of which appeared to occasion considerable angst. He became engaged in the summer of 1883, to Helen Weaver, but the engagement was broken off the next year. Elgar was 'greatly distressed'. Helen Weaver was succeeded by Mary Lygon, Dora Penny, Julia Worthington, Alice Stuart Wortley and finally Vera Hockman, who 'enlivened his old age'.

When Elgar was twenty-nine, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts, and a published author of verse and prose fiction. Eight years older than Elgar, Alice became his wife three years later. "Alice's family was horrified by her intention to marry an unknown musician who,..... was a Roman Catholic. She was disinherited." But it was to prove a wonderful marriage of minds for them both. From then until her death, she acted as his business manager and social secretary, dealt with his mood swings and was a perceptive musical critic. In her diary she wrote, "The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman." As an engagement present, Elgar dedicated his short violin and piano piece Salut d'Amour to her.

But a happy marriage and a daughter did not seem to give him the inspiration he needed. For many years Elgar composed moderately successful works, gaining a modest reputation in his home town in Worcestershire. He composed for the great choral festivals of the English Midlands. The Black Knight (1892) and King Olaf (1896), both inspired by Longfellow, The Light of Life (1896) and Caractacus (1898) were all modestly successful. Other works of this decade included the Serenade for Strings (1892) and Three Bavarian Dances (1897). Although he was in demand as a festival composer, he was only just getting by financially and he said he was "very sick at heart over music".

And then in 1899, at the age of forty-two, his fortunes changed when he wrote the Enigma Variations. The large-scale work was received with general acclaim for “its originality, charm and craftsmanship”, and it established Elgar's reputation as a composer of some standing. There is much in this work that appears to borrow from East European music [without plagiarising it], as such the inspiration here is often said simply to have been his exposure to other music. But in this they are ignoring the influence of Dora Penny.  In July 1897, the Penny family had invited Edward and Alice Elgar to stay at the Wolverhampton Rectory for a few days. Edward Elgar was a forty-year-old music teacher who had yet to become a successful composer. Dora Penny was almost seventeen years his junior.  But even after that first meeting, something happened to Elgar.  The composer's attachment to Dora Penny, later Mrs Powell, (depicted as "Dorabella" in the Enigma Variations), lasted fifteen years from their first meeting in the mid-1890s to the genesis of the Violin Concerto.

Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) DORABELLA was dedicated to Dora Penny, the stepdaughter of the sister of William Meath Baker, inspiration for the fourth variation, and sister-in-law of Richard Baxter Townsend, inspiration for the third. The nickname DORABELLA comes from the character in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte.

Dora is also the recipient of the by now famous Dorabella Cipher - an enciphered letter written by Elgar, which was accompanied by another dated July 14, 1897. .....' its meaning remains unknown'

Elgar's next major work was eagerly awaited. For the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival of 1900, he set Cardinal John Henry Newman's poem The Dream of Gerontius for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The poem is about the death and redemption of a sinner. Elgar's work has just the hint of darkness about it in places and the thought lingers as to why the poem appealed to Elgar, especially given his 'friendship' with Dora, the loyalty of his wife and his Catholic upbringing. Elgar's work was recognised as something a bit special.
"It is unquestionably the greatest British work in the oratorio form ... [it] opened a new chapter in the English choral tradition and liberated it from its Handelian preoccupation."

On the manuscript of Gerontius, Elgar wrote, quoting John Ruskin, "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another. My life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw, and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."

The five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, were composed between 1901 and 1930. When the theme of the slower middle section of the first march came into his head, he told Dora Penny, "I've got a tune that will knock 'em – will knock 'em flat".

Elgar was knighted at Buckingham Palace on 5 July 1904. Between 1902 and 1914, Elgar was at the zenith of his popularity, earning considerable fees from performance of his music. But the pressure and fame began to affect the 'highly strung' Elgar, as it 'interrupted his privacy', and he often was in ill-health. He complained "My life is one continual giving up of little things which I love." Little things?  Those in glass houses have to be very careful who they meet.

He composed the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, and the oratorio The Kingdom (1906). They were well received but 'did not catch the public imagination'.  Principally because they are not rousing bombastic nationalistic marches, but soulful expressions of deeply felt emotion.   

