Welcome to 'Composer’s Classroom,' an on-air and online feature from WMHT-FM. You can hear Bill Winans on this month's composer just after the 7 a.m. news on Friday mornings on WMHT-FM. *Teachers: For related composer and classical music resources visit PBS Learning Media.*
Sir Edward Elgar
WMHT's 'Composer of the Month' for June is Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934), an English composer whose best-known compositions are orchestral works including the 'Enigma Variations,' the 'Pomp and Circumstance Marches,' concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies.
He began composing at age ten, although until he was about fifteen, Elgar received a general education with little musical training. He once said, 'My first music I learned in the Cathedral.' He spent countless hours in libraries absorbing everything he could from books on music, including keyboard instruction books and books on music theory.
He left school at 15 and went briefly to work as a clerk in a law office. This post lasted only a few months as he continued his voracious reading in music and literature. He made his first public appearances around this time. He was an active member of the Worcester Glee Club, along with his father, and he accompanied singers, played the violin, composed and arranged works, and conducted for the first time.
At twenty-two he took up the post of conductor of a band in Worcester, writing and arranging short works such as polkas and quadrilles. This practical experience proved to be of the greatest value to the young musician. He acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of the different instruments of the orchestra.
He made his first trips abroad in his mid-20s to Paris where as he put it, he became 'heavily dosed with the music of Schumann, Brahms, Wagner and St. Saens.'
When Elgar was twenty-nine, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts. She was eight years his senior. Her parents were horrified at her having taken up with a musician and when they married three years later, she was disinherited. Never the less, she went on to become his business manager and social secretary, saying, 'The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.'
Unfortunately, Elgar’s reputation as a composer didn’t begin to really take off until relatively late in life. His dream of wide recognition finally came true at age 42 with The Enigma Variations, a set of variations dedicated to 14 of his friends. The piece was well received all throughout Europe. One critic noted after The Enigma Variations, 'Elgar stands on the shoulders of Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt.'
Elgar is probably best known for the first of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, which were composed between 1901 and 1930. A theme from the first is to this day is a music staple at virtually all high school and college graduation ceremonies.
Elgar became SIR Edward Elgar when he was knighted at Buckingham Palace in 1904.
The later part of Elgar’s life coincided with the early development of recorded sound. From the mid-1920s onward, he made many records and is considered the first major composer to take recording seriously. His 1930s 78 RPM recordings are highly sought after today.
Although Elgar’s musical style fell out of favor with audiences toward the later part of his life, it experienced a revival as the composer neared his 75th birthday, including a concert he conducted in Paris. He fell ill shortly there-after and died of cancer at the age of 76.