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Music / Edward Elgar

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"My idea is that 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."
Edward Elgar, as quoted in R J Buckley's Sir Edward Elgar.

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. His musical style, unlike his contemporaries on the British music scene, was not influenced by Folk music, but more on Continental influences, including Handel, and French composers, including Hector Berlioz, Saint-Saens and Delibes, the last which 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 composer Hans Richter (incidentally, a good name for the villain of said spy novel). 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 No.1, which remains a favourite with the British viewing public during the BBC Proms (not like the American high school thing; an eight week series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall put on by the BBC). 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: he indulged a great number of bizarre enthusiasms, such as building a laboratory in his garden, and journeying up the Amazon because he could. British Pathe recorded him conducting a rendition 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". He died of cancer in 1934, and 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. "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1", with lyrics by AC 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.

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 100 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:

  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Elgar was actually quite lazy, and had to be encouraged to write by his wife, Alice.
  • Chick Magnet: Elgar, surprisingly.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Alice. As she wrote in her diary:
    The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman
  • Driven to Suicide: Elgar came close a few times.
  • The Edwardian Era: A lot of Elgar’s work is associated with the era, and Elgar was most active during the era.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Elgar and his publisher, August Jaeger. "Nimrod" in the Enigma Variations is named for him, though you need a bit of outside information 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.
  • 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


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