As Elgar approached his fiftieth birthday, he began work on his first symphony, a project that had been in his mind in various forms for nearly ten years. It was well received by the public and although in the minor key is essentially a march, although it occasionally displays an interesting insight into the manic mind. Because from now on we start to see the effects of emotion and stress on a sensitive individual, as Elgar sank deeper into manic depression. And it produced stunning music. The critic John Warrack wrote, "There are no sadder pages in symphonic literature than the close of the First Symphony's Adagio, as horn and trombones twice softly intone a phrase of utter grief".

The composer's attachment to Dora Penny lasted fifteen years and ended with the Violin Concerto. Elgar wrote the Violin Concerto during the summer of 1910. It was Elgar's last popular triumph.

Elgar's Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63, was completed on 28 February 1911 and was premiered on 24 May 1911 with the composer conducting. Its reception was mixed.  Unlike the First Symphony, it ends not in a blaze of orchestral splendour but quietly and contemplatively. The symphony, which Elgar called "the passionate pilgrimage of the soul", was his last.  The more personal nature of this work is clear in a letter to yet another lady friend and close correspondent Alice Stuart-Wortley:  "I have written out my soul in the concerto, Symphony No. 2 and the Ode and you know it ... in these three works I have shewn myself".

Alice Stuart Wortley by Millais

Then came The Music Makers (for the Birmingham Festival, 1912) and the symphonic study Falstaff (for the Leeds Festival, 1913). Both were received politely but without enthusiasm. Even the dedicatee of Falstaff, the conductor Landon Ronald, confessed privately that he could not "make head or tail of the piece," while the musical scholar Percy Scholes wrote of Falstaff that it was a "great work" but, "so far as public appreciation goes, a comparative failure".

His emotional problems, the stress and anguish of his private life had deeply affected Elgar and brought about a great change in him.  When World War I broke out, Elgar was horrified at the prospect of the carnage, and wished in vain to have new, less nationalistic, words sung to his tune of Land of Hope and Glory.  He composed music for a children's play; a ballet, and music for the poems by Laurence Binyon and Rudyard Kipling “all very different in character from the romantic patriotism of his earlier years”. By the end of the war, Elgar was in extremely poor health. His wife thought it best for him to move to the countryside. There Elgar recovered his strength a little and, in 1918 and 1919, he produced four large-scale works.

The first three of these were chamber pieces: the Violin Sonata in E minor, the Piano Quintet in A minor, and the String Quartet in E minor. On hearing the work in progress, Alice Elgar wrote in her diary, "E. writing wonderful new music".  And indeed these are wonderful, embodying his new found sensitivity, his old passion, with perhaps a return to a modicum of peace and not the overload of emotions he shows in his manic expressions.

The remaining work, the Cello Concerto in E minor, is in my view one of his most soulful and inspired works.  It had a disastrous premiere at the opening concert of the London Symphony Orchestra's 1919–20 season in October 1919. But some at least recognised its beauty
The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar's music in the last couple of years – but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity."

And the inspiration? It was not passion, it was not unrequited love, it was not communing with nature or his interest in the heartbeat as a means of inspiration -  it was grief. Alice Elgar died of lung cancer on 7 April 1920, at the age of seventy-two.  He was devastated.  There are many kinds of love and Elgar's love for his wife was sincere, despite his many lady 'friends'.

we have only hints and quotations to indicate some inward drama from which [his works] derive their vitality and eloquence.... the Cello Concerto in particular seems to belong to another age, another world ... the simplest of all Elgar's major works ... also the least grandiloquent."

Always the same, love, unrequited love, grief and loss.

Deprived of Alice's constant support and inspiration, Elgar disintegrated. For much of the rest of his life, he indulged himself in his hobbies, amateur chemistry, 'using a laboratory in his back garden', supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C., and attending horseraces. And 'being driven about the countryside by his chauffeur'. He moved back to Worcestershire, where he lived from 1923 to 1927. Inoperable colorectal cancer was discovered during an operation on 8 October 1933. Elgar died on 23 February 1934 at the age of seventy-six and was buried next to his wife at St. Wulstan's Church in Little Malvern.

For we are afar with the dawning
And the suns that are not yet high,
And out of the infinite morning
Intrepid you hear us cry ...
How, spite of your human scorning,
Once more God's future draws nigh,
And already goes forth the warning
That ye of the past must die.

Great hail! we cry to the comers
From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers;
And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song's new numbers,
And things that we dreamed not before:
Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers,
And a singer who sings no more


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