EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)
Before I got round to writing biographical notes on the subject composers of the Matthew Taylor series I had a shot at writing a dissertation at a history series I was attending at Morley college in 2007. Our lecturer had sought a written presentation on the Indian Mutiny and I had a go. Unfortunately my lecturer never got round to reading it and Simon Schama and David Starkey have no need to panic from the challenge. My magnum opus started off with a prelude linking the mutiny at Meerut in May 1857 with the birth of a son a month later to the wife of a Worcester piano tuner at nearby Broadheath. The young boy was Edward Elgar destined to become the most famous of composers associated with empire and reaching its and his apogee in Caractacus, written following Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. This work ends with the Romans capturing the British king Caractacus. After a paean to Roman power the centuries roll on, the Roman empire replaced by a new greater British Empire over which the sun would never set.
Caractacus was the birth of the association between Elgar and the world of swaggering jingoism and imperialism. Associations such as this can prejudicially affect our take on the music of a composer. Our objective view of the music becomes coloured by the composer’s political leanings. Caractacus in particular is a little known cantata, a pity as it is the nearest thing to an opera that Elgar wrote, with distinct nods in the direction of Wagner,. It appeared when Elgar was on the cusp of greatness, two years or so to go before the Enigma Variations and the Dream of Gerontius would hail the arrival of the twentieth century. The climax to Caractacus comes with the Processional March which is so absolutely OTT that one scarcely takes note that it contains wondrous mood settings of the banks of the Severn and of the Malvern Hills. This flag waving triumphalism is echoed of course in the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Its majesty (maestoso) pervades both of his first two symphonies, brimming with the confidence of the Edwardian decade and ultimately fading away at the end of his second symphony like the lamps all over Europe which were about to go out.
Until he died in 1934 Elgar was perceived as an establishment figure, the man who wrote Land of Hope and Glory which he detested. (The words were actually written by A C Benson, a teacher at Eton and later Master of Magdalene.) It is against this background that the generation which followed, of which I was one, saw Elgar as a grandee whose music exuded a bygone aristocratic age which had spawned the pith helmetted rulers of the British Raj. (I assure you all I do not have a lisp). What is more it appeared in the immediate post second world war years to be conducted only by the knighted establishment of English conductors, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Barbirolli and particularly Sir Malcolm Sargent. Elgar was their personal property and what’s more they and the critics also resented the bloody foreigners attempting to trespass. (Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart was an exception who championed Delius, rather than Elgar, but he would often give a rattling good performance of the Cockaigne Overture). Little wonder it took another generation to see Elgar for what he was, a great composer who regardless of his establishment connections was reflecting a slice of history. He was not however a naturally born Edwardian grandee but a product of the Victorian age. It is a fact overlooked that he was already 43 and had lived over half his life when the old queen died. Here the proof of the pudding is in the moustache. It is a Victorian moustache and the Edwardians who wore them were the surviving older generation. The moustache is surely among the more pointless of fashion statements, wrote Michael Lepman in the Daily Telegraph. The growth of hair on the upper lips of both soldiers and colonial administrators played a decisive role in bringing the natives to heel. The fate of the Empire and the moustache have gone hand in hand. As the red patches on the world map have dwindled to insignificant dots, such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, so the once-universal furry caterpillar on the lip has become an endangered species.
Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO was knighted in 1904. In 1911 he was appointed a member of the Order of Merit; in 1920 it was the Cross of Commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown; in 1924 he was made Master of the King’s Musick; the following year came the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society; in 1928 he got his KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order). Between 1900 and 1931, he received countless honorary degrees from the Universities in Britain and from all over the world and was made member of the top European and American academies. In 1931 he became a baronet, the first baronet of Broadheath of Worcestershire.
Yet behind all the pomp lay the circumstances of a very humble provenance. Despite all the splendour, he felt himself an outsider, not only socially but musically. In musical circles dominated by academics, Parry and Stanford, he was a self-taught composer (as was Walton after him); he was a Roman Catholic within a Protestant establishment and regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and he remained sensitive about his humble origins even after having achieved recognition.
His father, William, came from Dover and moved to Worcester in 1841 where he worked as a piano tuner and set up a shop in the High Street selling sheet music and musical instruments. His mother, Ann, was the daughter of a farm worker. The couple married in 1848 and Edward was the fourth of seven. Ann Elgar had converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before Edward’s birth, and he was baptised and brought up as a Roman Catholic, despite his father’s disapproval. William was a violinist of professional standard and held the post of organist at the Worcester Catholic Church for forty years. By the age of eight, Elgar was taking piano and violin lessons. He began composing at about 10. It was for a play written and acted by the Elgar children and would have little significance except that forty years later he rearranged and orchestrated it as the Wand of Youth suites.
Elgar received a general education at a local school near Worcester. His musical training was just piano and violin lessons from local teachers and more advanced violin studies in brief visits to London in 1877–78. Elgar described his first music as having been learnt in the cathedral, from books he borrowed from the music library, when he was eight, nine or ten. He was self-taught from manuals on organ playing and every book he could lay his hands on on the theory of music. He would have liked to have gone to Leipzig for further musical studies, but his father could not afford it. Instead, on leaving school 15, he started as a clerk with a local solicitor. So we do have one thing in common, Elgar and I. Not unsurprisingly he did not find the work fulfilling. After a few months, he left the solicitor and started giving piano and violin lessons and working occasionally in his father’s shop. He was an active member of the Worcester Glee Club, along with his father. It was around this time, he made his first public appearances as a violinist and organist. Elgar himself, having heard leading virtuosi at London concerts, felt his own violin playing lacked a full enough tone, and he abandoned any ambitions of being a soloist.
Elgar gained his first position as a conductor in 1879 when he was 22. But this was not to be some top notch symphony orchestra or chorus. The only orchestra of today around at the time was the Halle and Sir Charles Halle was to hold his position there till 1895. On the whole orchestras of the day were amalgams of freelance get together individual players and not contract musicians. Elgar’s little band of happy musicians was that of the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, all of three miles away from Worcester. Its line up consisted of: piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium, three or four first and about the same number of second violins, occasional viola, cello, double bass and piano. Elgar coached the players and wrote and arranged their music. From this concoction he acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of these varied instruments. He held this post for five years, from 1879. At the same time he became the professor of violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentleman, no less. He made his way in and around Worcester and played in the violin section of the orchestra at the Worcester Festival and at Birmingham where he was to play Dvorak’s 6th symphony and Stabat Mater under the composer’s baton, an event which left a lifelong impression upon him.
Elgar made his first trip abroad in 1880 with a visit to pre-Eiffel Tower Paris and saw Saint-Saëns play the organ of La Madeleine. He made his first German trip in 1882 and got immersed in Brahms, Schumann, Wagner and Rubinstein. At Leipzig he met an English student, Helen Weaver, and they got engaged. It got broken off however and Elgar came out somewhat hurt. The reason is not known but clearly she had thought better of it. Maybe she did not like the prospect of her intended being the conductor of the Lunatic Asylum Ensemble.
In 1883 he wrote his first full orchestral work. He was then a regular of the orchestra doing the winter concert season at Birmingham. The work was called Sérénade Mauresque. He was invited to conduct it but preferred to keep his place in the orchestra and afterwards rose to bow, violin in his hand, and then resumed his place. He began visiting London to try and get published but he was stony broke and despondent. At least there were teaching and playing jobs back in Worcester. He also deputised for his father as organist at the Catholic church and took over from him in 1885. From that he wrote liturgical works based on Catholic tradition and which are still in the repertoire of church choirs.
In 1886, aged 29, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts. Socially she was more than a cut above him. Her father had been a major-general. She probably took to Elgar putting his arm around her shoulder to help her violin technique. Anyway things happened and they became engaged. She was eight years older than him. As an engagement present, Elgar dedicated his short violin and piano piece, Salut d’Amour, to her. Her family were very hostile to the intended marriage. He after all worked in a shop and he was a Catholic to boot. Alice went ahead despite being told she would not inherit or get any support. Three years after meeting they were married at Brompton Oratory. All of this was of course pre-Downton Abbey. She became the driving force in the marriage, acting as his manager, his social secretary and was his keenest critic. She fought hard to introduce him to influential society and, with her pushing, they moved to London where she could do the networking whilst he did the composing. Their daughter, Carice, a contraction of Caroline Alice, was born in West Kensington in 1890.
