Sir Edward Elgar (2 June 1857 — 23 February 1934) was a British composer, born near Worcester in 1857. He is known for a number of pieces, including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance marches (five), and Cello Concerto in E minor. His musical style, unlike his contemporaries on the British music scene, was not influenced by folk music, but more on Continental influences, including George Frederic Handel, and French composers, including Hector Berlioz, Camille Saint Saens, and Leo Delibes, the last of whom proved to be a major influence on his music.
He was born in Lower Broadheath, Worcester, in 1857, to a music-loving mother and a professional organist and piano tuner father who keenly encouraged his enthusiasm for music. However, aside from a few piano lessons in his formative years, he was primarily self-taught, borrowing music books from the local library and reading every book on the theory of music he could find. He tried to learn German so he could attend the world-famous Leipzig Conservatory, but his family could not afford it. He later credited this with saving him from the dogmatism of the school. He credited Hubert Parry's work in Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as being the strongest and most valuable influence on him. He later supported himself giving piano lessons in his father's shop.
Elgar's big break came with the Enigma Variations (a good name for a spy novel), conducted at its premier by the famous German conductor Hans Richter (incidentally, a good name for the villain of said spy novel, or perhaps the anti-hero). Enigma was hugely well received, finally giving Elgar's music the critical clout and cultural relevance it richly deserved. Likely due to Elgar's penchant for emulating and refining central European styles of music, it was also warmly appreciated in Europe, and remains highly popular today. His next big piece was the famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, which remains a favourite with the British viewing public during the BBC Proms (not "prom" in the American high school function sense, but an eight week series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall put on by the BBC). His major works included two symphonies, concertos for violin and cello, and three large-scale religious oratorios, though he never wrote an opera. In 1911, King George V awarded him with an Order of Merit. After World War I, his music fell out of fashion, and he was devastated by the loss of his dear wife, Alice, to lung cancer in 1920. After her death, his motivation slipped completely and he mostly stopped composing; he also indulged a great number of bizarre enthusiasms, such as building a laboratory in his garden, and journeying up the Amazon because he could.
He continued to conduct his own music, including a pioneering series of recordings, and is often said to be the first major composer to take recordings seriously; British Pathe recorded him conducting a rehearsal of Pomp and Circumstance in 1931, which contains the only audio recording of him, instructing the orchestra to "play this tune as though you've never heard it before." In 1933 he accepted a commission to write a third symphony, but it was incomplete when he died of colorectal cancer in 1934. He is buried next to his wife at St Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern.
He didn't write much church music, aside from some organ pieces, because he was Roman Catholic, and there was little demand for Catholic church music in England. Most of his sacred choral music is from the later part of his career when he was so famous that his Catholicism was not held against him.
After his death, his work mostly disappeared from view. However, in recent years he has been increasing in popularity internationally, yet still remains most popular in Britain. The middle section of his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, with lyrics by A.C. Benson, has become a well-known British patriotic song under the title "Land of Hope and Glory", which is today used as the anthem of the Conservative Party, and sometimes as the unofficial national anthem of England at sporting events where the UK nations compete separately. It is often played at graduation ceremonies in the US as well.
As something of a side note, he was an avid cryptography buff and left behind a cipher which remains unbroken to this day.
He is mentioned as being dead in the song "Decomposing Composers" by Michael Palin sang on Monty Python's Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album. He also ended at #60 in One Hundred Greatest Britons. From 1999 to 2010 he was chosen as the historical figure to appear on £20 English banknotes.
Tropes present in Elgar's life and works:
- Bowdlerise: Elgar was forced to do this to The Dream of Gerontius, a choral work set to the words of a poem of the same name by St. John Henry Newman. The original poem is rich in Catholic eschatology, and years after the choral work's premiere a number of Anglican clerics objected to it on doctrinal grounds, particularly regarding Purgatory. They demanded that the libretto be edited to remove any Catholic references.
