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Happy Birthday Edward Elgar!

Happy Birthday Elgar!

Today is the birthday of Edward William Elgar – one of the most identifiable and influential English composers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Elgar was born in the small village of Lower Broadheath outside Worcester in 1857, the fourth of seven children. His father, William, had been apprenticed to a London music publisher. In 1841 he moved to Worcester where he worked as a piano tuner.

All the Elgar children received a musical upbringing. By the age of 8, Edward was taking piano and violin lessons. His father tuned the pianos of many of the grand houses in Worcestershire. Sometimes he would take his son along, giving him the chance to display his musical skills.

Through his teenage years Elgar went to Littleton House school near Worcester. When he left school in 1872 he went to work in the office of a local solicitor as a clerk. After just a few months, Elgar left the solicitors office to embark on a musical career. He began giving piano and violin lessons, as well as working occasionally in his father’s shop selling sheet music and musical instruments.

In 1882 he was employed as a violinist in a Birmingham orchestra, where he played every concert for seven years. He later said it was here that he “learned all the music I know”.

Marriage and Social Acceptance

Although usually regarded as an archetypical English composer, many of Elgar’s influences actually came from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, both musically and socially. As a self-taught composer he often felt inferior to the academics who dominated the music scene. And as a Roman Catholic of humble origins, he was often viewed suspiciously by the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

When he was 29, Elgar took on a new pupil. The daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts, and a published author, Alice was 8 years older than Elgar. The couple married three years later, much to the horror of Alice’s family. Elgar dedicated his violin-and-piano piece Salut D’Amour to Alice as an engagement present.

Edward and Alice took every opportunity to listen to new music. Before the days of miniature scores and recordings this could be very difficult. They attended the Crystal Palace Concerts day after day, listening to music by a wide range of composers, including the likes of Berlioz and Wagner.

The Enigma Variations

During the 1890s, Elgar gradually built up a reputation as a composer. He was seen in high enough regard to recommend the young composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to the Three Choirs Festival – something which helped to establish the young man’s career. After a couple of fairly moderate successes, at the age of 42 he composed his Enigma Variations, which became an instant success both at home and abroad. Richard Strauss – then widely regarded as the leading composer of his day – proposed a toast in Elgar’s presence to the success of “the first English progressive musician.”

This large-scale work established Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation. To this day, Enigma remains a worldwide concert staple.

Pomp and Circumstance

Probably Elgar’s best-known work today is the first of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, composed between 1901 and 1930. To today’s audiences, this work is closely associated with the Last Night of the Proms, where it is traditionally performed.

To mark the coronation of Edward VII, Elgar was commissioned to set AC Benson’s Coronation Ode for a gala concert at the Royal Opera House in June 1902. The singer Clara Butt persuaded Elgar that the trio in the first Pomp and Circumstance march could be set to words. The publishers of the score realised the potential of this new vocal piece, and “Land of Hope and Glory” was published as a new, separate song. This is now seen as an unofficial British national anthem. In the United States, it has been used for almost every high school and university graduation ceremony since 1905.

Knighthood and Fame

Following a three-day festival in March in his honour, Elgar was knighted in July 1904. His new-found life as a celebrity was a mixed blessing, as it invaded his privacy, and Elgar found himself regularly in ill-health.

In his 50s, he composed his first symphony. The First Symphony was a huge hit both nationally and internationally and was performed across the world. In just over a year it had received a hundred performances. His Second Symphony (1911) was not so well-received. Although by normal standards it was a success, it did not match up to the excitement surrounding his first.

In June 1911 Elgar was appointed to the Order of Merit as part of the celebrations surrounding the coronation of King George V.

After World War I, Elgar found himself in poor health. He moved to the countryside and after regaining his health he composed four large-scale works, three of which were very well-received, but the fourth was disastrous.

Later Years

By the 1920s, Elgar’s music was no longer seen as “fashionable”. In April 1920, his wife Alice died at the age of 72.

Elgar was devastated by her loss. He no longer dedicated himself to his compositions, and instead allowed his mind to wander to more menial tasks. Throughout his life he had been a keen amateur chemist, sometimes using a laboratory in his back garden. He enjoyed football, supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers, for whom he actually composed an anthem – “He Banged the Leather for Goal”. He enjoyed being driven about the countryside by his chauffeur. In 1923 he also took a trip to Brazil to visit its opera house.


Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925 he conducted a series of acoustic recordings of his works. With developments in sound recording from the introduction of electrical microphones, sound reproduction became much more accurate and he made new recordings of most of his orchestral works.

In November 1931 Elgar was filmed as part of a newsreel depicting a recording session of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of Abbey Road Studios in London. It is believed to be the only surviving sound reel of the composer. He makes a brief remark before beginning to conduct the orchestra, asking the musicians to “play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before”.

Death and Legacy

During an operation in October 1933, inoperable colon cancer was discovered. Elgar died less than 6 months later, on 23rd February 1934 at the age of seventy-six.

The house where Elgar was born is now a museum dedicated to the composer. His daughter, Carice, helped to found the museum in 1936. A statue of Elgar also stands at the end of Worcester High Street, just yards from where his father’s shop once stood.

Most peoples’ recognition of Elgar will come from currency: from 1999 until 2007, Bank of England £20 notes featured a portrait of Elgar.

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