Personalities | (Sir) Edward Elgar | Late Romantic | Classical

English composer

Elgar was born at Broadheath, near Worcester. His father ran a music shop in Worcester, where Elgar embarked on a course of self-instruction that made him total master of music’s craft and one of the world’s greatest orchestrators.

Brought up a Roman Catholic in a Protestant community and a tradesman’s son, Elgar never felt socially at ease. His early fame was in Worcester, spreading only gradually to the other Three Choirs cities (Hereford and Gloucester), to more distant regional festivals, to London, and to the international scene, by which time he was 42. Milestones along the way are clear. His first Three Choirs commission produced the overture Froissart, a work entirely characteristic in its chivalrous panache. There followed choral works such as King Olaf (1896) for the North Staffordshire Festival and Caractacus (1898) for the Leeds Festival. It was an orchestral masterpiece, however, the ‘Enigma’ Variations, dedicated to ‘my Friends pictured within’, that launched the international career of the most significant British composer since Henry Purcell (1659–95).

Edwardian Laureate

His fame as a great choral composer was con­solidated by The Dream of Gerontius (1900) to text by Cardinal Newman, and by two oratorios of a projected trilogy on biblical texts compiled by himself, The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906). All three works demonstrated an orchestral virtuosity that equalled Wagner’s and was perhaps superior to that of Richard Strauss or Mahler. Such concert pieces as the Cockaigne Overture (1901) and In the South (1904), the series of Pomp and Circumstance Marches (begun 1901) and the beautifully turned Wand of Youth suites consolidated his reputation. He was knighted in 1904.

At the end of 1907, he set aside plans for his third oratorio and began concentrated work on Symphony No. 1, which achieved remarkable success at its premiere (December 1908) and reached a total of 100 performances in hardly more than a year. An accomplished violinist himself, Elgar had long contemplated a violin concerto. This was completed in 1910 after consultation about the solo part with W. H. Reed and Fritz Kreisler, and had a triumphant reception from the outset.

Hans Richter

The ‘Enigma’ Variations arose almost by accident when Elgar was improvising at the piano after a day’s violin teaching in Malvern (October 1898). When he had completed them, Elgar was confident enough of their worth to submit them for consideration by Hans Richter, the first conductor of Wagner’s Ring and by now living mainly in England. Richter decided to give the premiere (19 June 1899). Thus began a close association, resulting in the dedication of Elgar’s First Symphony to Richter and Elgar’s agreeing to succeed him as conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1911. After the ‘Enigma’ triumph, Elgar could call on singers as renowned as Clara Butt and there was even tentative discussion of a King Lear opera with Chaliapin, the great Russian bass. Fritz Kreisler gave the first performance of the Violin Concerto. It...

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