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Edward William Elgar: Edward William Elgar (b. Broadheath, 2 June 1857; d. Worcester, 23 Feb 1934).
Edward William Elgar was born in a country cottage at Broadheath, westward beyond the River Severn at Worcester. The family had left Worcester to fulfil Mrs Elgar's desire for a country life. She had grown up the daughter of a west-country yeoman farmer, and a gentle strength of character shone through everything she did. She was a great reader, and found time to write prose and verse of her own while bringing up her large family. A few years before Edward's birth she had become a convert to Roman Catholicism. Her son was later quoted as saying that 'his position was owing to the influence of his mother, and many of the things she said to him he had tried to carry out in his music'.
Edward William Elgar's father served as organist of Worcester's Catholic Church for nearly forty years, but objected to his wife's raising their children as Catholics. The centre of his professional life was his music shop in Worcester, from which he also carried on a piano-tuning business. In addition he was a competent violinist, and joined generally in the vigorous musical life which flourished in Worcester then. He introduced Edward to the musical society, gentry and clergy, of the Anglican Cathedral which dominated the life of the city - thereby helping to sow the seeds of his son's strong social as well as musical ambition.
When Edward William Elgar was two years old, his father's growing business compelled the family's return to Worcester to live in rooms over the shop. The deaths of two brothers in 1864 and 1866 left Edward first the family's eldest son, and then their most promising musician. As a boy he was known locally for his playing and extemporising on the piano. (In later years he would disclaim interest in the piano, but used his keyboard extemporising skill nonetheless as a secondary phase in his process of composition.) He learned the organ so as to deputise for his father at the Catholic Church, and at the age of twelve taught himself the violin in order to take part in the orchestral ensembles which thenceforward defined his keenest interest.
This pattern of self-teaching extended to musical composition as well. Edward William Elgar himself was later to say: "I am self-taught in the matter of harmony, counterpoint, form, and, in short, the whole of the 'mystery' of music... When I resolved to become a musician and found that the exigencies of life would prevent me from getting any tuition, the only thing to do was to teach myself. I read everything, played everything, and heard everything I possibly could."
Those words indicate not only Edward William Elgar's juvenile method but the force of his ambition. Yet the ambition, nurtured at first by his mother's interest, was to demand constant encouragement from outside himself. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen he drafted his remaining brother and all his sisters into an original musical play. The play (whose music would later be known as The Wand of Youth) was to dramatise the idea that children were capable of visionary insight which the 'Two Old People' (the Elgar parents) had lost. It was a theme to which Edward William Elgar's later music would return again and again.
His schooling completed at fifteen, Edward spent an unsuccessful year in a lawyer's office before 'arranging' with his mother (as he said) for a career in music. From the age of sixteen until he was past thirty he lived the life of a local musician, taking piano and violin pupils, playing in concerts, and gradually finding opportunities to conduct. His most regular conducting engagement was at the nearby lunatic asylum, where a band of players had been recruited from amongst the staff for concerts and dances to entertain the patients. Young Edward William Elgar held the conductor's post there from 1879 until 1884. His duties included the writing and scoring of dances for the motley ensembles of instruments produced by the asylum staff. This experience of making an ensemble balance out of almost any instrumental grouping laid the foundations of his later brilliant ability as an orchestrator.
During his twenties Edward William Elgar also tried his hand at short orchestral pieces of a more conventional kind. He produced choral music for the Worcester Catholic Church, as well as violin pieces and songs which traced the gradual defining of a highly individual melodic style. Two leading traits of Elgarian melody emerged in the frequent repeating of a figure to make a sequential pattern, and developing not so often toward the customary 'dominant' fifth interval as toward the 'sub-dominant' fourth - the interval commonly associated with returning recapitulation. This played an important part in evoking what his later friend Ernest Newman would describe as 'the sunset quality' of Edward William Elgar's music. But the earlier 1 880s were still years of waiting, for the encourager who might focus all his talents and energies had not yet appeared.