In London, Edward and Alice spent time together at various concerts, particularly those conducted by August Manns at the Crystal Palace. He learned many orchestral tricks of the trade from Berlioz and Wagner and influences from each of these two can be clearly detected in the second movement of Elgars second symphony. This movement was in memoriam to Edward VII. Its long elegiac theme sounds like one of the impassioned build ups from Tristan and Isolde. The autumnal ending of the movement has a low trombone note following a high flute creating a sound that could only have come to his ear from the Hostias of the Berlioz Grande Messe Des Morts. He himself was not making headway at the time and when he did receive a commission it actually came from Worcester to write a short orchestral work for the Three Choirs Festival. The Overture, Froissart, was to be his first step on the professional ladder where Elgar has discovered his voice. It is a concert overture after Walter Scott concerning knightly deeds. The first performance in 1890 took place in Worcester with Elgar conducting.
One swallow however etc and lacking other work, there was nothing for it but to leave London in 1891 for a second time and return with his wife and child to Worcestershire, where he could earn a living conducting local musical ensembles and teaching. They settled in Great Malvern where Alice had previously lived. During the 1890s, Elgar began to build a reputation as a composer. His delightful Serenade for Strings dates from 1892 and frequently gets an airing but the bulk was chiefly works for the great choral festivals. The Black Knight (1892) and King Olaf (1896) were both inspired by Longfellow. The Light of Life (1896) and Caractacus (1898) were all modestly successful but not such as to make money. He had however made it sufficiently to obtain Novello & Co as publishers and particularly from them August Jaeger who became his closest friend. Following a holiday in 1897 in Germany he wrote Three Bavarian Dances. He was prone to despair but encouraged by Jaeger with “Your time of universal recognition will come.” He was to be right. So right that not only Elgar but Jaeger himself would become universally famous without his name being known.
Writing a theme with variations was nothing new. Often the listener does not always make the connection between theme and variation and sees it as just some academic exercise. In 1899, Elgar had sketched a theme and then had the idea, well let him tell the story in his own words, “I have sketched a set of Variations on an original theme. The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends … that is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the party and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose”. He dedicated the work “To my friends pictured within”. The theme is very recognizable but Elgar added a cryptic clue that behind the whole thing was a larger theme. What was it? No one has yet discovered it or was it just Elgar playing clever to arouse interest. The enigma had been set and all the world loves a party game. This was no dry crusty theme and variations but variations which are very human and humorous. The friends are exposed with all their quirks and they bring a smile to one’s lips. Many are described by nicknames, some by initials, one by *** thought to be a romantic attachment of Elgar from before his marriage. The three principal portraits are CAE, the initials of Alice; Nimrod, the nickname for Jaeger. Nimrod is the hunter and Jaeger is the German word for hunter. His variation has turned into an annual funeral March every remembrance Sunday but funeral march it is not. Its link to the main theme is fairly obvious but it also has an upward familiarity to Beethoven’s Pathethique sonata, a pointer to Jaeger’s love of that composer. The third such person is the last variation, EDU. Not initials but the endearment by which Alice called Elgar. EDU is thus Elgar himself emerging out of the music, out of the century with confidence and an individuality which was to bring him fame at last at 42. Oh I forgot one other, not named. Variation X1 GRS was George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral, but also included is his bulldog, Dan, who slips into the river Wye and who is heard paddling away down river.
To finish off 1899 Elgar wrote Sea Pictures for mezzo and orchestra for performance at the Norwich Triennial Festival. These are wonderful songs the most famous being a setting of Where Corals Lie by Robert Garnett but Elgar, loyal to Alice included a poem by her, “In Haven (Capri)”.
