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Edward Elgar – the greatest English composer since Purcell

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Music, Religion, Royalty on Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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This edited article about Edward Elgar originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 714 published on 20 September 1975.

Elgar and his wife, picture, image, illustration

Sir Edward Elgar and his wife, Alice by Roger Payne

One of the greatest of our modern composers was Edward Elgar, a great friend of King Edward VII, from whom he received a knighthood.

Edward Elgar began life in a country town, Worcester. His boyhood was steeped in music, for his father kept a music shop, and was also organist at one of the local churches. In later years Edward Elgar used to say, “A stream of music flowed through our house, and I was all the time bathing in it.” Almost without thinking of it as “practice” (the word so many young musicians so dislike) he experimented with one instrument after another in his father’s shop, and gained a workmanlike knowledge of the violin, the cello, and the double bass, the bassoon, the trombone, and, of course, the piano and the organ. In his boyhood there was no radio, and the gramophone was in its infancy. But there was a great deal of music-making in people’s homes, and young Elgar took a full part in this, both as a performer, and later on as a soloist and teacher of the violin, the instrument which he understood and loved best all his life.

A story from Elgar’s childhood shows his own early interest in music. Determined to write some music of his own, he sat down in a corner of the garden one day and carefully ruled some lines on a sheet of paper. Nearby, a man was at work painting the outside of a neighbour’s house. Breaking off to watch what the boy was doing, he quickly spotted the first mistake. “To write music you need five lines!” he said. “There are only four on your sheet!”

For more than half his life, Elgar’s fame spread no farther than the West of England, and until he was over forty, his music was rarely heard outside the cities of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester, which were, then as now, the popular centres of the Three Choirs Festival each year. This brought together the massed choirs of all three cities at each of their cathedrals in turn, and Elgar both wrote and conducted special music for many of these Festivals.

At the age of forty, however, one brilliant work suddenly placed him in the front rank of the world’s composers. It is the ‘Enigma’ variations, because ‘enigma’ is another word for ‘riddle’ and part of the riddle has been to discover the original tune – said to be a well-known one – which can be played at the same time as Elgar’s theme. There have been many guesses, but no one has ever discovered Elgar’s secret, and he himself never gave it away. The second part of the ‘Enigma’ or riddle, lies in the fact that each separate variation is a little musical impression or picture, of one of Elgar’s friends. Some are loud and pompous; some are flurried and fussy; some are cheerful, some grave and stately. To a few, Elgar attached initials, to others, nicknames, to some – just asterisks! It is left to the listener to identify the person behind the tune.

From about the year 1900, Edward Elgar was no longer a countryman, but a Londoner, and a famous one at that. In 1904 he was knighted; five years later Sir Edward Elgar, as he now was, received the Order of Merit. In 1924 he was appointed Master of the King’s Music. He had for many years been a friend of the Royal Family, and was often to be seen in the Royal enclosure at Ascot, and at similar sporting occasions, for he came to have a great love and knowledge of horse racing. He was elected to famous London clubs, including the exclusive “Beefsteak Club” which included the Prime Minister of the day among its distinguished members.

Something in parts of Elgar’s music carried the atmosphere of the British Empire in its heyday. He set all three verses of the National Anthem to a magnificent version for choirs and orchestra. He wrote a series of splendid marches for military bands, to one of which the famous words “Land of hope and glory” were fitted. This was, at one time, almost our second National Anthem.

More to his own taste were the huge works for choir and orchestra which he composed on religious subjects – “The Kingdom” and “The Apostles” – each of which needs large numbers of performers in both choir and orchestra. His own favourite was “The Dream of Gerontius” which is still in the front rank of great choral works. A noisy overture called “Cockaigne” gives a vivid musical impression of Edwardian London, with its street-cries and bustling crowds; another gives a musical picture of one of Shakespeare’s greatest London characters, the boisterous Falstaff, drinking companion of the future King Henry V.

A very English musician, who loved a good horse, a good dinner, good company and a good cigar, no less than good music, Edward Elgar deserves to be heard and remembered, for his rich and tuneful music is a picture in sound of the England he loved and rarely left.

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