Britain’s Mysterious Trademan’s Son
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“Play this tune as if you’ve never heard it before.” Those are the words of Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, greatest classical romantic composer, Edward Elgar, who intended to bring out the best in those who performed his music. Germans had referred to Britain as “Das Land Ohne Musik” (the Land Without Music) until Elgar came along. Down-to-earth, yet emotional, open, and secretive at the same time, this tradesman’s son-turned-knight of the realm proved to be an enigma. His ambivalent character was captured in his music, which lives on 88 years after his death on February 23, 1934.
Elgar was born in 1857 in a small English village to a provincial businessman and his wife. Despite his humble origins, he had great ambitions, deciding early on that he wanted to be more than a talented local musician. He took up any music-related job he could find, starting off as a conductor, bassoon player, and teacher. Having had no solid musical education, he was instead inspired by classical music bigshots Antonín Dvořák, Richard Wagner, and Robert Schumann. His music, a publication of violin pieces, was seen in print for the first time in 1885, but it wasn’t until years later that Elgar rose to historical fame with the 1899 premiere of the musical mystery “Enigma Variations,” a collection of brooding, melancholic, and sometimes humorous movements based on a theme that fluctuates between G major and G minor. His immediate success with the lively, cheerful “Cockaigne Overture,” a musical portrait of Edwardian London, and the upbeat, triumphant “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” at the turn of the century further cemented his status as a renowned artist, and the public took to his patriotic tunes with such fervor that his work almost became the second national anthem.
Following his big break, Elgar rapidly gained acclaim and new friends, including fellow composers Gabriel Fauré and Richard Strauss, who had considerable influence on the classical music world as well. Elgar became Sir Edward Elgar, moved to a larger house, accepted invitations to dine with nobility, and traveled to the United States to receive a doctorate from Yale University. Upon his return to England with much fanfare, he did not neglect to bare his head in greeting to his father, who, in his frail state of health, could only observe the celebration from his bedroom window.
Elgar’s formidable mustache gave him a macho image, but under the surface, he was a tremendously humble character. He was never quite able to shake off his rural origins and dressed like an English country gentleman no matter which social circle he was in. Given his exceptionally British appearance, it is easy to assume that his music exhibits British character as well, but when listening closer, there is far more emotion than in the standard British music of the same time: the drama is equally as intense as Italian Puccini, and the harmonies are just as striking and unconventional as German Strauss. In fact, irony could be considered the greatest characteristic of Elgar’s music. There is always an inside and an outside world, when the chords move with such rhythmic vigor that they should be triumphant, but they are instead ominous and menacing. His music does a fantastic job of covering up the melancholy and disquiet with loud swagger.
Elgar is most famous for his 1908 “First Symphony,” which was played at least 100 times all over the world within a year of its premiere, and his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, which was essentially his swan song, since he lost his major inspiration after the death of his wife and did not compose any more major works. It is unfortunate that lack of rehearsal time made the first performance of the concerto a lamentable disaster. Now, the masterpiece is a staple of any young cellist’s repertoire and has continued to be performed by acclaimed virtuosos, such as British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who produced the most well-known recording of the piece in 1982.
Nowadays, teenagers top the charts, but Elgar was 42 years old when he became a household name. It is fitting that he emerged from the shadows with an orchestral work titled “Enigma Variations,” as he was a greater puzzle than his music. From the moment he was born, he was never able to completely fit in with the musical world he composed for. His music reflects the ambiguity of his identity and a sense of separation and isolation. By expressing more emotions than was common in British music at the time, he broke countless barriers. He brought “Das Land Ohne Musik” to life, and his unique style can be heard in the works of acclaimed composers Benjamin Britten, John Williams, and Malcolm Arnold, who have all contributed to the modern-day classical music scene. His melodies continue to resonate in classical music halls around the world, and they will continue to mystify anyone who listens.