The next ten years or so were the crowning experience, a period which coincided with the reign of Edward VII and going just beyond, the Edwardian years, the pre-war years. This was the period of Elgar at the top of his powers and here we need to look briefly at a few of the great works to emerge.
His next major work had already been commissioned for the Birmingham Triennial Festival. He had known the poem by John Henry Newman of the Dream of Gerontius for many years. His mother had given him a copy on his wedding. The poem relates the journey of a pious man’s soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. Newman had been a protestant priest and leader of the Oxford movement which sought to return the Church of England to Catholic forms of worship. He went further by converting to Catholicism and was made a cardinal. He has recently been canonized which will hopefully do him a lot of good. Elgar set a number of verses to music in a large scale work for soloists chorus and orchestra – he did not like the name, oratorio. It went through hurried rehearsals; the chief chorus master died shortly before the first performance; the conductor, Hans Richter, received a copy of the full score only on the eve of the first orchestral rehearsal. Little wonder the first performance was a disaster and Elgar shattered at the debacle. Fortunately its fortunes changed following its London performance at Westminster Cathedral. It was then played in Dusseldorf. The Cologne Gazette claimed that Elgar stood on the shoulders of Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt. Richard Strauss toasted the success of Meister Elgar. There followed performances in Vienna, New York and Paris. Two years before, Elgar, little known outside Worcester and Birmingham, was scraping for commissions. Now he was an international star. Of course Gerontius did the rounds all round England but not without difficulty in some quarters. Some bishops banned its performance in cathedrals finding the catholic concepts doctrinally alien. Musically it got short shrift from Stanford who had a vinegary disposition and criticised it as stinking of incense. As a God fearing atheist myself I am amused that here we have an inverse situation, an Irish protestant from Dublin castigating an English catholic!
In 1901, Edward Elgar called to his wife from the piano in the next room “Alice, I have a tune here which will knock ‘em flat”. The tune in question was to become his Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 and first played at a Prom that year conducted by Henry Wood. Benson’s “Land of Hope and Glory” was fitted to it to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. With one exception when Wood created a national protest by leaving it out, it has always been played at the last night of the Proms He went on to write four more pomp and circumstance marches but on the whole only No. 4 is generally known. Elgar viewed the march like Dvorak did the Slavonic Dance or Johann Strauss the waltz. In fact number two is somewhat Dvorakian. The fifth march stands outside the cycle written as a late addition in 1930. Elgar loved watching soldiers ceremonially marching and this comes out in his overture, Cockaigne, sub-titled, (In London Town). Cockaigne is an old name for London from which is derived the name Cockney. The overture is buzzing with London pride and the cheeky cockney, the lovers in the park and in the midst comes what first sounds like a salvation army band and in the later reprise a full swaggering military band marching the Mall to a thumping bass drum.
In 1903 Elgar wrote the Apostles for the Birmingham Festival. It has never achieved the popularity of Gerontius but there are plenty who claim it to be the greater, more professional, work. Within a few years the Apostles was joined by the Kingdom. In early 1904 a three day festival of Elgar works at Covent Garden took place. Included was the first performance of his concert overture, In The South. Edward and Alice had holidayed in Alassio in Italy in the winter of 1903 and the idea hit him to “depict the streams, flowers, hills; the distant snow mountains in one direction and the blue Mediterranean in the other; the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago.” This powerful work has a new more modern sound clearly influenced by Richard Strauss. The best known part of the piece is the central serenade played by a solo viola, one of the most delicious melodies Elgar ever penned. In July he received his knighthood. Now there was no need to have to stay in London. Elgar and his family moved to a large house in Hereford overlooking the Wye. He was reunited not for the first time with home territory and lived there till 1911.
His new surroundings probably influenced his next prominent work, the Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and orchestra written in 1905. It was written to display the skills of the newly founded London Symphony Orchestra. Elgar visited America in that year to conduct his music including the Introduction and Allegro. The work’s main theme is thought to be of Welsh origin. It is in effect a form of neo Baroque concerto grosso with the quartet, usually leaders of their respective sections, and the main body of strings bouncing off of each other. In the middle comes what Elgar described to Jaeger as “a devil of a fugue”.
