The aristocratic, even imperial, image of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) which some of us may have of him, an impression only enhanced by his impeccable attire and full moustache, could scarcely be at greater odds with either his background or the man’s outlook.
He was the son of a music shop proprietor, who did not have the financial means to enable him to fuel the young boy’s natural musical ability with the necessary education. Elgar grew up at a time when awareness of social class was at its most prevalent, so his humble origins put him at something of a disadvantage. If trade was not bad enough, his Roman Catholic faith alone was certainly enough to alienate him and his music in his own country for much of his life. Over the decades, the UK has embraced a multitude of different religions: it is hard to believe that when Elgar became engaged to his one of his pupils, the anglican-daughter-of-a-general, Alice Roberts, and eight years his senior, two of her aunts disinherited her. Little wonder that Elgar was, to be blunt, chippy.
Few would now challenge the view that Elgar is firmly established as our most well-loved composer. Success took a long time in the coming: his most famous work, the ‘Enigma Variations’ and from that piece, ‘Nimrod’, in particular, has become a favourite of many. The ‘Pomp and Circumstance Marches’ guaranteed him the recognition he craved, the first one of which was later set to words (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) on the suggestion of King Edward VII, and is now an unofficial second national anthem. It is music like this, however, and some of the smaller scale, slightly sugary pieces, which has caused many to lay the charge that Elgar is little more than a nostalgic composer, clinging on to the romantic traditions of Brahms and Schumann, with a sprinkling of Wagner for good measure – and that, as a consequence, he is not worthy of the acclaim he now enjoys.
Whilst I think it would be hard to make the case that Elgar broke the mould of nineteenth century music, that should not categorise his output as unoriginal: the larger works show great skills of rich and noble orchestration, and his choral works, especially ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ have some truly sublime passages. (I had the great privilege of singing in the choir of this work at the Festival Hall many years ago, and I had not the first inkling of how uplifting such an experience could be.) Elgar quoted the Victorian critic, John Ruskin, by penning the words “This is the best of me…” at the foot of the score, and it surely was. Although his faith waned by the time of his death, it his religious music (much more than the famous works above and the iconic cello concerto) that marks him out for me.
This might be slight and lightweight by comparison, and at just two and a half minutes, it is only a taster, but there is no contesting the charm of the melody. Many will be familiar with Mozart’s version of ‘Ave verum’, but perhaps less so with Elgar’s. Simple and understated, but neatly structured, the tunes are catching; and right now the only way I can get them out of my head is to write this post and move them out of the way!
Delius once wrote that Elgar “might have been a great composer if he had thrown all that religious paraphernalia overboard.” Sorry, Mr.Delius, I can’t agree – he’d be much less appreciated without it.