1934 was a particularly bad year for English music. Last week, we had Holst. This week Delius and Elgar. All three of them were to die within a three month period!

 Elgar is always described as a swaggering Edwardian. In truth he was a Victorian. Let’s face it, he was 43 at the turn of the century when Victoria still ruled supreme and he had experienced by then a large part of his career but without much in the way of public acclaim. He, no more than Delius, was voted a hit to start with but he was a good journeyman composer. The son of a piano tuner in Worcester he, in common with Walton after him, had no musical training. He composed numerous cantatas in the wake of Parry and Stanford whom he would later eclipse. Usually he composed a choral work for the Birmingham Festival where he not only served as composer but also as a feet on the ground violinist in the orchestra. His star began to rise with Caractacus, written for the Diamond Jubilee in 1897, not played enough; then The Dream of Gerontius, on to the Enigma Variations and eventually got to No 1 in the charts when in 1902 and the approaching coronation he called to his wife from the piano “Alice, I think I have a tune here which will knock them flat”. He was of course referring to Pomp & Circumstance March No 1 which by twenty years later he came to loathe, not least for its words.


His Edwardian associations reflected the high point of his career from 1900 to 1912 which included Falstaff, In the South, his violin concerto and his first and second symphonies. The latter saw Elgar and the lights of Europe go down. With the first world war there was no place for Elgar’s pre-war majestic imperialism and he could find no way to express the country’s and indeed his own changed outlook. He was horrified at the carnage but he did his own patriotic bit. The barren nature of his output is reflected in such stage works as Starlight Express and the Sanguine Fan and some quite awful rousers such as Carrillon, a recitation for speaker and orchestra in honour of Belgium, Polonia , an orchestral piece in honour of Poland. Thankfully, it is no longer played here although it still gets a performance in Poland. But then, as Thomas Beecham might have said, the Poles have no musical taste

Lady Alice felt she had to move Elgar out of London. Despite his knighthood, his order of merit and membership of the Saville Club he still felt his working class country roots. Against this depressing background, Alice rented ‘Brinkwells’, a house near Fittlworth in Sussex. There Elgar recovered his strength and, in 1918 and 1919, he produced three large-scale chamber works as well as the cello concerto. He had written earlier chamber works and he had wanted to return to this medium for some time. The first three of these were was the Violin Sonata in E minor which Matthew will be illustrating today. The other two were the Piano Quintet and the String Quartet. On hearing the work in progress, Alice wrote in her diary, “E. writing wonderful new music”. It is indeed wonderful music with Elgar expressing his torn inner self. It reflects the sadness of a lost world coupled with the odd reminiscent backward glance to maybe happier times. In the Quintet it is at times like inhabiting a dream of days at the Palm Court. For the sonata Elgar got help from W. H Reid, leader of the LSO who had similarly helped out with the composition of the violin concerto ten years before. Poor Billy, he put in all the effort without seeking reward whilst others, like Fritz Kreisler, would get the dedications.

One could believe that Elgar had entered into a burgeoning third period. It was not to be. Sadly Alice, who was always the one with the push, died and Elgar was left bereft with only his dogs for comfort. He relapsed into a long silence through the 1920’s peppered with a few insignificant commissions. He was perhaps just emerging from this miasma with the composition of his third symphony during which time he was diagnosed with cancer and quickly died. Fortunately we have Anthony Payne to thank for rescuing and bringing the third symphony to the light of day.