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Edward Elgar

Edward William Elgar (June 2, 1857 - February 23, 1934), English composer, was born in the small Worcestershire village of Broadheath to William Elgar, a piano tuner and music dealer, and his wife Ann.

Surrounded by sheet music and instruments in his father's shop in Worcester's High Street, the young Elgar became self-taught in music. On warm summer's days, he would take manuscripts into the countryside to study them. Thus began for him a strong association between music and nature. As he was later to say, "There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require."

Having left school at the age of 15, he began work for a local solicitor, but after a year, embarked on a musical career, conducting piano and violin lessons. At 22, he took up the post of bandmaster at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum, a couple of miles to the southwest of Worcester. In many ways, his years as a young Worcestershire violinist were his happiest. He played in the first violins at the Worcester and Birmingham Festivals, and one great experience was to play Dvorak's Sixth Symphony and 'Stabat Mater' under the composer's baton. Elgar was thrilled by Dvorak's orchestration and this remained an influence on his own style for more than a decade.

At 29, through his teaching, he met Alice Roberts, a Major-General's daughter (shades of Gilbert and Sullivan!) and married her three years later (his engagment present to her was the short violin and piano piece "Salut d'amour"). The Elgars soon moved to London, to be closer to the centre of English musical life, and Edward started composing in earnest. The stay in London was unsuccessful, however, and the Elgars were obliged to return to Great Malvern where Edward could earn a living teaching.

During the 1890s Elgar gradually built up a reputation for composing choral and orchestral music. The Black Knight, King Olaf, The Light of Life, and Caractacus were produced at local and national festivals and he obtained a long-standing publisher in Novello and Company.

In 1899, at the age of 42, his first major orchestral work, the Enigma Variations, was premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter. It was received with general acclaim, establishing Elgar as the pre-eminent English composer of his generation. This work is formally titled Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma). The enigma is that although there are thirteen variations on the "original theme", the 'enigma' theme , which Elgar said 'runs through and over the whole set' is never heard.

He is probably best known for the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Shortly after its composition, Elgar was asked to set words by A C Benson[?] as a Coronation Ode to mark the coronation of King Edward VII. As Elgar was very proud of the triumphal final theme of the Pomp and Circumstance March, he suggested that Benson furnish further words to allow him to include it in the new work. When Elgar saw Benson's proposed text, the words that now form Land of Hope and Glory, he seriously regretted making the request. He regarded his reservations as justified when the singing of these words became a feature of the performance of the March, while the Ode soon fell into neglect.

In more recent years, however, some of Elgar's other works, such as the Cello Concerto and the The Dream of Gerontius[?] (to John Henry Newman's text), have achieved recognition by classical music fans who regard his more popular works as less substantial.

Between 1902 and 1914 Elgar enjoyed phenomenal success, made more than one conducting tour of the USA, and earned considerable fees from the performance of his music, his First Symphony achieved the unique success of a hundred performances in its first year. With the 1914 war, however, his music quickly fell out of fashion and he became very depressed.

After the death of Lady Elgar in 1920 Edward wrote no music for seven years, and although he returned to the composition of light and theatre music he completed no more major works. This indicates that Alice Elgar was the main influence behind his achievements, typifying her as a Victorian Woman, achieving her ambition through the man of her choice. A fine biography of her has been written by Percy Young.

At the end of his life Elgar accepted a commission form the BBC to compose a Third Symphony. His final illness prevented its completion but the sketches have since been elaborated into a successful symphony in the style of Elgar, by Antony Payne, himself a composer.

The house in Broadheath where he was born is now a museum devoted to him. There is now a statue of him at the end of Worcester High Street, facing the cathedral, only yards from where his father's shop once stood.

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