Sir Edward Elgar; The Enigmatic Maestro of English Music (1857-1934)

By Jo Ann Vick


Sir Edward William Elgar, one of the most celebrated English composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, left an indelible mark on the world of classical music. Born on June 2, 1857, in the small village of Broadheath, near Worcester, England, Elgar's journey from a self-taught musician to a knighthood and international acclaim is a fascinating tale of talent, perseverance, and artistic innovation.

Early Life and Musical Upbringing

Edward Elgar was the fourth of seven children born to William Elgar, a sheet music and music instrument dealer, and Ann Greening. Although his family had a modest background, Elgar's early exposure to music was significant. His father, a violinist, and pianist, encouraged young Edward to explore his musical inclinations. At the tender age of four, Elgar received his first violin and was soon captivated by the instrument's melodic possibilities.

Formal education at Littleton House School provided Elgar with a solid foundation in music theory and composition. However, his restless spirit and desire to expand his musical horizons led him to become largely self-taught in various aspects of his craft. He voraciously studied the works of great composers, delving into scores and absorbing the diverse musical traditions that would later influence his own compositions.

Early Career and Struggles

In 1877, at the age of 20, Elgar moved to London with dreams of making a name for himself in the musical world. The reality, however, was a harsh one. London's crowded and competitive music scene posed challenges for the aspiring composer. Elgar struggled to establish himself and faced financial difficulties, forcing him to take on various odd jobs to make ends meet.

Despite the initial setbacks, Elgar persevered. He took on engagements as a violinist, conductor, and music teacher. The experience gained from these diverse roles would prove invaluable in shaping his understanding of music from different perspectives.

Marriage and Family Life

In 1889, Elgar married Caroline Alice Roberts, the daughter of a retired major-general. Alice was a devoted supporter of her husband's musical ambitions and played a crucial role in his success. A talented author in her own right, Alice provided Elgar with unwavering emotional and intellectual support. The couple had two daughters, Carice and Alice.

Alice's influence extended beyond the domestic sphere. She recognized Elgar's potential and encouraged him to pursue his musical aspirations with renewed vigor. It was Alice who suggested that Elgar compose a major orchestral work, which ultimately led to the creation of the "Enigma Variations."

Breakthrough: "Enigma Variations"

The "Enigma Variations," completed in 1899, marked a turning point in Elgar's career. The composition, a set of 14 variations on an original theme, showcased Elgar's mastery of orchestration and his ability to evoke a range of emotions through music. Each variation was a musical portrait of one of Elgar's friends or family members.

The mysterious "enigma" referred to by the title remains one of the great puzzles in classical music history. Elgar never fully disclosed the nature of the "enigma," adding an element of intrigue to the composition. The work received critical acclaim, establishing Elgar as a major figure in English music.

Orchestral Triumphs

The success of the "Enigma Variations" opened doors for Elgar, leading to commissions for larger orchestral works. One of his most iconic compositions, the "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1," was premiered in 1901 and quickly became synonymous with British ceremonial events. The trio section of this march, commonly known as "Land of Hope and Glory," later found its place in the "Coronation Ode" and became a musical emblem of national pride.

Elgar's orchestral output continued to grow, with notable compositions such as the "Cello Concerto in E minor" and the symphonic poem "Falstaff." These works showcased Elgar's versatility as a composer, demonstrating his ability to move seamlessly between grand orchestral settings and intimate chamber music.

Royal Recognition and Knighthood

Elgar's contributions to English music did not go unnoticed by the royal family. In 1904, he received a notable accolade when King Edward VII conferred upon him the distinction of "Master of the King's Musick." This royal appointment marked a significant recognition of Elgar's stature as a composer of national importance.

In 1904, Elgar received another honor when he was knighted by the king. Sir Edward Elgar's knighthood reflected not only his artistic achievements but also his role in elevating English music to international prominence. The title brought a newfound respect and admiration from both the musical establishment and the general public.

International Recognition and Tours

Elgar's fame extended beyond the shores of England. His compositions began to gain international acclaim, particularly in Germany and the United States. In 1905, the "Cello Concerto" was premiered in London with renowned cellist Felix Salmond as the soloist. The concerto's emotional depth and technical brilliance solidified Elgar's reputation as a master of the genre.