With the approach of his fiftieth birthday in 1908 Elgar wrote his first symphony which was an immediate success, nationally and internationally. In just over a year, it received over a hundred performances. It starts with a motto theme which dominates much of the work and returns in various moods, most notably in the last movement when it interrupts the proceedings with the sweetest Elgar you are ever likely to hear.
He followed this by the violin concerto commissioned by Fritz Kreisler. Elgar wrote it during the summer of 1910. Although Elgar knew the violin he enlisted help from W. H. Reed, the leader of the LSO. Their friendship would last for the rest of Elgar’s life and Reed wrote a biography, “Elgar As I Knew Him”. This is one of two concertos Matthew will be dealing with in his new series “Concertos 1900-1950”. It is a prodigious work in three movements and 54 minutes in length. The Violin Concerto was a great triumph, indeed Elgar’s last popular triumph. It is best known for the recording made in 1932 at Abbey Road by the 16 year old Yehudi Menuhin with Elgar conducting.
The years leading to the First World War were more troubled for him. It is too glib to say that Elgar lost it with the death of Edward VII which would not have made any difference to him. It was the audience which had lost it, not him. One paints the period as a golden age before 1914 when it was in fact politically in turmoil following Lloyd George’s Peoples Budget, the Parliament Act; the Suffragettes; industrial strikes, an arms race with Germany and civil war looming in Ireland, all of which Mr Asquith took in his stride. It was against this background that Elgar’s second symphony, dedicated to the memory of His Late Majesty, King Edward VII, received its first performance. It has a quote at the foot of the first page from Shelley, “Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!”. And there is one recurring theme throughout and upon which the work ends referred to as the “Spirit of Delight”. It opens with orchestral splendour but also contains moments of quiet contemplation. The slow movement is an elegiac epitaph to the late king. The rushing scherzo is followed by a section where hell breaks loose as the orchestra builds to a nightmarish climax with an insistent accompaniment of percussion as if Elgar sensed what might come. The fourth movement however is reminiscent of earlier times, a sense of Back to the Hansom cab rather than the motor car. Its final fading would leave John Barbirolli with tears down his face. The second symphony did not achieve instant popularity but it remains up there with the first symphony and the violin concerto.
Two other works to mention from this immediate pre-war period are The Music Makers and Falstaff. The Music Makers was yet another choral commission in which Elgar quotes from a number of his earlier works starting with the Engima. The idea of self glorification came from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) in which Strauss quotes from his various musical heroes. The trouble with both is that you have to know the pieces being quoted to make sense of it. All right for musical quizzes. Falstaff is a tone poem based of course on the fat knight from Henry IV. It has always been considered an odd work and even its dedicatee, the conductor Landon Ronald said that he could not make head nor tail of it. It is Elgar beginning to take a new direction. Unfortunately the country took another one.
Elgar was horrified at the prospect of the war but he did his bit becoming a special constable in the local police and joining the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve but his composing output was hardly top notch stuff. The fact was that the mood of the time did not match what he had been writing or what people might have expected from him. It was in any event a mood changing like quick sand as Elgar’s old world was fast disappearing. I once had an LP of music from Joan Littlewood’s “Oh what a Lovely War” except the recordings were repros of the acoustic recordings of the originals. The songs were taken in chronological order and start with the mad optimism of “Belgium put the Kibosh on the Kaiser”. It descends into the plea of “When This Lousy War is Over” and by 1917 there is the heart rending “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. Elgar was not able to get on the bandwagon. Ivor Novello got it just right at the right time. So what did Elgar produce? There was Carillon for speaker and orchestra to pay tribute to Belgium; there was Polonia for orchestra to pay tribute to Poland. He wrote an innocuous ballet, the Sanguine Fan and the music for a children’s Christmas show, Starlight Express (no connection with the long running rock opera of Andrew Lloyd Webber). He wrote some music for verses of Rudyard Kipling, “The Fringes of The Fleet” but Kipling himself withdrew. And in 1917 he wrote the music to “The Spirit of England”, verses by Lawrence Binyon. Land of Hope and Glory of course was played all over the place and Elgar was quite sick of having to conduct it all the time.
