Edward Elgar was the greatest English composer since Purcell, and the first to win widespread international recognition. The confidently crafted surface of his music conceals a complex and sensitive personality, shaped in hidebound Victorian society by consciousness of his status as an outsider: he was the son of a music shopkeeper and piano tuner in provincial Worcester, and brought up as a Catholic. Elgar had a practical training as a performer on the violin and other instruments, and taught himself composition.
His reputation was slow to spread beyond the West Midlands, but he attained national prominence in 1899 when his ‘Enigma’ Variations were premiered in London. His next major work, the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, quickly became successful in Britain and Germany. A heady decade followed which saw the composition of two further oratorios, The Apostles and The Kingdom, and a stream of orchestral works culminating in the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto.
Elgar moved to London, and took on the conductorship of the London Symphony Orchestra for the 1911/12 season. But the Second Symphony, the choral ode The Music Makers and the symphonic study Falstaff were discouragingly received.
After the premiere of the Cello Concerto in 1919 and the death of his wife the following year, Elgar moved back to the West Midlands and went into virtual retirement. However, he was working with renewed energy on an opera and a Third Symphony when he died in 1934.
Profile © Anthony Burton