Edward William Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857 in a small cottage in the village of Lower Broadheath, near Worcester, England. He was the fourth of seven children born to William Elgar, a piano tuner and music dealer, and his wife Ann. The cottage is about three miles west of Worcester and, although the Elgars moved back to the city when Edward was just two, for the rest of his life he often returned to see the place of his birth. In 1935 it was bought by Worcester County Council and is now the Elgar Birthplace Museum.
From Broadheath the Elgars moved to live above their music shop in the High Street, Worcester and the young Edward grew up surrounded by music. They were also just across the road from the Cathedral where most of the important musical events took place. Here, at the age of seven, Elgar was to hear his first "Three Choirs Festival".
Surrounded by the sheet music and instruments in his father's shop, Elgar became self-taught in all aspects of music. Often, on a warm summer's day, he would take a manuscript out into the countryside to study it. In later life he was to observe "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".
During his boyhood Edward also helped his father in the shop and accompanied him on his piano-tuning rounds to the large country houses amongst the nearby Malvern Hills.
The young Elgar attended a number of local schools but, musically, his education was no different from that of any other of his classmates.
"....I saw and learnt a great deal about music from the stream of music that passed through my father's establishment. I read everything, played everything, and heard everything that I possibly could".
At the age of 15 Elgar left school and, as the family finances were unable to allow him further musical education, he was forced to work in the office of a local solicitor. This was destined to last only a year before Elgar gave up the post and decided on a musical career. At first this was mainly giving piano and violin lessons at a number of nearby schools and to the daughters of the local gentry. He also attended as many concerts as he could and played violin with the Worcester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Then, in 1879, Elgar took what must surely be one of the most bizarre appointments ever held by a musician. He was appointed bandmaster of the Attendants' Orchestra at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum. As a child he had often walked past the forbidding walls of this establishment. But the enterprising board of the hospital had decided that music was therapeutic to the patients and had agreed to the appointment of a bandmaster to rehearse the band and also to compose polkas and quadrilles for the patients' dances.
In 1886, Elgar had advertised for pupils in the nearby town of Malvern and on the 6th October of that year he was visited by Caroline Alice Roberts, daughter of the late Major-General Sir Henry Roberts of Hazeldine House, Redmarley, Gloucestershire. Although she was eight years his senior - and from a higher social strata than her music teacher - romance blossomed. As her coachman was later to observe, 'There's more to it than music!'. In due course they became engaged but the Victorian rules of social convention caused outcry from the Roberts family. She had money from a private income: he was a penniless composer. Her father was a Major-General: his was a shopkeeper. Nevertheless, she stood her ground and they were married on 8 May 1889.
It was decided that, for professional reasons, they should move to London where the opportunities for a budding composer seemed to be greater. But it was not to be and soon they were to return to Worcestershire where they were at their happiest and where, amongst the rolling Malvern Hills or alongside the River Severn, Elgar was to compose some of his greatest works. To supplement the income made from composing, Elgar was forced again to take on teaching violin at a Malvern girls' school. As one of the teachers observed: "The violin lessons were unpopular and the girls who took them a dreary little company who sawed away to the general discomfort in distant rooms". Elgar himself was to state "Teaching was like turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder!".
But, indirectly, this was to result in the composition which finally put Elgar firmly on the musical map - the 'Enigma' Variations.
Returning home one evening after a tiring day's teaching, Elgar was seated at the piano improvising an impromptu tune.
"What's that?", asked his wife.
"Nothing", he replied, "but something might be made of it".
Out of this unlikely beginning came a set of 'variations' - fourteen musical portraits of Elgar, his wife and their friends. The premiére took place in London on 19 June 1899 under the baton of Hans Richter to universal acclaim: "I heard yesterday Richter perform the 'Enigma' Variations by a Mr Elgar, which is the finest work I have listened to for years. Look out for this man's music; he has something to say and knows how to say it".
The outbreak of the First World War was to alter the world. And for Elgar it was also the beginning of a time of change. Elgar wrote: "...everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away - never to return". Although he was too old to be a soldier he composed many patriotic works in support of the war effort. The central section of his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 was taken and, with words added, became "Land of Hope and Glory". Other works composed by Elgar during the war period included Sospiri, The Starlight Express (based on a story by Algernon Blackwood), Polonia (symphonic prelude), Une Voix dans le Dèsert, The Spirit of England and The Sanguine Fan .
The war had saddened Elgar: many of his friends had been German and the world as he knew it would never be the same again. During the years 1918 and 1919 he was to write the last four great works that he would ever complete. These are the Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, the String Quartet in E minor, the Quintet in A minor for strings and piano and the Concerto in E minor for 'cello and orchestra. These works - all of them written in minor keys - are reflective works, tinged with a nostalgic Autumnal glow of a world long past.
But fate was still to deal Elgar a bitter blow. In April 1920, after a short illness, Alice Elgar died. And from that moment, although he was to live for a further fourteen years, he would never write another major work. With Alice had departed the inspiration which she had nurtured in him during their marriage. Alice was buried at St. Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern among the Hills that they both knew so well.
But Elgar, although not composing to any great extent, did develop a musical interest which occupied his remaining years. He had always had a keen interest in things scientific and in particular in the recently-developed techniques of sound recording. He had already made a number of visits to the newly established studio of the 'His Master's Voice Gramophone Company'.
In 1914 he recorded one of his own works Carissima which would just fit onto the three to four minutes allowed on a record. During the war and following, Elgar recorded most of his major works despite the limitations imposed by the primitive 'acoustic' recording methods then available and the three to four minute length of each of the sides of the records.
The development of the 'electrical' system in 1926 provided an advancement in the techniques of recording - especially as it made possible the use of a full orchestra and chorus. Thus, Elgar became the first composer to conduct his own works in the recording studio. Fortunately, these recordings have survived to the present day and make fascinating listening. Of particular interest are the recordings he made of his 'cello concerto with Beatrice Harrison as soloist. He recorded this work twice, once in 1919 using the old acoustic system and again in 1928 after the 'electrical' system had been introduced. Another recording which was to become world-famous was the 1932 recording of the violin concerto with the young Yehudi Menuhin as soloist. Because of this association with the Gramophone Company (His Master's Voice) which continued up until his death in 1934, we have on record most of his life's musical output.
After Alice's death Elgar returned to live in the county of his birth where he was a familiar figure not only at the Three Choirs Festival (an annual music festival held in turn in the cathedral cities of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester) but also at the Worcester Races and at the County Cricket Ground.
Sadly, as old age progressed Elgar became more and more isolated from former friends, preferring for company his two dogs, Marco a spaniel and Mina a cairn terrier as shown in this rare photograph.
Some friends described him as a naturally moody man who could be, on occasions, "gruff, crusty and sometimes downright rude".
Yet others recall him as being a "typical, hospitable old English gentleman with nothing of the remote genius about him".
In October 1933 an operation for suspected sciatica revealed that Elgar was suffering from cancer. Although the tumour was removed Elgar never fully recovered. He moved back to his Worcester home early in January 1934 and although terminally ill he was able, by means of land-lines set up by the GPO, to listen to recording sessions of his works being carried out in the London studio.
Elgar died on 23 February 1934
Gordon Lee (gerontius @geocities.com)