The Magazine

In Tune With the Times

A second look at Edward Elgar.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Edward Elgar and His World

Edited by Byron Adams

Princeton, 448 pp., $22.95

Musicians and music institutions, it seems, are always eager to celebrate major anniversaries of major composers.

Within the last decade or so we've marked a Brahms Year (1997, the 100th anniversary of his death), a Bach Year (2000, the 250th anniversary of his death), and a Mozart Year (2006, the 250th anniversary of his birth), and the music festivals and scholarly conferences spawned by these celebrations have offered rich opportunities to survey composers' lives and works and weigh how their stock is doing in recent days. The festivals, in particular, have also provided the chance to scrutinize the composers' lesser-known creations, to see if we've missed anything in our rush to hear the blockbuster masterpieces one more time.

Although you wouldn't have known it here in the United States, we recently concluded an Elgar Year. Born 150 years ago last June 2, Sir Edward Elgar tends to be appreciated chiefly in Britain, where he is hailed as the founder of the 20th-century English Music Renaissance, the first great native-born composer since Henry Purcell (who died in 1695). In music, the classical and romantic periods seem to have passed Britain by (the Germans called it "The Land without Music"). Elgar's Enigma Variations, cello and violin concertos, and string works, written at the beginning of the modern era, found a place in the international repertory and served to reestablish England's reputation on the music scene.

Still, were it not for the ubiquitous use of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at graduation ceremonies, Elgar would not be a household name in America.

Unfazed by the lack of interest in Elgar here, the Bard Music Festival, led by its artistic director Leon Botstein, devoted two weekends of concerts last summer to the composer's works. The festival not only resurrected pieces rarely heard on American soil but also produced this handsome volume of essays by a dozen scholars, who strive to assess Elgar's place in music history. Given the paradoxes in his life and works, this is not an easy task.

Edward Elgar was born in 1857 into a solid working-class family in Broadheath, near Worcester in west-central England. He studied music with his father, a journeyman musician, and eventually succeeded him as organist of St. George's (Roman Catholic) Church in Worcester. Aside from a few professional violin lessons in London, Elgar was self-taught. After working his way through local music organizations, as conductor of the Worcester Glee Club, as "composer in ordinary" at the Powick County Lunatic Asylum, and then as organist at St. George's, he eventually moved to London in 1889 at age 32.

In Worcester, Elgar had depended heavily on private students for income; in London, none materialized, and within two years he was forced to leave the city to live in Malvern, where he eventually served as conductor of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Orchestra.

A series of successful cantatas and oratorios written for provincial choir festivals--The Black Knight, Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Caractacus, and finally his choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, completed in 1900--brought him recognition. The Enigma Variations, so called because each section is prefaced by the initials of fancied names of Elgar's friends who are portrayed in the music, and his symphonies and concertos, brought him fame. A series of rousing marches--most notably the Imperial March for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the Coronation March for George V, and the Pomp and Circumstance marches--brought him glory.

With these successes Elgar was able to return to London in triumph, moving into Severn, a graciously appointed, custom-built house in Hampstead. He was knighted in 1904, and awarded honorary degrees from Cambridge, Oxford, Aberdeen, Leeds, and Yale, which he visited in 1905, on the first of several trips to America. He was also appointed Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, where he presented a series of lectures on the state of music in Britain. Covent Garden devoted a three-day festival entirely to his music, the first time an English composer was so honored. After the death of his wife in 1919 he returned to Worcester, where he died in 1934.