Moody, paranoid and in later years creatively paralysed by depression, there was a dark side to Elgar that history tends to overlook.
Lived 1857 – 1934
Mostly in Worcester, London
Best Known for Cello Concerto, Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, Pomp and Circumstance Marches
Similar to Brahms, Parry
Edward Elgar’s 100th birthday in 1957 was the starting point for a slow re-evaluation of his music in academic and critical circles and a completely fresh interpretation of the man himself. Not that the music was ever seriously out of fashion – the two symphonies, two concertos, the Enigma Variations, the Introduction and Allegro for Strings and The Dream of Gerontius kept the music alive in the concert halls. But it was still rare to come across a foreign conductor programming an Elgar work or a foreign soloist in one of the concertos.
Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934)
There were obvious exceptions to this generalisation, such as violinists Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin and cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, but not too many and not too often. His music was mainly championed by British conductors, several of whom had either known Elgar or played under his baton – Henry Wood, Adrian Boult, Landon Ronald, John Barbirolli and Malcolm Sargent. But there was still a tendency to regard advocacy of Elgar as a pioneering gesture. Most of his early choral works were regarded as the provenance of amateur choral societies. To the majority of 1950s audiences, Elgar was the laureate of Empire.
Only in the book about his life and works written by Diana McVeagh and published in his centenary year is there a hint of Elgar’s frequent melancholia and of his awkward personality, switching in a flash from schoolboyish humour (“japes”) to cruel and biting sarcasm or just to downright rudeness. To those listeners who rejected what we may call the ‘pomp and circumstance’, Elgar – the real Elgar – was a man with deep and stormy passions who gave every indication of having been inconsolably wounded in his spirit by someone or something.
This darker side of his personality was better concealed during his teenage years. Some of his early pieces, such as the slow movement of the first version of the Serenade, have a wistful tenderness, which is the essence of what we now call ‘Elgarian’. But we know from that shrewdest of observers, his close friend Rosa Burley, that he spoke bitterly about the posts he had lost because his father was a shopkeeper. Some of his early primitive works were played in the Midlands by local orchestras but London publishers were not interested in him. It was not until 1889, when he was 32, that he was invited to write a work for the next year’s Three Choirs Festival.
The work was Froissart, a concert overture, and its motto, from Keats, was “When chivalry lifted up her lance on high”. The overture was a success with the critics and the audiences, but it was to be another ten years before it reached a London concert hall. Compare this with Richard Strauss, with whom Elgar was later to be ranked as an orchestrator – in 1890 Strauss was 26, had already held major conducting posts in German cities, and had composed successful works including Macbeth, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung.
Elgar ‘found himself’ in 1898-1900 with the Enigma Variations and his choral setting of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. The latter, he wrote, came from “my insidest inside”. When the first performance in October 1900 was under-rehearsed and badly sung, Elgar was mortified and to his friend AJ Jaeger (‘Nimrod’) of the publisher Novello, he wrote that he “always knew God was against art”. But the success of Gerontius in 1901 and 1902 in Düsseldorf, Germany, where it was fulsomely praised by Strauss, led to a commission from the 1903 Birmingham Festival for the ambitious oratorio in which the concentration was on the Apostles rather than on Christ.
But whereas Strauss left Düsseldorf to return to his Berlin post as director of music for the Kaiser, Elgar returned to teaching reluctant schoolgirls to play the violin and to helping in Elgar Bros, the shop his father and uncle owned in Worcester High Street. Elgar’s father, William Elgar, was organist of the Roman Catholic church of St George, even though he was not himself a Catholic (and was fiercely anti-Papist). His wife Ann, a farmer’s daughter who educated herself by reading, converted to Catholicism and brought up their seven children in that faith.
Elgar was always an avid cyclist
Edward was their fourth child, born on June 2, 1857 in the country cottage at Broadheath, four miles outside Worcester. He was only two when the family moved back into Worcester, but he romanticised the cottage from his childhood when he and his siblings played in nearby fields. Elgar’s love of and talent for music were obvious from early in his life. He took scores of the Beethoven Symphonies from the shop and studied them avidly. “I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severn-side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great,” he confided to a friend some years later.
The 1880s were a crucial decade in Elgar’s personal life. He was still hardly known beyond Birmingham and he played in an orchestra there. He fell in love with a violinist who lived almost next door but went to study the violin at Leipzig Conservatory. They became engaged but she broke it off and went to New Zealand. After one or two romances, he married Alice Roberts, nine years his senior, who went to him for lessons in piano accompaniment. The upper-class daughter of an Indian Army general, Alice was convinced, on little evidence at that time, that Elgar was a genius and she devoted her life to his music.
They moved from Malvern to London so that Elgar could try to interest publishers in his work, but after a year they returned whence they came. Marriage had propelled Elgar into a new class, and although he made many friends he could not shake off his complex about being a shopkeeper’s son. He did not want to be known as ‘Edward Elgar, Musician’ but preferred ‘Edward Elgar, Gentleman’. Rosa Burley wrote: “I have never known anyone who changed so abruptly… He had a habit of speaking of Malvern in the condescending manner of a country gentleman condemned to live in a suburb.”
