Sir Edward William Elgar, Bart, OM, GCVO (June 2, 1857 - February 23, 1934) was a British composer, born in the small Worcestershire village of Broadheath to William Elgar, a piano tuner and music dealer, and his wife Ann.
Surrounded by sheet music and instruments in his father's shop in Worcester's High Street, the young Elgar became self-taught in music. On warm summers' days, he would take manuscripts into the countryside to study them. Thus there began for him a strong association between music and nature. As he was later to say, "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."
Having left school at the age of 15, he began work for a local solicitor, but after a year embarked on a musical career, conducting piano and violin lessons. At 22 he took up the post of bandmaster at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum, a couple of miles to the southwest of Worcester. In many ways, his years as a young Worcestershire violinist were his happiest. He played in the first violins at the Worcester and Birmingham Festivals, and one great experience was to play Antonin Dvorak's Sixth Symphony and 'Stabat Mater' under the composer's baton. Elgar was thrilled by Dvorak's orchestration and this remained an influence on his own style for more than a decade.
At 29, through his teaching, he met (Caroline) Alice Roberts, a Major-General's daughter (shades of Gilbert and Sullivan) and an author of verse and prose fiction. He married her three years later against the wishes of her family, giving her as an engagement present the short violin and piano piece Salut d'amour. The Elgars moved to London to be closer to the centre of British musical life, and Edward started composing in earnest. The stay was unsuccessful, however, and they were obliged to return to Great Malvern, where Edward could earn a living teaching.
During the 1890s Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer, chiefly of works for the great choral festivals of the Midlands. The Black Knight, King Olaf (1896), The Light of Life and Caractacus were all modestly successful and he obtained a long-standing publisher in Novello and Company.
In 1899, at the age of 42, his first major orchestral work, the Enigma Variations, was premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter. It was received with general acclaim, establishing Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation. This work is formally titled Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma). The enigma is that although there are thirteen variations on the "original theme", the 'enigma' theme, which Elgar said 'runs through and over the whole set' is never heard. The following year saw the production in Birmingham of his choral setting of Cardinal Newman's poem The Dream of Gerontius. Despite a disastrous first performance, the work was established within a few years as one of Elgar's greatest.
Elgar is probably best known for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901). Shortly after their composition, Elgar was asked to set the first march to words by A C Benson as a Coronation Ode to mark the coronation of King Edward VII. The suggestion had already been made (allegedly by the future King himself) that words should be fitted to the broad tune which formed the trio section of this march. Against the advice of his friends, Elgar suggested that Benson furnish further words to allow him to include it in the new work. The result was Land of Hope and Glory, which formed the finale of the ode and was also issued (with slightly different words) as a separate song.
Between 1902 and 1914 Elgar enjoyed phenomenal success, made four visits to the USA including one conducting tour, and earned considerable fees from the performance of his music. His Symphony No. 1 (1908) was given one hundred performances in its first year. However, with the advent of World War I, his music fell out of fashion, and after the death of his wife in 1920 he wrote little of importance. Shortly before her death he composed the magnificent, elegiac Cello Concerto. This suggests that Alice Elgar was the main influence behind his successes, achieving her own ambition through the man of her choice. A fine biography of her has been written by Percy M Young.
He was knighted in 1904 and admitted to the Order of Merit (OM) in 1911. In 1928 he was created a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) and in 1933 he was created a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO), superseding his previous honor. He had been created a baronet in 1931.
At the end of his life Elgar began work on an opera and accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a Third Symphony. His final illness prevented its completion but the sketches have since been elaborated into a successful symphony in the style of Elgar by the composer Anthony Payne. His baronetcy became extinct at his death.
The house in Broadheath where he was born is now a museum devoted to him. There is a statue of him at the end of Worcester High Street, facing the cathedral, only yards from where his father's shop once stood.
His one work for brass band, The Severn Suite (later arranged by the composer for orchestra), remains an important part of the brass band repertoire.
A portrait of Sir Edward Elgar can be found on the British twenty pound note.
See also: Dorabella Cipher
Michael Kennedy - Portrait of Elgar 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987)
Jerrold Northrop Moore - Edward Elgar: a creative life (Oxford: OUP, 1984)
William H. Reed - Elgar as I knew him (Oxford: OUP, 1989)
Percy Young - Alice Elgar: enigma of a Victorian lady (London: Dobson, 1978)
Percy Young - Elgar OM: a study of a musician 2nd ed. (London: Purnell, 1973)