Towards the end of the war, Elgar was under the weather and the doctors recommended removal of the tonsils, then considered to be a dangerous operation for a sixty year old. Alice thought it best for his recuperation to get him away from London and to move to the countryside. The previous summer she and Carice had seen a thatched cottage ‘Brinkwells’, near Fittleworth, in Sussex, with views of the South Downs. In April 1918 they rented it again and moved in. Elgar loved it and surprised the family by asking for his Steinway piano to be sent there. He started writing straight away. Four major works came from this period all of which he was writing at the same time. Three of them were chamber works, a violin sonata, a string quartet and a piano quintet, all mediums he had never essayed before. The fourth was his cello concerto. What became the main tune of its first movement he actually wrote down, not knowing what to do with it, the previous year. All three chamber works were completed quite quickly and the quartet and quintet played together at Wigmore Hall. They were well received but they were a far flung thing from the flag waving optimism of the pre-war years. There can be no doubt about the devastating effect the war had had on Elgar, still had as they could hear at night the rumblings from the front from across the channel. One must not however necessarily interpret what one hears as necessarily the direct response to the war. There is an overall pervading sadness particularly in the quartet and quintet which appear to start with pessimism. The same atmosphere permeates the cello concerto. It is though sadness from within, a sadness of compassion, not pessimism. The piano quintet starts out bleakly but its second subject produces a theme that sounds as if out of the palm court orchestra. To me it is both introspective and retrospective as if – my thoughts only – Elgar was looking back sadly and fondly to earlier times. A tea dance perhaps in the Waldorf Astoria. The theme returns in the last movement like a last trickling tear for an epoch never to return. The four works are grouped together as the new re-emergent Elgar, wholly detached from the pre-war years. Yet I venture to question this in one way. I did write earlier to suggest that Falstaff written in 1913 appeared to be taking a new direction. I wonder whether it was at times the same direction that Elgar took in 1918-19. Of course it was different, a Straussian tone poem but containing very similar sections of wistfulness and sadness as the old knight tearfully recalled his youthful days. Here now five years on and with a world war intervening was Elgar replacing his own quixotic character with himself. Musically here is Elgar reaching out to the past. It is just a passing thought.
The cello concerto had a disastrous first performance, with the London Symphony Orchestra in October 1919 under its newly appointed conductor, Alber Coates. Elgar himself was due to conduct his own work but Coates overran his rehearsal time at the expense of Elgar. Alice wrote , “that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder … that brute Coates went on rehearsing.” In contrast with the First Symphony and its hundred performances in just over a year, the Cello Concerto did not have a second performance in London for more than a year. One nineteen year old cellist in the orchestra would not forget the occasion. Giovanni Battista Barbirolli later became a conductor and anglicised his first name to John. His recording of the cello concerto with Jacqueline du Pré is assuredly the most famous of this work.
Elgar seemed set to continue but six months later Lady Alice Elgar died of cancer aged 72 and Elgar came to a complete stop. She had been the driving force behind him, inspiring him, pushing him when he preferred to do anything else other than compose. She had made him the only purpose of her existence. Where would Elgar have gone had she survived? One suspects he would have pursued this new direction, perhaps similar to Sibelius with his sixth and seventh symphonies or his tone poem Tapiola which has similar inspirational sources of woodland forests and nymphs as might have attracted Elgar. Sibelius alas also took an early sauna. Elgar was shattered and lonely. His instincts got him to pack his cases and drive to Worcestershire with his two dogs, which Alice would never previously let into the house, now sitting as his travelling companions in the back of his open car.
