Elgar – The Last Romantic

by Reed Hessler    


This article originally appeared in the WBJC program guide in 2007 to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Sir Edward Elgar. It gave me a welcome opportunity to reevaluate this composer who I believe is one of the great composers of his era.


Once perceived as a remnant of the Victorian era, Sir Edward Elgar is an easy composer to take for granted. Thinking back to the first time I heard the Enigma Variations while announcing at a college radio station in 1977, and told a fellow music student/announcer that it was a “good piece”,  I must admit I have devoted little thought to Elgar’s status as a composer in the intervening years. Yet I have always enjoyed his music.


Like most great artists, Elgar was middle class. His father owned a music store in Worcester, a relative cultural backwater compared to London. His slow rise to fame seems an almost impossibly perfect realization of the ideals of Romanticism to which Elgar himself subscribed, but it did not bring him the happiness that it might have.

English composer Edward Elgar, likely in the early 1900s.

Even as a child, Elgar jotted down tunes, some of which he considered worthy enough in his adulthood to be the source of his The Wand of Youth suites. He composed wind ensembles to be performed with his family; Elgar apparently taught himself bassoon for these occasions, although his main instruments were piano, violin, and organ. He wanted to attend the conservatory, but his family finances would not permit it, so other than some early violin lessons, the man who would become England’s most famed composer was self taught. He certainly had enough practical experience to learn his art. As a young man, Elgar played violin in local orchestras, and conducted the band at the lunatic asylum, composing dances for these performances.. He was a church organist, and indeed his first mature extended instrumental composition was an organ sonata composed in 1895. Often Elgar would go for walks in the country, turning to nature for inspiration. Indeed, he claimed, “There is music in the air. All you have to do is take as much as you require.”


At age fifteen, his family’s financial needs required him to go to work full time as an assistant in a solicitor’s office. One year later, he resigned, in order to support himself as a freelance musician. Elgar would never hold a full time job again in his life. Although many composers of the day found it necessary to hold full time teaching positions, Elgar compared teaching to being ground down by a millstone. He would teach part time for many years, even after achieving fame, but would take little pleasure in it. Moreover, the specter of financial inadequacy would haunt him through much of his life.


Elgar’s mother had warned him to be wary of “modern women”, and he took her advice to heart. In 1886, after a couple of failed courtships, he met Caroline Alice Roberts, one of his piano students, and discovered the partner for whom he had been searching. She was an accomplished woman, who had published a novel, wrote verse, spoke German, and sang in a choir. To the outside world, their match must have appeared anything but ideal. Eight years his senior, she was the daughter of a late Major-General, and Elgar, a shopkeeper’s son, was far beneath her social station. Even in his hometown of Worcester, Elgar was looked down upon for his humble origins, and his marriage to a woman so far above him actually made his social status worse. As for Alice Roberts, her family threatened to disown her for a time. Nonetheless, Alice shared Elgar’s belief in his creativity and saw beneath his nervous, self-doubting exterior a man of   character who could bring his dreams to fruition. Risking social ostracism, she married him in 1889, and became his domestic support and creative inspiration for the rest of her life.


As a marriage gift, Elgar composed a salon piece entitled Salut d’amour, a charming melody for strings that became his first big hit. Many years after selling the publishing rights, Elgar commented that the fiddler playing for coins on the street corner had made more money from Salut d’amour than he ever did. Apparently many years later after Elgar had become famous, his publisher paid him a fair royalty for the work.


Elgar’s mother had converted to Roman Catholicism, and Elgar’s wife joined the religion prior to her marriage. In Protestant England, Elgar’s Catholicism was also a social stigma, as well as an impediment to his career. His feelings of inferiority as a provincial shopkeeper’s son, and his outsider status as a Roman Catholic, wounded Elgar in ways that never healed, even after he achieved fame. After Elgar composed the Imperial March for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the queen invited him to a reception. Elgar declined, saying that the presence of a shopkeeper’s son would bring dishonor on the event.


Elgar’s first composition performed in London was Sevillana at a Crystal Palace concert in 1886. Neither it nor the popularity of Salut d’amour, however, brought him any attention in the urban cultural centers of England. It came as a stroke of good fortune, therefore, that the popular Three Choirs Festival was held annually in Worcester. In 1990, Elgar composed his Froissart overture for the event. Although not a masterpiece, it foreshadows his mature style in its contrasting moods of vigorous optimism and lyric tenderness, and was Elgar’s first exposure to a wider audience and England’s cultural elite. With perhaps too much self-confidence, Elgar and his wife moved to London to seek success as a composer, but the hoped for commissions were not forthcoming, and soon they had to return to the provinces.


The choral festivals generated a demand for cantatas and oratorios, and Elgar wisely observed that this could be a potential avenue to his success. The 1890’s saw a string of such choral works flow from Elgar’s pen: The Black Knight (1893), Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands (1896), The Light of Life (1896), Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (1896), and Caractacus (1898), for which Queen Victoria accepted Elgar’s offer of a dedication. If you have never heard these works, you are not along. I never have either. They are virtually unknown outside of England, where their performance is still quite a rarity, so much so that to this day people marvel how Elgar seemingly could have begun his career with fully formed masterworks like the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius. I dislike accepting conventional wisdom without judging for myself, but the current critical view is that these works are uneven, containing flashes of brilliance among much bombast and mediocrity. Nonetheless, they helped make Elgar’s career, both as training for his later masterworks, and the raising of his stature to that of a respected British composer. Preparations for his various performances frequently brought him to London, where he met and worked with the best know English composers and musicians of his day, includingHubert Parry, Charles Stanford, Granville Bantock, and Arthur Sullivan.   


One day in 1897, Alice Elgar heard her husband toying with various versions of a melody at the piano. When asked what it was, Elgar replied that the different versions of the tune reminded him of various friends, and perhaps it would amount to something. This was not uncommon in Elgar’s compositional process. He would frequently take fragments written even years earlier and combine them in new ways to make a larger composition. His lovely Serenade for Strings (1892), for example, was based on several earlier short pieces, now lost. Nonetheless, the theme and variations form was a new challenge for Elgar, who had never formally studied composition. Forced to focus his musical ideas, Elgar’s genius finally emerged in his first masterpiece, the Enigma Variations (actually titled Variations on an Original Theme; his publisher and friend A.J. Jaegerwrote “Enigma” beneath the title before the first performance). The noted German conductor Hans Richter premiered the work in London in June of 1899, and Elgar suddenly became world famous. At the age of 42, he was an overnight success. When Rimsky-Korsakov heard it, he called it the finest orchestral variations since Brahms Haydn Variations, a work Elgar apparently did not even hear until September of 1898, when his own variations were nearing completion.  


The following year, Elgar composed an oratorio based on the narrative poem, The Dream of Gerontius by Cardinal John Newman. A highly regarded English Catholic poem of its day, the work had deep personal meaning to Elgar and his wife, who both owned copies before their engagement with important passages bookmarked. It tells the story of a dying knight who repents his sins, spends time in Purgatory, and finally is united with God. The work is scored for soloists, including a major part for tenor in the title role, chorus, and orchestra.  Almost operatic in conception, Gerontius rarely adheres to a series of set pieces, relying instead on a through composed juxtaposition of soloists and chorus. The work contains searingly emotional solos for tenor, inspiring and contemplative choral sections, and dramatic confrontations between demons and angels. Elgar insisted that the singers not perform too reverentially, but emphasize the drama of the music. Gerontius has been called the best oratorio ever written by a native born English composer, and many consider it Elgar’s greatest masterpiece.


The first performance of Gerontius was a disaster. Both Elgar and the conductor underestimated the difficulty of the work, and the chorus was poorly prepared. Nonetheless, Elgar’s publisher Jaeger, realizing the importance of the music, persuaded several important German musicians to attend the premiere, and in spite of the performance, they were duly impressed. Shortly after, The Dream of Gerontius was performed in Dusseldorf, Germany, and was hailed as a masterpiece. If the Enigma Variations had made Elgar world famous, Gerontius secured his reputation as one of the greatest living composers. Richard Strauss called Elgar “the first English modernist”.


Elgar’s style drew on all the major musical influences of his day, while forging a highly personal and distinctly British style from them. Firmly rooted in the German Romanticism of Schumann and Brahms, Elgar nonetheless absorbed the lessons of Wagner’s revolutionary chromatic harmonies, which he applied with taste and musicality, creating a harmonic language that could only have existed in the musical culture of his day.  He was very aware of the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss that had been composed in the decade prior to the Enigma Variations, and he made Strauss’s sprawling symphonic landscape his own. Some have observed the influence of French composers such as Gounod and Bizet, in their elegance and lightheartedness. I would also add the influence of British music prior to Elgar, such as Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, and Arthur Sullivan, both in their stateliness and the occasional nod to light English salon music and music hall, particularly in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Indeed, Elgar wrote a sizeable amount of light music: salon miniatures for strings or solo piano, sentimental but elegant Victorian parlor songs, incidental music, ballets, and works inspired by childhood. It has been said that Elgar could create moments of profundity in many of his lighter works, such as the beautiful Serenade for Strings, and in turn move effortlessly from moments of great drama and profundity to passages of lightness and charm in his most serious works, such as the Symphony No. 1 from 1908, not merely creating a dramatic contrast between the two states of mind, but casually turning from one to the other, then back again, revealing them to be intrinsic parts of each other in the complex fabric of human existence. In the final movement of the Symphony No. 1, for example, the main theme in a minor key is restless and sinister, going through various stages of development, and combining with the stately main theme of the opening movement in enigmatic ways. Suddenly the main theme moves briefly into a major key. The effect is not heroic and thrilling, like the final scene of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, when the Black Swan theme is finally heard in a major key, but almost reconciling, as if Elgar’s theme had been taking a stroll down one of his beloved country lanes the entire time a philosophical battle was raging in his head, only to suddenly become aware of the tranquility of his surroundings.

