The Firs Sir Edward Elgar

Head shot of Sir Edward Elgar

Edward William Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857. From humble origins, and despite having had no formal music training, he became England’s greatest composer for 200 years and put the nation, which had been known as “The Land without Music” back on the musical map.

His father, William Henry Elgar was an itinerant piano tuner from Kent who moved to Worcester in the 1840s and set up a piano tuning and music business.  His mother, Ann Greening was a farmer’s daughter from the Forest of Dean.  Although hardly educated, she developed a great love of literature and the natural world.

The early years

Young Edward showed a great aptitude for music and would have loved to have studied at one of the great European conservatoires, but family finances were stretched and this became impossible.  Instead, on leaving school at the age of 15 his father found him a position in a solicitor’s office.  Edward soon realised that a career in the law was not for him, and he persuaded his father that he should be allowed to pursue his passion for music.  

10 High St, Worcester The Elgar brother's shop
shop frontage in worcester

He helped out in the family music shop in Worcester High Street, picked up performing fees throughout Worcestershire as a violinist and took on whatever odd-job musical appointments he could find.  One of the more eccentric was as bandmaster at what was then called the Worcester City and County Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Powick, a village half way between Worcester and Malvern.  He travelled to Powick once a week and trained the staff in instrumental playing, moulding them in to a band to perform for the patients, an early form of music therapy.  The band was also supplemented by local musicians to give public concerts in the hospital ballroom, concerts for which Elgar wrote much music.

Edward Elgar teacher

Much of Elgar’s income at this time was derived from teaching.  He visited local schools to give violin and piano lessons, and he also took private pupils, hiring a studio in Malvern for the purpose. But teaching was something he came to hate, describing it as “like turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder.”  In 1885 he succeeded his father as organist of St George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester.  He composed anthems for the choir and started writing larger scale choral and orchestral music for music festivals throughout the midlands.  

Edward Elgar composer

Very slowly his reputation as a composer was starting to spread, but he was still essentially a “local musician”.  The breakthrough came in 1899 when he composed the Enigma Variations.  This was the work which spread his fame, and over the next twenty years he composed all of the music for which he is remembered – symphonies, concertos, songs, oratorios cantatas and much ceremonial and occasional music.  Honours and awards came his way.  

Elgar sitting at the round table in Severn House, Hampstead
Sir Edward Elgar at Severn House Hampstead

 

Edward Elgar is knighted

He received honorary doctorates from all over the world, was knighted, became a member of the Order of Merit and in 1931 received the Baronetcy, for which he chose the title Sir Edward Elgar, First Baronet of Broadheath.

After the death of his wife, the compositions dried up, and much of his creative energies were taken up with conducting his own music for gramophone recordings, becoming the first major composer to record for posterity recordings of virtually all of his masterpieces.

In 1932 came a commission from the BBC to compose another symphony, however illness prevented its completion, and Elgar died peacefully at home on 23rd February 1934.  He was buried in the churchyard of St Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church in Little Malvern.