Fortune smiled in 1897, the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, when Novello published his Imperial March, which was a success. The 1898 Leeds Festival commissioned Caractacus, dedicated to the Queen. Then in 1899 the Austro-Hungarian conductor Hans Richter conducted the first performance of the Enigma Variations, sketches of “my friends pictured within”. And in 1901, at the end of the Boer War, came the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, with its magnificent central tune which was converted into a song, Land of Hope and Glory and rapidly became, as it remains, a second national anthem. Elgar was now a national figure: he was knighted in 1904 when a three-day festival of his music was given at Covent Garden and in 1911 he received the Order of Merit. For the premiere of The Apostles at Birmingham in 1903 special trains were run. Three years later came its sequel, The Kingdom.
Increasingly, though, when he was beginning or completing a new work he suffered from bouts of ill health – sore eyes and ears were a regular problem and he was prone to other ailments. Something – we do not know exactly what – happened to him in 1905 during work on The Kingdom. His religious faith was shaken and he rarely went to Mass. He was deeply in love with Alice Stuart Wortley, wife of an MP and daughter of the artist Sir John Millais. Both families were friends, and although Elgar poured out his heart to her as to nobody else, we cannot know whether this was an adulterous relationship or a meeting of hearts and minds but nothing further. What is undeniable is that she inspired several of his best works – the Violin Concerto (1910), the Second Symphony (1911) and The Music Makers (1912). In these, he said, “I have written out my soul”.
The Violin Concerto and his First Symphony had been triumphs, but they were to be the last he was to experience. The Music Makers, today regarded as one of his finest works, was spurned by the critics, and the Second Symphony waited nearly ten years before it had a performance that did justice to its tumultuous emotions.
Elgar conducting his first recording of Carissima, Jan 1914, possibly at City Road
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he joined the Hampstead branch of the Special Constabulary. To his friend and patron Frank Schuster he wrote at the end of August: “Concerning this war I say nothing. The only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh my beloved animals – the men – and women – can go to hell, but my horses – I walk round & round the room cursing God for allowing dumb brutes to be tortured. He can kill His human beings but – how CAN HE?? Oh, my horses”. The extravagance of the punctuation conveys the intensity with which this extraordinary letter was written.
Nevertheless, he wrote the music to be played as background to a recitation of Carillon, a poem about the bells of Antwerp by the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts. “Brave little Belgium” was its rallying cry at the start of the war and Carillon met the nation’s mood.
Elgar wrote two more recitations and escapist music for the theatre – the ballet The Sanguine Fan (1917) and the enchanting children’s play The Starlight Express (1915) – while his most substantial wartime composition was the three-movement setting of poems by Laurence Binyon called (by Elgar) The Spirit of England. This ran into trouble on two fronts. Firstly, Elgar discovered that another composer (Cyril Roothman) had just set the most famous poem, For the Fallen, and this caused Elgar to consider withdrawing from the project. Secondly, he found it difficult to set the lines about the Germans in the first poem, The Fourth of August. So many Germans had helped him in his career and he felt it was a betrayal to depict them as bloodthirsty Huns. Still too rarely performed, The Spirit of England is a masterpiece.
Elgar refused to set Binyon’s Peace Ode. Instead, his thoughts on war and peace are contained in the three chamber works he wrote at the end of the war and, most of all, in the Cello Concerto of 1919, which ends with the most personal and searing of all his expressions of anguish. In April 1920 Alice Elgar died and he was bereft. Although he composed, nothing of real substance emerged until, in 1930, under the influence of his love for a violinist Vera Hockman, he began a third symphony. But it was too late – cancer had taken hold. He died on February 23, 1934 believing that his music would not last. Thank goodness he was wrong.
Wand of Youth
The wind quintets (1878-9), which Elgar wrote for his friends to play during his youth are early evidence of his skill in composing short character pieces, such as he eventually brought to a fine art in the Enigma Variations (1899).
In the big choral works Elgar wrote in the 1890s, the influence of Wagner is certainly very strong. His writing for woodwind is particularly individual. He used the direction ‘nobilmente’ for passages he regarded as being deeply personal, the outstanding example being Nimrod in the Enigma Variations (but only in the piano version).
The violin was Elgar’s own instrument and he had ambitions as a soloist, but acknowledged that he had too small a tone. But in the Serenade (1892), the Introduction and Allegro (1905) and in such gems as the nostalgic reveries in Falstaff (1913), he reached new heights of string harmony.
Like his friend and fellow composer Richard Strauss, Elgar had the ability to use a large orchestra and yet to write episodes of great delicacy. In some works one can detect an admiration for the music of Bizet and Massenet, but his own voice is so unmistakable that he absorbed all influences into a style we know as Elgarian.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs The Dream of Gerontius at Sydney Opera House on October 19 and 21.