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Edward Elgar Biography And Visits


Elgar's Birthplace. This image is copyright free

Edward Elgar, writing his music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the product of populist developments in music. By the time Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857, music was becoming much more widely available to people, both as performers and listeners. Inspite of preconceptions about dark satanic mills, the nineteenth century saw, generally speaking, a rise in income and leisure time. In the second half of the nineteenth century real wages increased by more than 80%, and even though London's population increased two fold during this period, newspaper advertisements suggest a five fold increase in provision of music concerts (see Arthur Sullivan by Arthur Jacobs P3). This bigger audience with more leisure time and money was in its turn served by a growing trend towards a more democratic kind of music making. Mass production processes made it possible for musical instruments to be built accurately enough to achieve standard tuning, allowing large groups of musicians to play together. Mass production also lowered the price of these better instruments. Factory made brass instruments led to the brass band. The piano was also being mass produced, notably by John Broadwood's company. According to Arthur Jacobs the annual production of pianos rose from 23,000 in 1850, to about 50,000 in 1890. The piano quickly became the basic instrument of early popular music in the form of rag time and jazz. In 1899, Scott Joplin, who made his living playing piano in brothels in the American south, published Maple Leaf Rag and confirmed the piano as an instrument of popular music. Elgar's father was very much part of this popular piano boom, making his living as a piano tuner in Worcester. However, while the nineteenth century brought many welcome cultural changes, there was an inevitable reaction. In France revolution had torn society apart, and many in Britain wished to slow the pace of change and maintain society in its old hierarchical pattern. The music of Elgar illustrates this contradiction.


Elgar's father, William Henry Elgar moved to Worcester to follow up the prospect of work tuning pianos in houses of the area's wealthy families. On his travels William met Anne Greening, daughter of an inn keeper at one of the inns he used. They married in January 1848 and went on to have seven children. Two of the boys died, but Edward survived, and soon demonstrated the same musical ability as his father. Even though young Edward showed precocious talent on the piano and violin, he left school at fifteen, and had no musical education beyond that of his instrumental lessons, mostly with local teachers in Worcester. Edward's humble origins seemed to give rise to a sense that appearances had to be kept up. Musically this meant he turned very much to a classical tradition, and spent his early career in the local amateur classical music societies of Worcester. After a short stint in a solicitor's office, young Edward started to make his living as a visiting violin teacher, a job he would continue for twenty years. In January 1879 Elgar became "composer in ordinary" at the Worcester City and County Lunatic Asylum, writing music for the hospital's patients. It was not a glamorous life but Elgar stuck at it, writing music when asked and hoping that a big break might come. In 1889 he met Alice Roberts, the daughter of a senior army officer. Perhaps Alice, with her proper upper class air, appealed to Edward's sense of social vulnerability. Inspite of disapproval from the Roberts family, who did not like the idea of their daughter marrying a thirty two year old struggling composer, Elgar married Alice in May 1889. Fortunately a major career opportunity came soon after, with an important commission to produce an orchestral work for the 1889 Worcester Festival. From this basis Elgar continued to work hard, slowly building a reputation as a promising composer. This reputation was an ambivalent one. In some ways Elgar was elitist. Elgar hated folk music, and he hated jazz, even though both he and his father were talented improvisers on the piano. Nevertheless, early on in his career there were clear populist elements in Elgar's music, a sort of rabble rousing nationalistic tunefulness that got the masses up on their feet. This is still clear today at the Proms where Elgar's music is a constant feature, and is accompanied by mass singing and waving of union jacks. In 1899 indications of what was to come were seen in a piece about an old English semi mythical king called Caractacus. Elgar's long suffering editor at the publishers Novello was uncomfortable with the jingoistic elements of the libretto: "Though round your path of pow'r the menial cohorts gather, the jealous tyrant low'r..." Elgar was unrepentant and refused to make any changes. Elgar was now writing music that would cement his popular reputation. It was while improvising at the piano in October 1898 that he came up with the tune that would become Nimrod in The Enigma Variations. By 1901 Elgar had written his popular Pomp and Circumstance March No1, for the coronation of Edward VII. This is the music which is still popular at Prom concerts today.


But Elgar could not possibly sit back comfortably making popular music. He was after all a traditionalist, at a time when many people turned to the past in an effort to escape the uncertainty of unprecedented change. Traditionalists in music tended to want to take music back to the Church, which before the seventeenth century had, for all intents and purposes, been its home. Elgar always wanted to keep his music close to the Church. Elgar wasn't like Gustav Holst, whose music could be inspired by Hinduism and astrology. Elgar was a catholic, and orthodox in outlook. His approach was typified by an 1899 commission from Cardinal Newman Oratory School in Birmingham, which resulted in The Dream of Gerontius in which the words of a poem by Cardinal Newman were set to music. Elgar's traditional linking of Christianity and music is also demonstrated a few years later, when in 1901 he wrote music for a play called Diarmuid and Grania. One of the play's co-writers, George Moore, admiring the work Elgar had done for him, suggested he write an opera. Back in the seventeenth century music's original break with the church had largely come through the popular form of opera. Elgar was in effect being encouraged to follow a similar path in his own music. Tellingly, instead of an opera Elgar decided on an oratorio. An oratorio includes an orchestra, choir, soloists, and various distinguishable characters. But it is more of a concert piece than musical theatre. And whereas opera tends to have history and mythology as its subjects, oratorio is much more likely to have an orthodox religious story or background. So it was with Elgar's oratorio, which took its subject as the apostles.


Abbey Road Studios

In many ways The Apostles of 1903 set the tone for the rest of Elgar's career. There were follow ups to The Apostles, along with a famous violin and cello concerto, and a symphony. Elgar always leaned towards the orthodox side of music. The popular elements of music, the coronation music, and patriotic pieces written during the First World War, were in no sense a threat to the status quo. In fact they sought to support it. It was during the war that Land of Hope and Glory, with words by A.C. Benson set to music from Pomp and Circumstance, became a popular patriotic song. After the First World War, and particularly after his wife's death in April 1920, Elgar seemed very uncomfortable with the way music was going. In 1920 the aging and lonely composer stayed at a favourite hotel, the Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford. In a letter he wrote disapprovingly of "jangling rag time" playing in the dining room. Elgar was also grumpy about the prospect of a jazz band being imported to play at the hotel (see Elgar by Robert Anderson P147). However, inspite all of this, there were ways in which Elgar retained a sense of music as a popular art form. This is seen most powerfully in his instinctive acceptance of the new technology of recorded music. In fact as Elgar grew weaker towards the end of his life he had a sick room adjoining the Abbey Road studios in St John's Wood where recording of his work was taking place. The last Elgar session took place at Abbey Road on 3rd January 1934. Elgar died a few weeks later on 23rd February 1934. In years to come Abbey Road would of course be the place where masterpieces of popular music would be recorded.