- Brilliant, but Lazy: Elgar was actually quite lazy, and had to be encouraged to write by his wife, Alice. Given that he wrote 90 opus-numbered works (several quite sizable) and at least as many non-opus-numbered pieces, he seems to have regardless been plenty prolific.
- Chick Magnet: Elgar surprisingly embodied this trope. Besides his wife Caroline Alice Roberts, he attracted the attention of Helen Weaver, Mary Lygon, Dora Penny, Julia Worthington, Alice Stuart Wortley, and Vera Hockman at various times.
- Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: His wife Alice. As she wrote in her diary:The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.
- Culturally Religious: Elgar was brought up a Catholic, was sympathetic to the Catholics suffering prejudice in Protestant Britain, and composed a number of religious choral works, like The Dream of Gerontius, The Kingdom, and The Apostles. However, he was not particularly devout and expressed ambivalence towards the Catholic faith, especially towards the end of his life. He only continued to go to Mass because his wife Alice, a devout Catholic convert from Anglicanism, encouraged him to or because he admired a particular priest in a parish. He also denied that there is an afterlife, despite his most famous oratorio The Dream of Gerontius being about life after death.
- The Edwardian Era: A lot of Elgar’s work is associated with the time period, and he was most active during this era.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Elgar and his publisher, August Jaeger. "Nimrod" in the Enigma Variations is named for him, though you have to know your Bible and a bit of German to make the connection.
- I Call It "Vera": Mr. Phoebus, his Sunbeam Bicycle.
- Likes Older Women: Elgar’s wife, Alice was in her mid-30s when she met Elgar, and nine years older than her husband.
- The Midlands: Elgar was born near Worcester, and he lived for years near Great Malvern.
- Patriotic Fervour: His best-known works are patriotic in nature, such as Land of Hope and Glory.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: Several of Elgar’s works have ended up being used here.
- Public Secret Message: Elgar's orchestral piece "Enigma Variations" gets its name from the composer's hint that the work supposedly contains a musical cypher of "a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard." What exactly the secret melody might be has never been conclusively solved.
- Riddle for the Ages: Elgar stated that the Enigma Variations were so named because of an enigma, most likely tied to the opening G minor theme. He gave cryptic hints as to its solution, but never revealed the secret.The Enigma I will not explain – its "dark saying" must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme "goes," but is not played . . . . So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas – e.g. Maeterlinck's L'Intruse and Les sept Princesses – the chief character is never on the stage.
- Self-Made Man: The son of a tradesman and a self-taught musician, ended up a Knight and Master of the Kings’ Musick.
- Shown Their Work: Elgar did research into The Bible for The Apostles, namely regarding the characterisation of Judas Iscariot.
- Stuff Blowing Up: The result of some of Elgar's amateur chemistry:One day he made a phosphoric concoction which, when dry, would "go off" by spontaneous combustion. The amusement was to smear it on a piece of blotting paper and then wait breathlessly for the catastrophe. One day he made too much paste; and, when his music called him and he wanted to go back to the house, he clapped the whole of it into a gallipot, covered it up, and dumped it into the water-butt, thinking it would be safe there.
Just as he was getting on famously, writing in horn and trumpet parts, and mapping out wood-wind, a sudden and unexpected crash, as of all the percussion in all the orchestras on earth, shook the room, followed by the "rushing mighty sound" he had already anticipated in The Kingdom. The water-butt had blown up: the hoops were rent: the staves flew in all directions; and the liberated water went down the drive in a solid wall.
Silence reigned for a few seconds. Then all the dogs in Herefordshire gave tongue; and all the doors and windows opened. After a moment's thought, Edward lit his pipe and strolled down to the gate, andante tranquillo, as if nothing had happened and the ruined water-butt and the demolished flower-beds were pre-historic features of the landscape. A neighbour, peeping out of his gate, called out, "Did you hear that noise sir: it sounded like an explosion?" "Yes," said Sir Edward, "I heard it: where was it?" The neighbour shook his head; and the incident was closed.— W H Reed