Edward Elgar was born at Lower Broadheath, on 2nd June 1857, within sight of the Malvern Hills and the tower of Worcester Cathedral, features that meant much to him throughout his creative life. In boyhood, he showed a precocious gift for keyboard improvisation; later, he became a competent organist, an outstanding violinist and a conductor of nervous energy and much flexibility, proving notably successful in recordings of his own music.
Towards his instruction, in Worcester, there was a high standard of music in St. George's Roman Catholic Church, where his father was organist, a fine tradition at the Cathedral, the Three Choirs Festivals, opportunities for performance in local concerts and ready materials for study in his father's music shop. As a violinist, he had expert lessons for a time in London; otherwise he was largely self taught. Many of his earliest compositions were written for the St. George's, where he succeeded his father as organist in 1885. He kept up a supply of wind quintets for a local group in which he was bassoonist, also polkas and quadrilles for the band at Powick Lunatic Asylum.
He had hoped for study in Leipzig, but family finances would not allow it. On marriage to Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889 his inspiration took wing and he began to plan works on a scale notably more ambitious. The 'Froissart Overture' was a commission for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival of 1890. It was succeeded by a series of choral works, beginning with 'The Black Knight', which Elgar was later to describe as a 'symphony' in four movements, continuing with 'Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf', 'The Banner of St. George' commissioned by Novello to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and culminating with 'Caractacus', 1898, dedicated to the Queen herself. The originality and brilliance of his orchestration attracted attention at once, as did his progressive absorption of Wagner's structural methods, based ultimately on visits to Bayreuth and Munich.
The 'Imperial March' of 1897 showed him playing the role of the national laureate to so great effect, one he was to pursue in the Coronation Ode of 1902 ("Land of Hope and Glory" was featured in the finale), that it was to make him 'Sir Edward', Master of the King's Musick, and first baronet of Broadheath. It was the 'Enigma Variations' of 1899, premiered by Hans Richter, that launched his international fame. European and American conductors were quick to recognise the quality of the Variations, and it was in Germany that Elgar's masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, first achieved success and the praise of Richard Strauss. Gerontius had been a Birmingham commission of 1900. 'The Apostles' and 'The Kingdom', planned for a scheme of Wagnerian proportion, and both to librettos by the composer, were produced at the succeeding triennial festivals. Elgar had raised oratorio to a new level of achievement; but a projected sequel, 'The Last Judgement', was never written.
Each of the major choral works was followed by orchestral music of utmost virtuosity, such as the 'Cockaigne Overture' (1901), In the South and four 'Pomp and Circumstance' Marches. At the end of 1907, Elgar made a formal start to his First Symphony. Its success was immediate, resulting in a hundred performances in little more than a year after its premiere. The Austrian conductor, Arthur Nikisch, dubbed it 'Brahms's 5th' and Elgar took his proper place in Europe's musical tradition. This success was followed by the triumph of the 'Violin Concerto' in 1910, which consolidated his position among the most significant of late-Romantic composers, one maintained by his 'Second Symphony', dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, the Symphonic Study 'Falstaff', based on Shakespeare's Henry IV and V plays.
During the First World War, Elgar wrote works expressing his sympathy with the plight of Belgium and Poland. The aspiration and appalling waste of those years were summed up in the three movements of 'The Spirit of England'. Elgar escaped also to the playful enchantment of 'The Starlight Express' and the old-world elegance of 'The Sanguine Fan' ballet. More significant were the three chamber works of 1918-9 and, above all, the 'Cello Concerto', at once effective, concise and elegiac. This was music matured in the Sussex countryside, where the Elgars had rented a cottage since 1917.
Throughout his career, Elgar produced a notable series of partsongs, pieces that show him working with equal success on a small scale and writing as sensitively for voices as he did for instruments. 'My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land' brought him in 1890 his first contact with the publishing house of Novello. These works take him from the spectral nihilism of 'Owls', a setting to his own words, via the bitonal originality of 'There is Sweet Music', to Tennyson, to the generous lyricism of 'Go, Song of Mine', the poem translated from Cavalcanti by Rossetti. Such partsongs can be reckoned among Elgar's finest achievements.
When Lady Elgar died in 1920, Elgar's creative mainspring seemed broken. With utmost panache, he arranged for full orchestra Bach's Organ Fantasia and Fugue in C minor; he also wrote touching incidental music to Laurence Binyon's play, Arthur. But it was not until 1930, when already over 70, that Elgar turned again to composition with apparent relish, producing the 'Severn Suite' for brass band, 'Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5' and the 'Nursery Suite'. In his final years, he was working on an opera, 'The Spanish Lady', a piano concerto and the third symphony. His death on 23rd February 1934 prevented their completion.
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