The Life of Edward Elgar

By Edward Burlingame Hill

At present, no English composer occupies a position of such prominence as Edward Elgar. His works are enthusiastically performed and received throughout England; they have made their way into Germany, France, Austria, and the United States. He is been the subject of more fervid eloquence than any living composer with the possible exception of Richard Strauss. The present Albert Bogue is a striking contradiction of the proverb of the prophet, “not without honor save in his own country.” Considering that he is practically self-taught, his career is all the more remarkable, and deserves an account in detail of its progress to recognition and fame.


Edward William Elgar was born it brought Heath, no Worchester, June 2, 1857, of old English yeoman stock. His father, who had been an assistant in a London music shop, settled at Worchester, in 1841. He was intensely musical in his case, an excellent violinist, and organist of the Roman Catholic Church of St. George, a position which he held for 37 years. He also established a music shop with his brother. At an early age Edward Elgar was sent to the ladies school, where he took his first lessons on the piano. Somewhat later he learned some of the simple facts of violent technique from a violinist named Frederick Spray. However, the most impressionable years of his early life passed without is coming into contact with any remarkable personality. He was one of seven children, and has he gave no evidence of extraordinary talent, he was not singled out for special attention. At an early age, therefore, in the matter of musical instruction he became exceedingly self-reliant, a quality to which he owes his present eminence more than anything else. As a boy, he was an omnivorous reader, and cared little for sport; but he was eager to master the secrets of musical technique. Accordingly, he taught himself the violin, viola, violoncello, piano, organ, and even the bassoon. Later he went to a boy school, called Littleton House. About this time he came across some old works on theory, such as Catel’s “Treatise on Harmony,” Mozart’s “succinct thorough bass,” and Cherubini’s “Counterpoint.” These he eagerly devoured. Later he profited by Sir John sustainers “Harmony,” and Sir Hubert Parry’s articles on matters of technique and grows “Dictionary of Music.” “The worst of the older textbooks,” said Elgar, in commenting upon his early studies, “is that they taught building but not architecture.”

Musical career

when he was about 15, Elgar left school with the intention of becoming a solicitor, but a years experience in a lawyer’s office convinced him that his taste did not lie in that direction. It was in 1873, therefore, they returned to Worchester with the idea of “making himself useful” about the music shop and the church. He sat with his father at the organ, and was occasionally permitted to extemporize voluntariness, and later even accompanied services. He waded through the organ schools of Rinck and Best, he continued the study of theory, and even began to learn German with the hope of going to leaps it, but lack of funds compelled him to give this up. At this. He became acquainted with the early piano music of Kotzeluch, Schubert, and Emanuel Bach. He also joined a quintet of wind instruments, consisting of two flutes, and oboe, a clarinet, and a bassoon, for which he wrote a great deal of music. Elgar had kept up his practice of the violin, and in due course of time he became a member of the Worchester Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as other orchestras in the neighborhood. He also derive much benefits at this time from the weekly concerts of the Worchester glee club, at which all the best old English Gleason madrigals were performed. The club also gave monthly “evenings” of instrumental music, in which Corelli’s works, the overtures of Handel, and Haydn symphonies were given, Elgar playing among the violins for several years. From the age of 15 Elgar supported himself. In 1877, with the idea of becoming a solo violinist, he went to London and took five lessons of a violinist named Pollitzer. He taught him the scales as fingered by Baillot, before the more modern system of Schradieck. In 1879, Elgar became pianist and conductor of the Worchester glee club, and in the same year he was appointed leader of the Worchester County lunatic asylum band (composed of attendance). He even wrote quadrille’s foreign ill assorted combination of instruments, at a $1.25 a set, and he was glad to arrange the accompaniments of minstrel songs, at $.35 a song. In 1882, he went to leaps it for three weeks musical holiday. In 1885, he succeeded his father as organist of St. George’s church. Nevertheless, he played in the orchestras whenever the opportunity presented itself; practice, gave lessons and pegged away unaided, saved by his own ambition and energy, and his studies in composition. As early as 1878, he wrote a symphony with the same number of bars and combination of instruments as Mozart’s G minor Symphony, following the foreman undulations as closely as possible. This exercise he considered invaluable, although the intrinsic value of the music was slight. In 1889, Elgar married the daughter of Major-General Sir Henry G. Roberts, K. C. B. Shortly after his marriage, Elgar went to London in order to hear good music, and with the hope of getting his compositions excepted. He gained much from contact with the musical life in London, but neither publishers nor conductors would accept his compositions. In 1891 he went to Malvern, near Worchester, where he has lived ever since. He devotes himself entirely to composition, with the exception of his duties as conductor at the Worchester Philharmonic Society, and occasional trips to lead performances of his own works. He has recently been made professor of music and Birmingham University.

