Today is the birthday (1857) of Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet OM GCVO an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. He was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1924. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition
Elgar was born in the small village of Lower Broadheath, outside Worcester, England. His father, William Henry Elgar (1821–1906), was raised in Dover and had been apprenticed to a London music publisher. In 1841 William moved to Worcester, where he worked as a piano tuner and set up a shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. In 1848 he married Ann Greening (1822–1902), daughter of a farm worker. Edward was the fourth of their seven children. Ann Elgar had converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before Edward’s birth, and he was baptized and brought up as a Roman Catholic, to the disapproval of his father. William Elgar was a violinist of professional standard and held the post of organist of St. George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, from 1846 to 1885. By the age of 8, Elgar was taking piano and violin lessons, and his father, who tuned the pianos at many grand houses in Worcestershire, would sometimes take him along, giving him the chance to display his skill. Elgar’s friend and biographer W. H. “Billy” Reed wrote that Elgar’s early surroundings had an influence that “permeated all his work and gave to his whole life that subtle but none the less true and sturdy English quality.”
Until he was 15, Elgar received a general education at Littleton (now Lyttleton)[n 4] House school, near Worcester. However, his only formal musical training beyond piano and violin lessons from local teachers consisted of more advanced violin studies with Adolf Pollitzer, during brief visits to London in 1877–78. Elgar said, “my first music was learnt in the Cathedral … from books borrowed from the music library, when I was eight, nine or ten.” He worked through manuals of instruction on organ playing and read every book he could find on the theory of music Around this time, he made his first public appearances as a violinist and organist.
Elgar gave piano and violin lessons and worked occasionally in his father’s shop. He was an active member of the Worcester Glee club, along with his father, and he accompanied singers, played the violin, composed and arranged works, and conducted for the first time. Pollitzer believed that, as a violinist, Elgar had the potential to be one of the leading soloists in the country, but Elgar himself, having heard leading virtuosi at London concerts, felt his own violin playing lacked a full enough tone, and he abandoned his ambitions to be a soloist. At 22 he took up the post of conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, three miles (five km) from Worcester. The band consisted of piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium, three or four first and a similar number of second violins, occasional viola, ‘cello, double bass, and piano. Elgar coached the players and wrote and arranged their music, including quadrilles and polkas, for the unusual combination of instruments. The Musical Times wrote, “This practical experience proved to be of the greatest value to the young musician. … He acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of these different instruments. … He thereby got to know intimately the tone colour, the ins and outs of these and many other instruments.” He held the post for five years, from 1879, travelling to Powick once a week. Another post he held in his early days was professor of the violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.
Elgar thrived in Worcester’s musical circles. He played in the violins at the Worcester and Birmingham Festivals, and once played Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 and Stabat Mater under the composer’s baton. Elgar regularly played the bassoon in a wind quintet, alongside his brother Frank, an oboist (and conductor who ran his own wind ensemble). Elgar arranged numerous pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and others for the quintet, honing his arranging and compositional skills.
In his first trips abroad, Elgar visited Paris in 1880 and Leipzig in 1882. He heard Saint-Saëns play the organ at the Madeleine and attended concerts by first-rate orchestras. In 1882 he wrote, “I got pretty well dosed with Schumann (my ideal!), Brahms, Rubinstein & Wagner, so had no cause to complain.” In Leipzig he visited a friend, Helen Weaver, who was a student at the Conservatoire. They became engaged in the summer of 1883, but for unknown reasons the engagement was broken off the next year. Elgar was greatly distressed, and some of his later cryptic dedications of romantic music may have alluded to Helen and his feelings for her.
In 1882, seeking more professional orchestral experience, Elgar took a position as violinist in Birmingham with William Stockley’s Orchestra, for whom he played every concert for the next 7 years and where he later claimed he “learned all the music I know.” On 13th December 1883 he took part with Stockley in a performance at Birmingham Town Hall of one of his first works for full orchestra, the Sérénade mauresque – the first time one of his compositions had been performed by a professional orchestra. Stockley had invited him to conduct the piece but later recalled “he declined, and, further, insisted upon playing in his place in the orchestra. The consequence was that he had to appear, fiddle in hand, to acknowledge the genuine and hearty applause of the audience.”
