“I always said God was against art and I still believe it.” – Edward Elgar
I’d probably deserve to have my British citizenship revoked if I somehow managed to leave Elgar out of my chronology of the great composers. There’s perhaps no other composer whose music has taken such firm root in British culture, with some of his best known works traditionally played at national events like Remembrance Day and the last night of the Proms (an annual concert series hosted by the BBC for any non-Brit readers). His Land of Hope and Glory is so popular among the general public that it has come to be adopted as an unofficial national anthem – in fact, a 2006 poll by the BBC showed that 55% of respondents would have it replace “God Save the Queen”! Elgar had a knack for writing crowd-pleasers, and he knew it too – when he conceived the melody for Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (to which words were later added to create Land of Hope and Glory), he announced to a friend “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em – knock ’em flat!” He wasn’t wrong – conductor Henry Wood wrote in his memoirs that at its London debut at the Proms in 1901, the audience “rose and yelled… the one and only time in the history of the Promenade concerts that an orchestral item was accorded a double encore.”
Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Op. 39, No. 1, (better known as “The Graduation March” to an American audience) “Land of Hope and Glory” played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. The rampant moshing of the crowd in this video is the closest thing you get to a rave in the world of classical music.
Over the course of his life, Elgar’s ability to write stirring patriotic music saw him elevated to the highest echelons of the Orders of the British Empire. But for much of his youth, Elgar was struggling to make ends meet (ironic for someone whose image until recently adorned the £2o note), and his ascent was a constant battle against the establishment: he was a self-taught composer in a field of academics, a Roman Catholic in Protestant Britain, a man of humble origins in an acutely class-conscious society. It was a deeply dispirited Elgar that uttered the words at the beginning of this post, when his choral work The Dream of Gerontius, based on a Roman Catholic text, received a disastrous premiere and met with resistance from the Anglican Church.
The struggle spilled over into his personal life too, as Elgar’s wife Alice was strongly discouraged from marrying him by her parents on account of his social standing. She married him anyway, never doubting his future success. Until her death she remained her husband’s manager and an ardent champion of his music, once remarking in her diary “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.” As an engagement gift, Elgar dedicated to her the beautiful Salut d’Amour (“Love Greeting”), Op. 12, here played by Eduard Laurel and James Ehnes:
Elgar always felt himself to be an outsider, so it’s fitting that the work which truly propelled him to stardom was a tribute to his closest friends, commonly referred to as the Enigma Variations. He dedicated the work to “my friends pictured within”, and prefaced each movement with the initials, name or nickname of the person depicted. The music paints a portrait of his subjects both in terms of their general mood or character, as well as highlighting their specific idiosyncrasies – in one movement for example, the woodwinds subtly mimic his friend’s stutter. However, the ‘enigma’ referred to by the title remains a mystery, and is thought to relate to a secret melody concealed within the music. Elgar supplied this cryptic remark for the programme of the piece’s premiere:
“The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played.”
Here is the opening theme from the Enigma Variations, along with the contemporary packaging in which many of you may have heard it: Rob Dougan’s Clubbed to Death.
One of the best known of his variations is the 9th, the moving “Nimrod”, a gorgeous piece of music which is a personal favourite. Built upon a very simple melodic motif, the piece builds slowly but inexorably, like growing waves crashing in on themselves, to a final fanfare that provides a sense of profound resolution (4:10-4:15 in the recording a little further below). It is a work of masterful subtlety and restraint – a rare piece of music which succeeds in juxtaposing intensity with sublime serenity. It reminds me in many ways of the Albinoni Adagio featured in my very first post, and also Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings.
Elgar once remarked that this variation was not a portrait, but rather “the story of something that happened.” The story goes that when Elgar was on the verge of abandoning composition, he was visited by a friend named Augustus Jaeger, who pointed out that Beethoven wrote some of his greatest music in his moments of deepest despair. “And that is what you must do”, he said, and began to sing the theme from the second movement of the Pathétique Sonata (I’ve pinpointed exactly where this takes place in the music in my Beethoven post if you’d like to re-listen). The opening bars of “Nimrod” are an allusion to that theme; according to Elgar, “Only a hint, not a quotation.” The name Nimrod refers to an Old Testament figure described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord” – a reference to his friend, whose name Jaeger means hunter in German. As a piece of music, “Nimrod” signifies the indomitable spirit of mankind, and is aptly played on Remembrance Day in honour of the fallen soldiers of the First World War.
Variation IX “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, Op. 36, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis
And here is a beautiful rendition for solo piano by Paul Barton, which shows the piece in a different light:
So powerful is the music, that it’s even capable of moving British lads to drink beer.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings, played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Elgar was one of the first major composers to ascribe real importance to the gramophone, and he made numerous recordings of his music with the label His Master’s Voice (better known as HMV). He was also the first artist to record at Abbey Road Studios, when he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with Land of Hope and Glory on November 12th, 1931. During this later period in his life however, he rarely composed, in no small part due to the loss of his greatest admirer – his wife Alice – in 1920. He began instead to preoccupy himself with other hobbies: he was an amateur chemist, an avid football fan (he supported Wolverhampton) and enjoyed going to horse races. We can probably forgive Elgar for straying from music in his final days, given that he’s the creator of so many of Britain’s national treasures. Here are some more of my favourites:
Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 20, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves
Elegy for Strings, Op. 58, recorded in 1933, played by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
Sospiri (“Sighs”), Op. 70, played by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, conducted by George Hurst
Symphony No. 2 in E♭Major, Op. 63, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding, at the 2013 BBC Proms