Edward William Elgar's encourager emerged in the person of a lady who suggested two characteristics of his mother: she was decidedly older - by nearly nine years - and she was a writer of considerable prose and verse. But Caroline Alice Roberts (1848-1920) was the daughter of Major-General Sir Henry Roberts, whose retirement to a country house on the southern borders of Worcestershire identified the family as of precisely that 'county' importance which appealed to Edward William Elgar through the attitudes of his father. Miss Roberts applied to the younger Edward William Elgar for lessons in piano accompaniment in 1886. Just before their engagement in 1888 he wrote his famous Salut d'amour, Op. 12. Despite initial family opposition, their marriage in 1889 proved the ideal stimulus to Edward William Elgar's creative genius. All his important music appeared during the thirty years of their married life. The only child of the marriage was a daughter Carice (1890-1970), born just as Edward William Elgar's first sizeable work of music was to make its appearance.
The goal of Edward William Elgar's artistic life was symphonic composition. As he said in 1905, before achieving the goal, T hold that the Symphony without a programme is the highest development of art.' His entire career as a composer may be understood as a self-taught pilgrimage toward the achievement of this most traditionally respected form of musical expression. Nonetheless the three decades of his important activity divide into two distinct phases.
Between 1889 and 1906 Edward William Elgar's chief energies were devoted to large choral writing. The musical climate of the English Midlands in those years was especially favourable to the production of choral works. But self-teaching could also recognise a real aid to larger expression in the marriage of its music with a plot and libretto which must inevitably shape much of the composer's structure for him. Moreover, the subjects Edward William Elgar chose for his early choral works traced a consistent theme of self-reflection: The Black Knight, Op.25 (1889-93), The Light of Life, Op. 29 (Worcester Festival, 1896), Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf Op.. 30 (North Staffordshire Festival, 1 896), and Caractacus, Op. 36 (Leeds Festival, 1898). In each case the hero emerged as an outsider attempting to impose his own vision upon an existing order. It is impossible not to identify this succession of heroes with the self-taught provincial, whose music gradually made its composer's way through the ranks of social and academic prejudice to win him the highest honours of any British musician: these were to include a knighthood (1904), the Order of Merit (191 1), the Mastership of the King's Musick (1924), and a Baronetcy(1931).
Edward William Elgar's choral writing culminated in a longconsidered setting of Cardinal Newman's The Dream ofGerontius, Op. 38 (Birmingham Festival, 1900), depicting Catholic death and immortality. The Apostles, Op. 49 (Birmingham Festival, 1903) began the harvesting of an even older idea - the notion of discipleship, its vision and its difficulty: for the most memorable of Edward William Elgar's Apostles is the self-deluded Judas. The Kingdom, Op. 51 (Birmingham Festival, 1906) carried on what the composer hoped would become a trilogy of oratorios about the Acts of the Apostles. The project suffered a fatal interruption, however, in the redefining of Edward William Elgar's artistic expression which emerged at the time of his fiftieth birthday in 1907. In this, the receding of religious faith - shared by so many of Edward William Elgar's generation - played its part. But parallel experiences of musical redefinition emerged also during these very years in the careers of his European contemporaries, Puccini and Richard Strauss.
