Edward Elgar: An Appreciation

Arguably the greatest of all English composers, whose music seems to define the term “Edwardian”

Elgar may be a great English composer, but does he rate internationally?

Elgar never really came to terms with the fact that whatever local success he may have enjoyed, he was not generally appreciated as a world-class composer. George Bernard Shaw sympathised: “Elgar is a composer whose absolute rank it is neither prudent nor indeed possible to determine.” Distinguished musicologist Hans Keller noted in 1957, however, that “there are far more Elgar performances on the Continent than the English think”. 

So have things improved in recent years?

Elgar’s star is in the ascendant. Anthony Payne’s inspired completion of Elgar’s Third Symphony has received more than 100 performances worldwide, and has redefined the popular view of Elgar’s powers having failed him in his twilight years. 

But didn’t he have his fair share of ups-and-downs, even in England?

Very much so. Although the Enigma Variations, Violin Concerto and Pomp And Circumstance March No.1 were instant hits, The Dream Of Gerontius bombed initially, as did the Introduction And Allegro For Strings. 

Talking about the Enigma Variations, what’s all this about one of the variations having a mystery title?

Absolutely right. Each variation is headed with a clue as to the identity of a “friend pictured within”, except No.13, which is teasingly designated “***”. The most likely candidate is Helen Weaver, a childhood sweetheart to whom Elgar was engaged and was devastated at losing. 

So that’s the "Enigma"?

No, not really. The principle mystery is Elgar’s claim that "through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes' but is not played". Two of the most popular solutions over the years have been God Save The Queen and Auld Lang Syne. 

But why did he virtually stop composing?

After the great Cello Concerto of 1919 he completed nothing of any great consequence. Lady Elgar died in 1920 dealing him an emotional blow from which he never recovered artistically.