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Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Sir Edward Elgar occupies a strange position in his owncountry. For many he is associated with British, or,more specifically, English Imperialism, epitomized inLand of Hope and Glory, a patriotic anthem now sungwith gusto and tongue in cheek on the last night of theLondon Promenade Concerts each year. The image ofan Edwardian country gentleman, with his dogs andhorses is misleading. Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper,in the days when to be in trade marked a man for lifeand escape from this background earned a man thename of counter-jumper. He married the daughter of aretired Indian Army general, a pupil of his, nine yearshis senior, and it was she who gave him the necessarysupport, morally and socially, that finally helped him tomake his way in Edwardian society. Nevertheless,musically Elgar was far nearer to the German romanticcomposers of his time than to the developing vein ofEnglish music, with its pastoral reliance on newlycollected folk-song.
Edward Elgar was born near Worcester, in the Westof England, in 1857. His father was a piano-tuner,organist, violinist and eventually a shopkeeper, and itwas from him that Elgar acquired much of his musicaltraining. He at first made his living as a free-lancemusician, teaching, playing the violin and organ, andconducting local amateur orchestras and choirs. His firstsuccess away from his own West Country, after earlierabortive attempts, was in 1897 with his Imperial March,written for the royal jubilee celebrating sixty gloriousyears of Queen Victoria. His reputation was furtherenhanced by the so-called Enigma Variations of 1899.
The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which followedin 1900, was less successful at its first performance inBirmingham, but later became a staple element inBritish choral repertoire. His publishers Novello had notalways been particularly generous in their treatment ofhim, but he came to rely on the encouragement of theGerman-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader forthe firm, who found in Elgar's music something muchmore akin to the music of his native country.
Public recognition brought Elgar many honours, hisposition sealed by the composition of music for thecoronation of King Edward VII. He was awardedhonorary doctorates by universities old and new and in1904 received the accolade of a knighthood. Laterofficial honours included the Order of Merit in thecoronation honours of 1911 and finally, in 1931, abaronetcy. Acceptance, as represented by the musicalestablishment of the country, was confirmed by theaward of the Gold Medal of the Royal PhilharmonicSociety in 1925, after an earlier award to Delius.
Elgar's work had undergone significant changes inthe later years of the 1914-18 war, a developmentevident in his Cello Concerto of 1919. His wife's deathin 1920 removed a support on which he had long relied,and the last fourteen years of his life brought adiminishing inspiration and energy in his work as acomposer, although he continued to meet demands forhis appearance as a conductor in both the concert-halland recording studio. He died in 1934.
The marches that Elgar wrote, whether for publicoccasions or as an incidental part of other works,represent only one aspect of his achievement as acomposer, and not necessarily the most important, inspite of the wide popularity a number of them haveenjoyed. Altogether they often represent music ofprofounder achievement, by no means jingoistic inconception, whatever the present connotations may be.
In 1911 a march was commissioned for thecoronation of King George V, an event that Elgar andhis wife decided not to attend, because of the expectedlength of the ceremony, the allocation of seats in thesouth aisle of Westminster Abbey which offered alimited view of the ceremony, and Elgar's own dislikeof crowds. The Coronation March opens with a lessfestive theme from material originally intended for aprojected ballet based on Rabelais that had excited hiswife's disapproval, when it had been under discussionseven years before. The march uses other earliersketches, but turns out to be an orchestral compositionof some significance, no merely superficial occasionalpiece, but a work of symphonic proportions andprofounder suggestion.
In 1901 Elgar had provided incidental music for theplay Grania and Diarmid by George Moore andW.B.Yeats, staged at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin inOctober of that year. The play concerns the rivalry ofFinn and his nephew Diarmid for the hand of Grania, apursuit in which Diarmid's success leads to his murderby Finn. In a letter to Jaeger, Elgar describes the funeralmusic as 'big and weird' and likely to appeal to hiscorrespondent. The Funeral March is a sombre piece,evocative of the Celtic twilight of the early Irish legend,winning praise from the authors of the play. Elgardedicated it to the conductor Henry Wood and includedit in his own concert programmes.
Elgar wrote his first two Pomp and CircumstanceMarches in the same year. He was particularly pleasedwith the trio melody of the March No. 1 in D major, inhis own words 'a tune that will knock'em flat'. Thefamous melody has won further fame coupled with thewords supplied by A.C. Benson for the Coronation Odeof 1902, Land of hope and glory. The second march, inA minor, is less familiar, with a first theme of mountingexcitement, and a contrasted secondary melody. Thelively trio section is in A major. The work wasdedicated to the composer and conductor GranvilleBantock.
Elgar completed his Pomp and CircumstanceMarch No. 3, in C minor, in 1904, having alreadydedicated it to Ivor Atkins, organist and choirmaster ofWorcester Cathedral. It starts ominously, before risingto a climax, as the melody emerges in fuller form. Thecheerfully lyrical trio is in marked contrast, framed bythe march and returning before the extended coda. Thefourth march, in G major, was finished in 1907 anddedicated to the Hereford Cathedral organist GeorgeRobertson Sinclair, who features, with his dog Dan, inthe Enigma Variations. This march comes only secondin popularity to the first, with the trio again seeming todemand words of some sort. Pomp and CircumstanceMarch No. 5, in C major, was written in 1930 anddedicated to Sinclair's successor at Hereford Cathedral,Percy Hull. With a lively main section, there is contrastin the A flat major trio, which returns, markednobilmente like the trio of the fourth march, after therecapitulation of the opening section.
Elgar completed his cantata Caractacus in 1898.
The text was supplied by Harry Acworth, a neighbour inthe West Country who had provided parts of the bookfor the earlier King Olaf, and dealt with the defeat of theBritish chieftain Caractacus by the Roman EmperorClaudius, the former's captivity in Rome, and hisrelease by the Emperor. The work goes on to foretell thefall of Rome and its opportune replacement by QueenVictoria's British Empire. The story had some appealfor Elgar, as the last battle of Caractacus hadsupposedly taken place in the environs ofHerefordshire. The Triumphal March marks theculmination of the drama.
Contemporary patriotism is reflected in the Marchof the Moghul Emperors, an episode in the ImperialMasque mounted by Henry Hamilton at the Coliseum in1912, a celebration of the 1911 Durbar, under the titleThe Cities of Ind. The Durbar marked not only theaccession of King George V but also the transfer of theIndian capital from Calcutta to the traditional capitalDelhi, a location to which the great Moghul Emperorsof the past bear appropriate witness, with rather lesspositive testimony from St George, who leaves the lastword to King George.
In 1924 Elgar succeeded Sir Walter Parratt asMaster of the King's Musick in April, at a time when hewas occupied with the celebration of Empire at theWembley Exhibition, for which he wrot