Elgar undertook several successful concert tours, conducting his own works in major European cities. His international acclaim reached its zenith when, in 1908, he conducted the premiere of his "First Symphony" in Manchester. The symphony was met with critical acclaim, establishing Elgar as a leading figure in the European symphonic tradition.

World War I and "The Spirit of England"

The outbreak of World War I had a profound impact on Elgar, who felt a deep sense of patriotism and anguish for the human cost of the conflict. In response to the war, he composed "The Spirit of England," a choral work based on texts by Laurence Binyon. The composition expressed Elgar's emotional response to the war and captured the prevailing sentiments of the time.

While the war brought a halt to many artistic activities, Elgar's commitment to musical expression remained unwavering. "The Spirit of England" reflected his ability to channel personal and national emotions into powerful and evocative compositions.

Later Years and Legacy

The post-war years brought both triumphs and challenges for Elgar. In 1920, Elgar was appointed as the first-ever Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, a position he held with pride. Despite his significant contributions to English music, he faced criticism from emerging avant-garde movements that sought to break away from traditional tonality and structure. The changing musical landscape led to a temporary decline in Elgar's popularity.

However, Elgar continued to compose and innovate. His "Violin Concerto," completed in 1910, and the "Cello Concerto," finished in 1919, showcased his ability to adapt to evolving musical styles while maintaining his distinctive voice. These late works revealed a more introspective and mature Elgar, exploring complex emotions and demonstrating a profound understanding of the expressive capabilities of solo instruments.

The 1930s saw a revival of interest in Elgar's music, particularly fueled by the efforts of younger British composers who admired his craftsmanship. His influence extended to composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, who recognized Elgar's role in shaping the identity of English music.

In the twilight of his career, Elgar composed his "Symphony No. 2" (completed in 1911) and "Symphony No. 3" (left unfinished). These symphonies further explored Elgar's unique approach to orchestration and thematic development, showcasing his continued relevance in the ever-evolving world of classical music.

Personal Tragedies and Enduring Creativity

Elgar's later years were marred by personal tragedies. The death of his wife Alice in 1920 profoundly affected him, and he found solace in composing a deeply personal and introspective work, the "Violin Sonata in E minor." This composition, completed in 1918, is considered one of his masterpieces, reflecting the emotional turmoil of his life.

Despite facing health challenges in his later years, including a heart condition, Elgar's creative spirit remained undiminished. He continued to compose, and his final major work, the "Cello Concerto in E minor," completed in 1931, stands as a testament to his enduring creativity and commitment to musical expression. Sir Edward Elgar's impact on the world of classical music is immeasurable. His compositions are characterized by a distinctive blend of Romanticism and nationalistic fervor, making him a representative figure of English musical identity. Elgar's ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia and patriotism through his music resonated with audiences and contributed to the cultural fabric of his time.

Elgar's legacy extends beyond his own compositions. As the first English composer to receive a baronetcy and a knighthood, he paved the way for future generations of British musicians to receive recognition on the global stage. His commitment to the development of English music was instrumental in establishing the country as a significant force in the classical music world.

The "Enigma Variations," the "Pomp and Circumstance Marches," and the "Cello Concerto" remain staples of the classical repertoire, regularly performed by orchestras around the world. Elgar's influence is not confined to the concert hall; his music has been featured in films, television, and various cultural events, ensuring its enduring presence in popular culture.

In recognition of his contributions, the Elgar Society was established in 1951 to promote the study and appreciation of Elgar's life and works. The society continues to celebrate his legacy, organizing events, publications, and educational initiatives to keep Elgar's music alive for future generations.

Sir Edward Elgar's life and career embody the transformative power of music. From his humble beginnings in a small village to international acclaim and knighthood, Elgar's journey is a testament to the universal appeal of his compositions. His ability to capture the essence of the English spirit and translate it into timeless musical expressions solidified his place in the pantheon of great composers.

Elgar's legacy endures not only in the notes he wrote but also in the hearts and minds of those who continue to be moved by his music. As the world commemorates the achievements of this musical giant, Sir Edward Elgar's melodies continue to echo through concert halls, reminding us of the enduring power of artistic expression.

Jo Ann Vick is a private piano instructor with 20 years of training and performing experience
and has a home based studio in Frisco, Texas. Her mission is to develop in others, a love
for playing the piano. Her website is located at