Edward Elgar Cottage and Museum (6011069465)

The Elgar Birthplace Museum in Lower Broadheath, Worcestershire, England

Elgar followed Gerontius with a projected trilogy of oratorios depicting the lives of the twelve disciples of Christ. Although he only completed the first two oratorios, they remain among his greatest works. The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906), settings of Elgar’s own librettos based on biblical texts, are even more ambitious works than Gerontius. Unfolding in a series of dramatic scenes, in which Elgar musically depicts each setting often before a word is sung, the two oratorios assign leitmotifs to each character that recur in both works. Complex interaction among numerous characters takes place. On occasion, the musical flow is interrupted with choral or solo interjections representing comments from the crowd or a passerby, in a style reminiscent of the “turbo” scenes in the Bach Passions. According to Elgar scholar Diana McVeagh in the Grove Encyclopedia, The Apostles “is as progressive as anything Elgar composed: the parallel triads, whole-tone progressions and false relations, and the exoticism of the Morning Psalm, are unmatched elsewhere in his music. But there are also in both works conservative elements.”


In 1901, Elgar composed his first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches. The trio of the first march became Elgar’s most popular work since Salut d’amour, and made Elgar a household name. I recall marching down the aisle to its noble strains at my own high school graduation, like countless millions. One year after Elgar composed the piece, he set it to lyrics in the patriotic finale to his Coronation Ode for King Edward VII, Land of Hope and Glory, insuring its reputation as the “second British National Anthem”. Although very patriotic in his young adulthood, Elgar came to dislike the jingoistic lyrics to the song, finding them inappropriate during the carnage of the First World War. Imploring his fellow countrymen to change the lyrics, Elgar’s entreaties not surprisingly were ignored. Unfortunately, the association of Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 with British imperialism is probably responsible for the misconception of Elgar as a pompous and bombastic composer in the years following the dissolution of the British Empire. It took his reputation decades to recover from this notion in the years following his death.


Following Elgar’s ascendancy to the position of a British national treasure, honors were quick to follow. In 1904, he was knighted. Honorary doctorates were numerous throughout the world. Elgar was eventually asked to assume a music professorship. Unable to attend a university in his youth, he was now a member of the faculty.


Often complaining that he could not find the time to write symphonies and chamber music, Elgar finally completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1908. By this time, his international reputation was so great, that the work received almost one hundred performances throughout the world in the first year after its premiere.


Nonetheless, his insecurities never ceased. Elgar’s compositions never made as much money as he desired. At one point he said he would have to learn a trade, and he even considered ending his life. More and more, he assumed the pose of an English country squire almost as a mask. Later in life, he claimed to have no interest in music, preferring golf or horses.


In 1919, Elgar composed his Cello Concerto, a work of heartfelt Romanticism that some even consider tragic. Lady Alice Elgar was present at the premiere, and it would be the last concert of her husband’s music that she would attend. One year later, she died, and with her died Elgar’s creative soul. He would never compose another major work again, even though he lived until 1934.


Of course, there were other reasons for Elgar’s retirement. Once on the cutting edge of modern music, Elgar became passé after the war. A new impressionist influenced style of British music had emerged with Vaughan Williams and Delius, and by 1919 the modernist movement of atonality, dissonance, and had pushed aside the last vestiges of Romanticism as the mainstream. Indeed, Elgar felt that society as a whole had moved away from his Victorian values, and he did not feel there was a place for him in the modern world.

Edward Elgar, posing for the camera (1931)

Edward Elgar, photographed in 1931 by Herbert Lambert.

For many years, Elgar’s music disappeared from concert halls, even in England. Only the BBC occasionally broadcast his music. After the Second World War, this began to change, but for a long time only the English performed Elgar’s music. However, the beauty of Elgar’s music was bound to prevail. During the 1960’s, musicians around the world began to perform his works again. Cellist Jacqueline DuPre revived interest in the Cello Concerto, which is now second only to Dvorak’s as the most performed in the world. Every major orchestra has the Enigma Variations in its repertoire, and even Elgar’s minor works are being recorded.


By ending his career in 1920, Elgar seems to inadvertently have created a line of demarcation signifying the Romantic era as closed.  There would be other great music in a Romantic style after 1920, such as Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, and many other composers, like Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Janacek, had already found their way to combining modern harmonies, rhythms, and structures with the Romantic impulse. But after 1920, the uncompromising Romanticism of Elgar would never again be the style of the age. It remains today as one of the most moving examples of its own era, with Elgar as one of its greatest masters.