Elgar was not short of activities but compositionally he had dried up in a world which no longer seemed interested in his style of music. He conducted, guesting with the London Symphony Orchestra for whom he had previously been chief conductor in 1911 and with the Halle. He recorded nearly all his works in the latest technique of electric microphone recordings. He had previously made acoustic recordings but he left with His Master’s Voice an authoritative legacy of his works, the first composer to do so seriously. He became appointed Master of the Kings Musick and famously he conducted Pomp and Circumstance No 1, the virtual English National Anthem, at the opening ceremony in 1924 of the Empire Games at the new Empire Stadium at Wembley with its twin towers, alas no more. He took up chemistry, took a long cruise which took him up the Amazon; he wrote an anthem for his favourite football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, “He Banged the Leather for Goal”, he wrote the Severn Suite for brass band played by the Foden Motor Works Band at the Crystal Palace; but his great passion was horse racing. Yehudi Menuhin has related how after the famous recording of the violin concerto Elgar looked at his watch to confirm that there was enough time to make it to Newmarket. He produced the odd work, some songs for the Empire Exhibition, a Nursery Suite based like the Wand of Youth suites on airs he had written as a young man. It was dedicated to the newly born Princess Margaret, her older sister Princess Elizabeth (the present queen) and their mother, then Duchess of York.
In 1931 Elgar set eyes upon a semi professional violinist, Vera Hockman, in the orchestra pit at Croydon. She was 40 years younger than him but she set her eyes on him also. There is little doubt that Elgar had eyes for a pretty maiden now and then but for the most part it appears to have been little more than that. Dr David Wright, a composer, who cannot find one good word for Elgar, which itself makes his judgments questionable, suggests something more sinister and which in today’s quest for witch hunts could result in yet another government enquiry to find out why no one complained in the first place and to strip Elgar of his knighthood, his baronetcy and his Royal Philharmonic Society gold medal into the bargain. Vera was the daughter of a Jewish diamond merchant and had married a rabbi with whom she had two children. The marriage was not working and she left. Elgar and she met up and she was invited to Marl Bank his nine bedroom country home in Worcestershire. They only needed one of them. Elgar had found love and inspiration. Her husband did not find their relationship kosher and refused to divorce her.
It was at much the same time that Bernard Shaw came to the aid of the party. He persuaded the BBC who had just founded its own orchestra under Boult to commission a third symphony from Elgar. He began work and was writing at the same time an opera, The Spanish Lady. Neither would be finished in his lifetime. The symphony was more advanced than appear from the sketches. Most of the ideas came from earlier works. There are hints of swagger from earlier times but not the martial splendour; the second movement is short and light, a little reminiscent of the Sanguine Fan; the third movement contains much of the pain which has to be unlocked. The fourth movement starts with energy but…..
Elgar was taken ill and found writing more difficult; his ideas were not all written down but Billy Reed had played sections with him and knew what Elgar was looking for. Elgar then underwent an operation during which it was discovered he had incurable cancer. He stopped writing. He asked Reid not to let anyone tamper with the score but to burn it and thus it so remained. Anthony Payne, a composer, had spent twenty years trying to piece it together but the Elgar trustees would not allow him or anyone to elaborate upon it until, with copyright due to run out in 2004, they realised that someone else might do so. So, they commissioned Anthony Payne himself to do so. If there are weaknesses they are Elgar’s, not Payne’s, and to be fair to Elgar he would, likely as not, have reworked it before publishing had he lived.
Elgar died in 1934. His music of course was completely out of fashion for thirty years and forever linked with Empire. The old generation of conductors began to disappear and we began to hear Elgar under such conductors as Solti, Barenboim and Haitink. As usual these foreigners were acknowledged but Elgar was not in their blood. So it was that Solti conducted at the Festival Hall and then recorded the second symphony. It went at a rate of knots with all the pent up energy that that conductor was known. Of course it was criticised. Had he not listened to the recordings of Boult, Sargent and Barbirolli. Maybe not, but Solti had obviously listened to the recordings of Edward Elgar whose speeds he had reproduced. Of course Elgar had clearly speeded up to fit the recording into the 4 minutes 20 seconds allowed for one side of a 78 rpm shellac disc. Ah well, there’s always an answer. The fact is, it is this later generation of conductors that have revealed that Elgar is international property, just like Beethoven or Brahms.