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Elgar, Sir Edward (William)

Born: Broadheath, NR Worcester, 2 June 1857
Died: Worcester, 23 Feb 1934
Nationality: English composer

He had violin lessons in Worcester and London but was essentially self-taught, learning much in his father's music shop. From the age of 16 he worked locally as a violinist, organist, bassoonist, conductor and teacher, also composing abundantly though not yet very individually: the accepted corpus of his works belongs almost entirely to the period after his 40th birthday.

His first attempt to establish himself in London was premature. He moved there with his wife Alice in 1889, but in 1891 they returned to Malvern, and he began to make a reputation more steadily with choral works: "The Black Knight," "The Light of Life," "King Olaf" and "Caractacus." These were written within a specifically English tradition, but they were influenced also by German music from Weber, Schumann and Mendelssohn to Brahms and Wagner. The orchestral Enigma Variations (1899), in which each variation portrays a different friend of Elgar's, then proclaimed the belated arrival of a fully formed original style, taken further in the oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius" (1900), where the anxious chromaticism of a post- "Parsifal" manner is answered by the assurances of the Newman text: Elgar was himself a Roman Catholic, which may have been one cause of his personal insecurity.

"Gerontius" and the Variations made him internationally famous, but he remained in Worcestershire, composing mostly in the same two genres: "The Apostles" and "The Kingdom" were two parts of a never completed triptych of oratorios, and a sequence of short orchestral pieces was followed by a long awaited and much acclaimed First Symphony, swiftly joined by the Violin Concerto and Second Symphony. By 1912 the Elgars had at last settled again in London, but after the outbreak of war he achieved little besides the deeply reflective Cello Concerto, and after his wife's death in 1920 almost nothing. In 1923 he went back to Worcester, and though he occasionally worked at new pieces - a completion of the oratorio trilogy, a Third Symphony, an opera after Jonson's "The Devil is an Ass" - his composing life was over. He did, however, work energetically at recording much of his music for the gramophone.

The celebrated nobility of his music has been seen as evocative of British imperial glory, but its deeper qualities are of aspiration and nostalgia: they are qualities of an intimately personal expression, but also of a style created at the end of a tradition. For though the Straussian tone poem "Falstaff" is one of his subtlest creations, most usually his symphonic forms looked back to Schumann and, in point of thematic transformation, Franck. But his highly characteristic and often extended melodic themes suggest a connection with Bruckner's in their tonal and rhythmic stability (there is often an underlying slow march metre) and their implication of unusual harmonic relationships.

Selected Works Include:

Cantatas and oratorios
  • The Black Knight (1892)
  • The Light of Life (1896)
  • Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (1896)
  • Caractacus (1898)
  • Sea Pictures, mezzo, orch (1899)
  • The Dream of Gerontius (1900)
  • The Apostles (1902)
  • The Kingdom (1906)
  • The Music Makers (1912)
Orchestral music
  • Froissart, ov. (1890)
  • Serenade, str (1892)
  • Enigma Variations (1899)
  • Cockaigne, ov. (1901)
  • Pomp and Circumstance, 5 marches (1901-30)
  • In the South, ov. (1904)
  • Introduction and Allegro, str (1905)
  • Wand of Youth, Suites nos.1 and 2 (1907-8)
  • Sym. no.1 (1908)
  • Vn Conc. (1910)
  • Romance, bn, orch (1910)
  • Sym. no.2 (1911)
  • Falstaff, sym. poem (1913)
  • Vc Conc. (1919)
  • Severn suite, brass band, (1930)
Chamber and instrumental music
  • Salut d&198
  • amour, pf / vn, pf / etc (1889)
  • Org sonata (1895)
  • Chanson de nuit, Chanson de matin (circa 1897)
  • Vn sonata (1918)
  • Str Qt (1918)
  • (Pf) Qnt (1919)
  • pf music

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