Edward William Elgar

Place of BirthBroadheath, Worcester

"I am folk music."

This Quintessential of English composers was to have a classically English middle class start to life. He was born in the Malvern Hills in Broadheath, near Worcester. He was the son of an organist who owned a music shop in the town. Elgar was to be brought up in an atmosphere of music and learnt the piano and violin from an early age. At the tender age of 16 he joined a local orchestra as a violinist and rose to become its conductor. He was also to succeed his father as the organist at the Catholic church in Worcester.

Elgar's birthplace: Broadheath
A self-taught hard working and earnest musician, Elgar formed the opinion that he would never become the master violinist that he so diligently strived for. The Hungarian violinist Adolf Pollitzer, who taught and acted as mentor to Elgar, was also of the same opinion. However, the two of them did realise that Elgar had considerable talent in the field of composition. However, Elgar's modest middle class roots denied him the opportunity to fully appreciate these skills. He was forced to augment his musical craft with teaching in a girls' school in nearby Malvern.

Elgar's wife: Alice
At the age of 30, two events were to occur that would decisively influence Elgar's life and reinvigorate his passion for music. The first was the visit of Dvorak to England. The music of this Czech composer was to rekindle Elgar's enthusiasm and imagination for music making. The second event was that he met and married Caroline Alice Roberts. He was to find companionship and inspiration from his wife for the next 30 years that they were to be together. Alice encouraged him to move to London where he might gain greater exposure and recognition for his work. However, despite limited success, particularly with local choirs, real success eluded him and he was forced to concede defeat and return to teaching in Malvern.

To supplement his income he played and conducted with the local orchestras of the area. Slowly but surely, he built up a reputation as a solid performer who seemed to have a particular flair for choral pieces. His Enigma Variations (1899), and The Dream of Gerontius (1900) marked him out from the crowd of provincial composers and stamped him on the European map of music making. His work was particularly appreciated in Germany, where Richard Strauss commented of the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius that "With this work England became for the first time one of the modern states."

Elgar's Second Symphony Manuscript
A symphony and more oratorios soon followed, and it was not long before this provinicial composer was regarded as one of the scions of the English music establishment. His critically acclaimed music was translated into mass appeal with the instantly popular Pomp and Circumstance which, when set to words by A.C. Benson, was to all but become the second national anthem as Land of Hope and Glory. His popularity culminated with Royal recognition and a Knighthood in 1902.

Some critics of the day turned on his apparent popularity and derided his music as bearing all the hallmarks of vulgarity. It was to comments like these that he made his comment "I am folk music" and declared that at least vulgarity showed the hallmarks of initiative! Generally a modest man, Elgar was genuinely pleased that his work was enjoyed by his masters and masses alike.

His work was to be curtailed considerably with the sudden death of his beloved wife in 1919. He could only bring himself to write the autumnal Cello Concerto. It was therefore with great excitement that the BBC announced that he would write a third symphony for them in 1932. Unfortunately, he was to pass away before he could complete this piece of work. It was said that he died whilst listening to his own Second Symphony on the gramaphone.

Elgar was to reinvigorate British music and bring it back into the fold of European acceptance and appreciation. His work is often seen as suitably Edwardian and fitting the British Imperialistic mood of quiet, brooding self-confidence. Pomp and Circumstance has remained a perennial favourite to this day, especially with the annual BBC Last Night of the Proms. Likewise, Enigma Variations maintained its links with Imperialist history right down to the 1990's when it was so touchingly played at the Hong Kong handover ceremony. It was fitting that the music of this high lord of Imperial culture be played at the last significant event of Imperial history.

Check for Elgar Items

Find spectacular deals on
music instruments such as electric guitars and
acoustic guitars as well as music equipment like amplifiers


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames |

by Stephen Luscombe