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Sir Edward Elgar

Elgar in a contemplative mood

‘I've got a tune that will knock 'em - knock 'em flat!’

Composer of Hope
and Glory

Sir Edward William Elgar (1857–1934), composer and conductor, was born on 2 June 1857, the fourth of the seven children of William Henry Elgar, a tradesman, and his wife, Ann, the daughter of a Herefordshire farmworker. From his earliest days, he heard music, but the family was so poor it seemed doubtful he would ever make a living from composing or playing music.

His mother played, and his father owned a shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. He was also a piano-tuner, and when his young son showed ability, he took him with him to perform on the pianos he tuned.

The kid loved music, literature, and the countryside. He liked to sit on a riverbank with pencil and music paper, trying to fix the sounds he heard. There was no money for music lessons or study at a conservatory so he went to work in his father's shop. On his lunch break he studied scores and taught himself harmony, counterpoint, and form. The "first real, friendly" help he had was a book supposed to be by Mozart called Mozart's Thorough-Bass School. It was "something human", Elgar said later, "the only document in existence of the smallest use to a student composer".

By the time he was 26, Elgar had composed a number of musical pieces, but aside from a few small orchestras, no one was playing them. For the moment he didn't mind. He had fallen in love. Unfortunately the woman he loved was diagnosed with TB, and left for New Zealand. Not long afterwards he met Alice, who fell in love with him. Alice believed in his genius, and married him despite the indignation of her wealthy family.

Alice was right.

Small and indomitable, she made countless sacrifices to make sure her husband had the time to compose. It was due to his genius and her belief in him that Elgar created some of Britain's most romantic and popular orchestral and choral works, including the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March performed at the Last Night at the BBC Proms 2006. The music is accompanied by visuals of HM The Queen and family. After an expectant musical interval and charming but hopelessly off-beat bobbing the full and glorious crescendo erupts from Hyde Park and Albert Hall. This was the tune Elgar hoped would knock 'em flat.

When Alice died, Elgar quit composing.

The Oxford DNB said,

“He wrote magnificently for voices and as an orchestral colourist he could stand comparison with Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Parry said of him that ‘he reached the hearts of the people’: his ceremonial music has become part of the national heritage, while his lighter pieces appeal to a public which might not care as much for his symphonies and oratorios. But they are all a part of the whole man, tributaries feeding into the mainstream. That he was largely self-taught is miraculous. . .”

Elgar was knighted for his contributions to music. We take it for granted that a man or woman should be honoured for composing music, but it is a wonderful thing.


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass