Elgar was the fourth of seven children. His father tuned pianos and kept a music shop in Worcester; he was also a church organist. Although the family was immersed in music-making and Edward was encouraged to compose and improvise at the piano, he received no formal musical education except for violin lessons. For a time he meant to become a professional player and in his early years of struggle, from the age of 16, teaching provided an important part of his income. One of his pupils was Alice, the daughter of a Major-General, whom he married in 1889. They had one child, a daughter.
After trying without success to establish himself in London, Elgar resumed his busy musical life in the Worcester area. His first serious representative work was the overture Froissart, which Elgar conducted at the Worcester Festival in 1890. His early production of choral and orchestral music for such events was energetic, and made his ‘arrival’ at the end of the century a well-earned consequence. In 1899 Hans Richter conducted the ‘Enigma’ Variations at St James’s Hall in London. The first, ill-prepared, performance of The Dream of Gerontius - an oratorio setting John Henry Newman’s poem - was not a success, though it had performances in Germany in 1900 and 1901, after which Richard Strauss dubbed Elgar ‘the first English progressivist’. He was honoured with a Cambridge doctorate and in 1904 a three-day festival featured Elgar’s music at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The same year, Elgar was knighted and made Professor at Birmingham University.
The Apostles and The Kingdom, the first two oratorios of an intended trilogy, were composed from 1901 to 1906, but one of the highest points of Elgar’s entire career was the first performance in 1908 of his First Symphony, which the conductor Hans Richter eulogised as ‘the greatest symphony of modern times’. Worldwide, it had nearly 100 performances within a year.
The Violin Concerto, dedicated to and first played by Fritz Kreisler, followed in 1910; the Second Symphony, now regarded as the equal of the First, was far less appreciated at its premiere in 1911. Elgar once said he considered the symphonic study Falstaff (1913) to be his best work, and it is in some respects a self-portrait. Three very personal chamber works – the Violin Sonata, String Quartet and Piano Quintet – came at the end of the Great War and the unusually concise Cello Concerto followed in 1919.
Alice Elgar died in 1920, leaving Elgar to a great extent a broken man, though during his declining years he conducted most of his orchestral music for the Gramophone Company and toured with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1932 the BBC commissioned a Third Symphony, left incomplete at Elgar’s death (from a malignant tumour) two years later, though the surviving sketches for it were eventually ‘elaborated’ into a four-movement work by Anthony Payne and premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1998.
Profile © Adrian Jack
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