Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Sacred Choral Music
Edward Elgar was born near Worcester, in the West ofEngland, in 1857. His father was a piano-tuner, organist, violinist andeventually a shopkeeper, and it was from him and from his own private studythat Elgar acquired much of his musical training. As the son of a tradesman anda Catholic he had social and religious obstacles to overcome, and in this hiswife, nine years his senior and the daughter of an Indian army general, was ofthe greatest assistance. He at first made his living as a free-lance musician,teaching, playing the violin and organ, and conducting local amateur orchestrasand choirs. His first real success away from his own West Country was in 1897with his Imperial March, written for the royal jubilee celebrating sixtyglorious years of Queen Victoria. His reputation was further enhanced by theso-called Enigma Variations of 1899. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, whichfollowed in 1900, later became a staple element in British choral repertoire.His publishers Novello had not always been particularly generous in theirtreatment of him, but he came to rely on the encouragement of the German-bornAugustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader for the firm, who found in Elgar's musicsomething much more akin to the music of his native country.
Public recognition brought Elgar many honours, his positionsealed by the composition of music for the coronation of King Edward VII. Hewas awarded honorary doctorates by universities old and new and in 1904received a knighthood. Further honours followed and finally, in 1931, abaronetcy. Acceptance, as represented by the musical establishment of thecountry, was confirmed by the award of the Gold Medal of the Royal PhilharmonicSociety in 1925. Elgar's work had undergone significant changes in the lateryears of the 1914-18 war, evident in his Cello Concerto of 1919. His wife'sdeath in 1920 removed a support on which he had long relied, and the lastfourteen years of his life brought a diminishing inspiration and energy in hiswork as a composer, although he continued to appear as a conductor in both theconcert-hall and recording studio. He died in 1934.
In his early years in Worcester Elgar had been closelyinvolved with the music of St George's Church, where his father served asorganist, and therefore with the Catholic liturgy. It was for St George's thatElgar wrote early settings of Tantum ergo, Salve Regina, and Domine salvam fac.In 1885 he took over from his father as organist, but was not happy with theposition and had little good to say of the choir. His work in the West Countryas a violinist, conductor and organist continued until his marriage in 1889 andhis attempt the following year to establish himself in London.
Elgar's first settings of the hymn O salutaris hostia, forthe Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, date from about 1880. The setting inF major, included in a compendium of such works issued in 1898, is for choirand organ and is in the simple style favoured in Catholic worship for manyyears. The same might be said of the other settings, the first, an Ave verum,published in 1902, with three more such works issued in 1907. The Ave verumitself was originally a setting of the burial service Pie Jesu, written inmemory of William Allen, the Catholic Worcester lawyer for whom Elgar hadbriefly worked as a fifteen-year old, before music seemed to offer a possibleprofession. The composer arranged the work for publication in 1902 with soloand choral verses in alternation. The Ave Maria, the second of the group,dedicated to the wife of his Worcester friend and choirmaster with him at StGeorge's, Hubert Leicester, is more musically substantial. It is followed bythe Marian Ave maris stella, dedicated to the Benedictine Canon Dolman ofHereford. A treble soloist starts the work, the opening invocation echoed bythe choir in a motet that, still in relatively simple terms, offers a subtlermusical version of the longer text.
In 1891 Elgar and his wife decided to leave London, where hehad had no immediate success, moving now to Malvern, from where he involvedhimself once more in the musical life of the region, while enjoying more timefor composition. It was the Hereford Cathedral organist George RobertsonSinclair who commissioned Elgar's Te Deum and Benedictus for the Three ChoirsFestival of 1897, canticles performed at the opening service. The work wasdedicated to Sinclair. Scored for choir and orchestra or organ, the Te Deum isintroduced by a characteristically Elgarian Allegro maestoso, leading to theemphatic declaration of the choir, We praise Thee, O Lord. There is a change ofmood at the words The Holy Church throughout all the world, a phrase that isrepeated in different voices, leading to a dynamic climax, followed by changesof key and rhythm at When Thou tookest upon Thee. The original F major isrestored over a dominant pedal at When Thou hadst overcome. The familiar motifof the choral opening is heard again, and a great climax is succeeded by ahushed plea for mercy, a strong statement of trust in the Lord, and a gentle prayerfor salvation, before the final postlude. The Benedictus seems to start in Aminor, before F major is re-established. The final triumphant doxology isintroduced by the return of the organ to the Allegro maestoso of the firstcanticle, assuring the thematic unity of the two canticles.
Elgar's first oratorio was The Light of Life, its originaltitle Lux Christi replaced at the publisher's insistence, to avoid possiblereligious prejudice. The work was based on biblical texts assembled by EdwardCapel Cure, who had served as an Anglican curate in Worcester and, as anamateur cellist, played chamber music with Elgar. The new work was a commissionfor the Worcester Three Choirs Festival and had its first performance in thecathedral in 1896. After revision it was played again at the festival in 1899.The work deals with the story of Christ's healing of the blind man, asrecounted in the Gospel of St John. The first of the two numbers included hereopens the oratorio, after the initial instrumental Meditation. Seek Him thatmaketh the seven stars is for four-part male chorus, representing Levites inthe Temple Courts. The voice of the blind man is heard outside the Temple,returning once more in supplication, before the Levites complete their prayer.Light of the World is the final G major chorus, in a confident style wellsuited to the cathedral conventions of the day.
The oratorio The Apostles was completed and first performedin 1903. Elgar had long had the idea of writing such a work, dealing with thecalling of the apostles. The work came in response to a commission fromBirmingham, and the theme was continued three years later in The Kingdom. Heprepared the texts himself, taking some advice from Canon Charles Gorton andothers. The Spirit of the Lord is the prologue to The Apostles, often performedas an anthem. It sets the tone of what is to follow, while introducing variousmotifs later to be associated with the Church and with Christ. The words of theprologue are taken from Isaiah.
In 1909 the Elgars spent some time in Italy, staying at thevilla of a friend near Florence. Here the composer recovered his spirits, aftera period in which he had felt in need of recuperation. He was able to thinkfurther about his Violin Concerto and his Second Symphony, and wrote, duringhis stay, a setting of Rossetti's translation of a poem by Dante's friend GuidoCavalcanti. This brief meditation on mortality becomes a more extended andmoving unaccompanied part-song, a work of considerable power. It was firstperformed in Hereford in September in the same year and was dedicated to hispublisher at Novello,