Appreciation of His Work

If Elgar’s attempts to conquer musical London were fruitless, he had the satisfaction of an ever-increasing success in the “provinces.” As early as 1883, Mr. Stokley’s Birmingham orchestra played an “Intermezzo Mauresque” (possibly the Serenade Mauresque, Op. 10). Later the same orchestra played a Romance by Elgar, and also a Sevillana, Op. Seven, dedicated to Mr. Stokley. After this Elgar’s compositions gradually began to be accepted, as a following series of productions will show. In 1890 and overture “Froissart” at a Worchester musical Festival; in 1893, a cantata “The Black Knight”; in 1896 an oratorio “The Light of Life” at a concert of the Worcester Choral Society; a cantata “King Olaf” at a North Staffordshire Festival at Hanley; and the choral suite “From the Bavarian Highlands”; in 1897, a Te Deum and Benedictus for chorus, organ and orchestra at a Hereford Festival; a cantata “The Banner of St. George,” and the “Imperial March” for the Diamond Jubliee of Queen Victoria. 1899 saw saw the first performances of a cantata “Caractacus” at Leeds, the songs for contralto and orchestra “Sea Pictures,” and the “Enigma” variations for orchestra at a Richter convert in London. In 1900 Elgar’s materspiece, “The Dream of Gerontius,” for solos, chorus, and orchestra, the poem by Cardinal Newman, was produced at Birmingham. From this time Elgar’s recognition has been all that he could desire, and “The Dream of Gerontius” has been given all over England, notably at Westminster Abbey in 1903, at Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and elsewhere. In this year also Elgar was given the honorary degree of Dr. of music by Cambridge University. In 1901 his overture “Cockayne” was brought out by the London Philharmonic society. In 1903, two parts of his oratorio “the apostles,” a subject which had considered for many years, were given at a Birmingham Festival. In 1904, Elgar was knighted by reason of his unusual abilities and prominence among English composers. His latest works are an “Introduction and Allegro” for string quartet and string orchestras, and an overture “In the South.” During the present season he has conducted a program of his own compositions at a London Philharmonic Society concert.


from the foregoing record of performances, it will be seen that Elgar’s career has been that of the self-made man, who has gained his notable facility and technique and power of expression through patient study, assiduous self-criticism, and unceasing toil. Everything that he knows he has acquired at an immense cost of mental effort and strength of character, but the extra labor has brought him abundant compensation in the self-reliance and independence so characteristic of men who fought their way to the front. Elgar’s orchestral style is conspicuous, even in these days of brilliant orchestration, for its admirable sonority, solidity, and skillful contrast, yet he asserts that he has never had a lesson in orchestration in his life. His command of orchestral resources, including his unusual knowledge of the capacities of the individual instruments is due to his careful observation and retentive memory during his long service in different orchestras, to his practical work as a conductor, is diligent study of scores, and tireless experiment on his own account. He is also acquired an excellent knowledge of vocal effect in the same manner.

Elgar’s course of study in composition displays the same pertinacity for self-improvement. His early attempts at church music, his compositions for wind quintet, the quadrille’s for the Lunatic Asylum Band, the Symphony pattered on Mozart, so the links that he is willing to go for the sake of gaining facility and experience. His actual development is no less remarkable that his willingness for hard work. His early pieces, Op. 10, (with the exception of the Gavotte, which suggests the latter Elgar to such an extent that one must suspect that it was written long after the other two) are correct and melodious, but, place enough. The overture “Froissart” shows an advance both inflexibility of composition and in the treatment of the orchestra. But the “Enigma” variations and the “Cockayne” overture are so far superior to his early works, that it would indeed be difficult to account for the change, were not for the long series of cantatas and oratorios with orchestral accompaniment in which Elgar was maturing his orchestral style. In the same way “The Dream of Gerontius” forms a climax to his studies in choral writing. Elgar had been meditating on this poem for many years, and in it he breaks away from the conventional Mendelssohnian oratorio, which it shackled English composers for so long, and has produced a work that is dramatic without being theatrical. His latest orchestra work, the overture “In the South,” shows still further progress in orchestral effect; it’s its brilliance and sonority are prodigious.


in the face of the excessive adulation and indiscriminate praise which greet Elgar on every hand, it is a matter of no little difficulty to give a correct estimate of his talent. There can be no doubt as to the completeness and brilliancy of his technical attainments, but the significance of his creative ability is more open to question. His technical virtues are indeed extraordinary, his part writing is masterly, his sense of form is coherent and logical, his skill in adapting the dramatic procedure of leading motives to the old oratorio form, as shown in his latest choral work “The Apostles” (as well as in “The Dream of Gerontius”) is skillful in the extreme, but his claim to great originality is not strikingly evident. Even in his masterwork “The Dream of Gerontius,” dealing as it does with the terrors of death and the tremendous moment of judgment of the departed soul, it is impossible to feel that the music soars to the sublime heights suggested by the poem. As Mr. Philip Hale has said with great critical penetration: “Elgar has the gift of orchestral gab.” Everything he writes for orchestra sounds well, and produces affect the border on the extraordinary, but for the most part it is not illumined by the fire of creative genius. Take away the brilliant and resourceful orchestra, and the musical residue is frequently deficient in distinction. Every possible tribute of credit and respect is due to Elgar for his long fight for mastery of the materials of his art, the results of which are a lasting honor to British music, but it seems as yet rather premature to award him the supreme laurels which should only be bestowed upon true genius.