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Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)

Edward Willam Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857, at Broadheath, Worcestershire, England, the son of an organist and music dealer. He left school at the age of 15, working for a short time in a lawyer’s office.

He was an excellent violinist, and also played the bassoon. He had no formal training in musical composition, although he spent various times as bandmaster or church organist, succeeding his father as organist at Saint George's Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, in 1885. In 1889 he married and gave up his post to devote his time completely to composing, and until 1891 he divided his time between London and Worcester. In 1890 the first performance of his overture “Froissart” was well received, and then the following year he moved to Malvern in Worcestershire, gradually beginning to establish his reputation as a composer. Here he wrote prolifically, and amongst his many works are the cantata “The Black Knight” in 1893, the oratorio “The Light of Life” in 1896, the cantata “Caractacus” in 1898, the song cycle “Sea Pictures” in 1900, the overture “Cockaigne” or “In London Town” in 1902.

In 1908 he produced the first of his two Symphonies in “A Flat”. The “Introduction and Allegro for Strings” was completed in 1905, then his “Violin Concerto” in 1910, followed by his second Symphony in “E Flat” in 1911. Next came the Symphonic study ”Falstaff “ in 1913 and the “Cello Concerto” in 1919.  He also produced five “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” from 1901 to 1907 and in 1930, of which the first became very famous and popularized as “Land of Hope and Glory”. It is even today often played at graduation ceremonies, and performed annually during the world famous “Last Night at The Proms” in London’s Albert Hall.
However, it was above all the “Enigma Variations” that brought Elgar to the peak of his fame, the first performance conducted by the famous Hans Richte in 1899. It became Elgar’s most performed work, although he would never reveal the basis of the various themes, and ever since so many attempts to unravel the secrets have failed, hence the name “Enigma”.
Elgar was a devout Roman Catholic, and in 1900 he presented his “Dream of Gerontius” based on the poem of Cardinal Newman. It is widely considered to be Elgar’s masterpiece. It was not well received at the first performance in Birmingham, however, but was later acclaimed widely in Germany and thus became firmly established in England. Although he had plans produce three further oratorios, he actually completed only two: “The Apostles” in 1903 followed by ‘The Kingdom’ in 1906. However, these were less successful than his “Dream”.

He was deeply devoted to his wife, Alice, who wrote poetry, much of which was used by Elgar in his compositions. In 1904 he was knighted, and from 1905 to 1908 he was the very first professor of music at the University of Birmingham.

Sadly after the death of his wife in 1920, he seemed to lose all interest in composition, returning once again to Worcestershire. Then in 1929, his friendship with the playwright Geroge Bernard Shaw eventually stimulated Elgar to return to composition, and when he died on 23rd February 1934 at Worcester, Worcestershire, England he left unfinished a third Symphony, an Opera and a Piano Concerto. His home for so many years in Malvern, Worcestershire, is now much visited by devotees of this truly great musician, probably the first truly ‘English’ composer to appear since Henry Purcell some 200 years earlier.

-- Roger Middleton

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