There have been many great English composers. Our first period of musical greatness spanned the Elizabethan period through to the Restoration period, with composers such as Byrd, Gibbons, Dowland and Purcell. For virtually the next 200 years England was without any real music of its own. While there was musical life, it was entirely dominated by foreign composers and musicians.
Not one English composer during this period created works remotely comparable to those produced on the continent. With the appearance of Elgar, we at last produced a composer of international stature. He is the first in a series of composers who created a 20th century Renaissance of English music, a series that included composers such as Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst, Britten, Walton and others.
His Early Years
Elgar was born on 2 June 1857, at Broadheath, near Worcester. His father was a piano tuner and music dealer. His musical training was purely informal: he never attended a conservatory (though there were plans to attend Leipzig after leaving school) and was largely self taught. His mother was Roman Catholic, and passed her faith on to her son. These two factors set him apart from most of the prominent Englishmen of his era, with their upper class/Anglican background. It made his achievements in life all the more remarkable.
The peak years of Elgar's career spanned only about 20 years: from 1899 (the premiere of the Enigma Variations) to 1918 (the writing of the cello concerto). The first 40 years of his life showed little promise. Until the 1890s, he had to scrape together a living as a provincial music teacher and violinist - at one point even playing in an asylum, apparently as part of a program designed to soothe the patients! No major compositions exist from this period, but Elgar sketched out many themes that would appear decades later in his mature compositions. He was a slow developing composer who would often wait years to find the right context for a theme.
In 1889, he married Alice Roberts, a woman eight years older than he; she was also from a family with higher social standing. The marriage, which was a happy one, was probably crucial in Elgar's development as a composer: his wife's faith in his genius inspired his greatest achievements; after her death, he would produce little of significance.
During the 1890s, Elgar began to make a name for himself through a number of choral compositions (choral societies were prominent in British musical life of the time): The Black Knight, The Banner of St. George, Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf. Most of these works have patriotic and/or religious themes which appealed to the late Victorian era.
His Peak Years
With the appearance of his first great orchestral work, the Enigma Variations, in 1899 and his greatest choral work, The Dream of Gerontius, in 1900, Elgar's reputation as the greatest English composer since Purcell was well underway. Here, at last, was a composer whose works were equal to contemporaneous French, German, Italian, and Russian composers. Indeed, Elgar's works were performed in all these countries.
The period 1899 - 1919 brought forth all of Elgar's major compositions: the two symphonies, violin concerto, cello concerto, the four Pomp and Circumstance Marches, his other oratorios (The Kingdom and The Apostles), and his chamber music (violin sonata, string quartet, and piano quintet). He received a knighthood and other awards from the British government; he was, in essence the composer laureate of Britain and was called upon to provide music for state occasions.
With the end of World War One in 1918 and the death of his wife in 1920, Elgar virtually ceased composing. Following 1920, he experienced an inner emptiness that seemed to sap his creative energies. His final years would instead be spent conducting a remarkable series of recordings encompassing most of his major compositions in masterful performances. Indeed, he was the first great composer to realise the possibilities of the gramophone. His recordings from 1914-1933 are seen as very important historical documents. One of the most celebrated is that made in 1932, of his violin concerto with the 16 year old Yehudi Menuhin.
His Final Years
However, Elgar (for reasons not entirely clear) did renew serious composition near the end of his life. In particular, he commenced work on both a comic opera based on a Ben Jonson play which Elgar entitled The Spanish Lady, as well as a third symphony. Neither was complete at his death, though both were probably near completion in the composer's mind and only had to be worked out on paper.
Elgar died on 23 February 1934 aged 76. He was a revered public figure who had, in many ways, outlived his era. The first six months of 1934 was a sad time for this country, as two other eminent composers died too: Holst (25th May aged 59) and Delius (10th June aged 72). The oldest ever member of the Stephenson family died in 1934 too. She was Isabella Harper - John's great-great-grandmother's youngest sister. Aged 90, she had been born near Bamburgh in Northumberland, but had lived most of her life in Tamworth where she died on 11th July.
The latest design of twenty-pound note, featuring a portrait of Sir Edward Elgar on the back and 80mm x 149mm in size, was issued on the 22nd of June 1999. He is the most recent person (apart from the Queen) to have been born who appears on an English bank note. You have probably worked it out that he was born 149 years ago. It was his moustace that made him a popular choice with the Bank of England. There are about 700 million £20 notes in circulation. Merlyn Lowther is the 29th Chief Cashier (and first woman) of the Bank of England - her signature is on the front of the note.
If this short introduction to Elgar has whetted your appetite, make sure that you do some research of your own as well as listening to some audio.
Another composer will be briefly discussed in a few weeks.