Not all of Edward William Elgar's energies in the first half of his career had gone into choral music. In his orchestral writing between 1890 and 1905 can be seen the developing seeds of his later symphonies and concertos. The earliest of all his larger works was the Froissart Overture, Op.19 (Worcester Festival, 1890), which displayed his orchestral mastery in a very sophisticated sonata-structure. Both of his later overtures - Cockaigne, Op. 40 (1901) and In the South, Op. 50 (1904) - anticipated four-movement symphonic expression by dividing the central development section into two distinct parts. Both in fact were completed as alternatives to symphonic projects which did not mature: at the time of Cockaigne, Edward William Elgar's symphonic hopes had attached themselves to a melody which was later on in 1901 to make the famous trio of his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, Op.39 No.1. Still earlier thoughts of symphony-writing had emerged side by side with the writing of the celebrated Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36 (1898-9). The theme was labelled 'Enigma*. This Edward William Elgar would never explain: 'its "dark saying" [as he wrote] must be left unguessed.' But the variations he built upon it were inspired by the personal traits of a succession of friends. The first evoked his wife, and the last showed the composer himself and what he 'intended to do'. The secret of the work's wide appeal lies in this ability to enact in abstract musical terms a process of artistic self-discovery. That process went farther still in the brilliant Introduction and Allegro for strings, Op.47 - Edward William Elgar's purest expression of abstract music up to the time of its appearance in 1905, and his last considerable instrumental work before the creative crisis of 1907.
The outward manifestation of this crisis came in a reverting to the old Wand of Youth music: in two large orchestral suites of 1907-8 based on his own childhood melodies, Edward William Elgar in effect surveyed the creative bases of his self-teaching. These suites, Op. la and lb, inaugurated the second phase of the composer's career. There followed directly the achievement of his First Symphony, Op. 55 (1908). Here Edward William Elgar applied the technique of variations to achieve a structure unique in symphonic writing. The announcement of the theme makes the symphony's slow introduction; then follows the most remote of all the variations, presented as a primary subject of the main sonata-allegro. The traditional four-movement structure ensues, formed of thematic subjects which are themselves other variations, returning more and more clearly toward the original theme until a final coda brings the inevitable closing of the ring. This symphony created such a success that it was given nearly a hundred performances during its premiere season. A violin concerto, Op.61 (1910) seemed at first to duplicate the symphony's success. But Edward William Elgar was virtually alone among composers of the major violin concertos in being himself an accomplished violinist as well as a formidable symphonic composer: the length and difficulty of the work he created has not, despite many beauties, encouraged great numbers of players to brave its challenge.
The composer's Second Symphony, Op.63 (1911) did not at the beginning command anything like the following of the First. And this fact, together with Edward William Elgar's extraordinary sensitivity to the mood of his world, began to suggest to him that his day was declining. He completed a final large choral work in The Music Makers, Op.69 (Birmingham Festival, 1912), where new music was joined to thematic ideas ranging back across his creative maturity in an attempt to fix the whole of his achievement in a single vision. The 'Symphonic Study' Falstajf, Op.68 (Leeds Festival, 1913) then emphasised endearing and even creative phases of the old jester's character, side by side with the remorseless rejection that was his fate.
Thus the coming of World War I in 1914 seemed almost to answer the expression of Edward William Elgar's later music. The war years saw the appearance of topical songs and recitations with orchestra, as well as the deeply felt choral setting of three poems by Laurence Binyon (including 'For the Fallen') as The Spirit of England, Op. 80. But the largest of all his scores then was the incidental music to Algernon Blackwood's fantasy play The Starlight Express, Op.78 (Kingsway Theatre, 1915) which revived again musical and even dramatic themes from The Wandof Youth.
In the last year of the war Edward William Elgar's music entered its final phase with three works of chamber music (Op. 82, 83, and 84) whose expression pressed further the asceticism already outlined in Falstaff. The last of all his major works came in 1919 with the Violoncello Concerto, Op. 85. There the aspiring vision of the earlier music met the later austerity to evoke a survival of older insight into a future of negation. The scoring is the most spare of all Edward William Elgar's large works - the orchestra for the most part inhabiting the extremities w hile the solo instrument wanders alone through an otherwise empty landscape. In the fourteen years which remained after the death of his wife in 1920, Edward William Elgar himself often wandered in just that way through the landscapes of his childhood in Worcestershire. But though he tried - and tried hard - for a Third Symphony in 1933, he was never to find again the music which had come with the years of his marriage and triumphant success in the pre-war world.
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