When Elgar was 29, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts, and published author of verse and prose fiction. Alice became his wife three years later. From then until her death, she acted as his business manager and social secretary, dealt with his mood swings, and was a perceptive musical critic. In her diary, she wrote, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.”
They moved to London to be closer to the primary music world in England but Elgar’s compositions made little impact on London’s musical scene. August Manns conducted Elgar’s orchestral version of Salut d’amour and the Suite in D at the Crystal Palace, and two publishers accepted some of Elgar’s violin pieces, organ voluntaries, and part songs, but got little other work and so was obliged to leave London in 1891 and return with his wife and child to Worcestershire, where he could earn a living conducting local musical ensembles and teaching. They settled in Alice’s former home town, Great Malvern.
During the 1890s, Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer, chiefly of works for the great choral festivals of the English Midlands. The Black Knight (1892) and King Olaf (1896), both inspired by Longfellow, The Light of Life (1896) and Caractacus (1898) were all modestly successful, and he obtained a long-standing publisher in Novello and Co. Elgar was catching the attention of prominent critics, but their reviews were polite rather than enthusiastic. Although he was in demand as a festival composer, he was only just getting by financially and felt unappreciated. In 1898, he said he was “very sick at heart over music” and hoped to find a way to succeed with a larger work. His friend August Jaeger tried to lift his spirits: “A day’s attack of the blues … will not drive away your desire, your necessity, which is to exercise those creative faculties which a kind providence has given you. Your time of universal recognition will come.”
In 1899, that prediction suddenly came true. At the age of 42, Elgar produced the Enigma Variations, which were premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter. In Elgar’s own words, “I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme. The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends … that is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ (the person) … and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose.” He dedicated the work “To my friends pictured within”. Probably the best known variation is “Nimrod”, depicting Jaeger. Purely musical considerations led Elgar to omit variations depicting Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, whose styles he tried but failed to incorporate in the variations. The large-scale work was received with general acclaim for its originality, charm and craftsmanship, and it established Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation. The Enigma Variations were well received in Germany and Italy, and remain to the present day a worldwide concert staple.
Elgar is probably best known popularly for the first of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, which were composed between 1901 and 1930. It is familiar to millions of television viewers all over the world every year who watch the Last Night of the Proms, where it is traditionally performed. When the theme of the slower middle section (technically called the “trio”) of the first march came into his head, he told his friend Dora Penny, “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em – will knock ’em flat.” When the first march was played in 1901 at a London Promenade Concert, it was conducted by Henry J. Wood, who later wrote that the audience “rose and yelled … the one and only time in the history of the Promenade concerts that an orchestral item was accorded a double encore.”
Elgar was knighted at Buckingham Palace on 5th July 1904. Between 1905 and 1908, he held the post of Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham. He had accepted the post reluctantly, feeling that a composer should not head a school of music. He was not at ease in the role, and his lectures caused controversy, with his attacks on the critics and on English music in general:
Vulgarity in the course of time may be refined. Vulgarity often goes with inventiveness … but the commonplace mind can never be anything but commonplace. An Englishman will take you into a large room, beautifully proportioned, and will point out to you that it is white – all over white – and somebody will say, ‘What exquisite taste’. You know in your own mind, in your own soul, that it is not taste at all, that it is the want of taste, that is mere evasion. English music is white, and evades everything.”
He regretted the controversy and was glad to hand on the post to his friend Granville Bantock in 1908. His new life as a celebrity was a mixed blessing, as it interrupted his privacy, and he was in ill-health often. He complained to Jaeger in 1903, “My life is one continual giving up of little things which I love.” Both W. S. Gilbert and Thomas Hardy sought to collaborate with Elgar in this decade. Elgar refused, but would have collaborated with George Bernard Shaw had Shaw been willing.
When World War I broke out, Elgar was horrified at the prospect of the carnage, but his patriotic feelings were nonetheless aroused. He composed “A Song for Soldiers”, which he later withdrew. He signed up as a special constable in the local police and later joined the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve of the army. He composed patriotic works, Carillon, a recitation for speaker and orchestra in honor of Belgium and Polonia, an orchestral piece in honor of Poland. Land of Hope and Glory, already popular, became still more so, and Elgar wished (in vain) to have new, less nationalistic, words sung to the tune.
Although in the 1920s Elgar’s music was no longer in fashion, his admirers continued to present his works when possible. From 1926 onwards, Elgar made a series of recordings of his own works. Described by the music writer Robert Philip as “the first composer to take the gramophone seriously,” he had already recorded much of his music by the early acoustic-recording process for His Master’s Voice (HMV) from 1914 onwards, but the introduction of electrical microphones in 1925 transformed the gramophone from a novelty into a realistic medium for reproducing orchestral and choral music. Elgar was the first composer to take full advantage of the new technology. Fred Gaisberg of HMV, who produced Elgar’s recordings, set up a series of sessions to capture on disc the composer’s interpretations of his major orchestral works, including the Enigma Variations, Falstaff, the first and second symphonies, and the cello and violin concertos. For most of these, the orchestra was the LSO, but the Variations were played by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. Later in the series of recordings, Elgar also conducted two newly founded orchestras, Boult’s BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham’s London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Elgar’s recordings were released on 78-rpm discs by both HMV and RCA Victor. After World War II, the 1932 recording of the Violin Concerto with the teenage Menuhin as soloist remained available on 78 and later on LP, but the other recordings were out of the catalogues for some years. When they were reissued by EMI on LP in the 1970s, they caused surprise to many by their fast tempos, in contrast to the slower speeds adopted by many conductors in the years since Elgar’s death.
In November 1931, Elgar was filmed by Pathé for a newsreel depicting a recording session of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London. It is believed to be the only surviving sound film of Elgar, who makes a brief remark before conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, asking the musicians to “play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before.” A memorial plaque to Elgar at Abbey Road was unveiled on 24 June 1993.
In his final years, Elgar experienced a musical revival. The BBC organized a festival of his works to celebrate his 75th birthday, in 1932. He flew to Paris in 1933 to conduct the Violin Concerto for Menuhin. While in France, he visited his fellow composer Frederick Delius at his house at Grez-sur-Loing. He was sought out by younger musicians such as Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent and John Barbirolli, who had championed his music when it was out of fashion. He began work on an opera, The Spanish Lady, and accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a Third Symphony. His final illness, however, prevented their completion. Inoperable colorectal cancer was discovered during an operation on 8th October 1933. He told his consulting doctor, Arthur Thomson, that he had no faith in an afterlife: “I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion.” Elgar died on 23rd February 1934 at the age of 76 and was buried next to his wife at St. Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern.
It did not take me long to pick Malvern pudding as today’s recipe, given Elgar’s love for Malvern and the Malvern Hills. It originates in Malvern in Georgian times, and is basically a buttery fruit (usually apples) base, topped with a special custard, and either baked or grilled. Malvern pudding is listed as “endangered” in English cuisine.
For the apple base
1kg/2lb 2oz cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
50gm/2oz granulated sugar
zest of 2 lemons
For the topping
825ml/1 pint 10fl oz whole milk
50gm/2oz granulated sugar
2 eggs, beaten
50g/m2oz demerara sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
For the apples: heat a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the butter and apples and cook for 6-7 minutes, or until the apples have softened. Add the sugar and lemon zest, stirring well, and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Transfer the apples to an ovenproof dish.
Preheat the broiler to medium.
For the topping: heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add half the butter and cook until foaming. Stir in the cornflour and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until thickened and smooth. Gradually add the milk to the pan, whisking continuously, until all of the milk is incorporated and the mixture is smooth and creamy. Cook for a further 2-3 minutes, or until thickened.
Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the granulated sugar and beaten eggs until well combined. Spoon the mixture over the apples in the ovenproof dish.
Mix the demerara sugar and ground cinnamon together in a bowl, then sprinkle over the top of the dish and dot with the remaining butter. Grill for 5-6 minutes, or until golden-brown and bubbling.