Edward Elgar


Romantic/20th Century

With his walrus moustache and old-fashioned clothes, Edward Elgar looked like a cartoonist’s idea of a general sent to India to rule in the name of empire. His friend, the poet Rudyard Kipling, had a similar reputation. Here were two men who could be relied on to praise their country no matter what. And indeed, both men wrote works, music and poetry, which celebrate the imperial story better than anyone else: Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches for example. One of these was set to words and became ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Yet Elgar, like Kipling, was much more complicated than that. Although they both celebrated the high summer of Empire, they also both wrote the Empire’s funeral oration.

Listen to Elgar’s unbearably sad Cello Concerto, alongside Dvořák’s, the most performed of all cello concertos. This is not the music of a smug, simple-minded man. Elgar had seen war. He knew tragedy. And here he tells a sad story so powerfully that we almost weep listening to him.

Elgar was a Catholic who believed deeply in God. Listen to his The Dream of Gerontius and wonder at the deep feeling of the music. He was a superb writer of religious music. He was a great lover of the classics – Beethoven, Brahms, Bach – and wrote symphonies that were so good they were the first English symphonies to be widely performed throughout the world. Even the Germans liked them!

By the way, Elgar was annoyed that someone had set his famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 to the words ‘Land of Hope and Glory’: he thought that something quite subtle had now been made crude. If you listen to these playlists, you will understand why. Elgar expresses English feeling as no one else has: not just glory and splendour, but sadness, love of the country, religious feeling, even a quiet sense of humour. Behind that walrus moustache and formal appearance, a great heart beat out the pulse of a beautiful music.

Elgar Edward, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Select some music by Elgar below.

Military March No. 1 in D major, ‘Pomp and Circumstance’

Elgar’s most famous work, this was later set to the words ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – though not by him.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Adrian Leaper

Taken from Naxos 8.554161

Chanson de matin, Op. 15 No. 2 (arr. W.H. Reed for string orchestra)

This lovely, pastoral piece is here played by a string orchestra. It is typically English.

Performers: English Chamber Orchestra; Julian Lloyd Webber

Taken from Naxos 8.573250

Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47

This is one of Elgar’s most perfect pieces: energetic, muscular, yet breathing the English countryside air. The Allegro is strongly rhythmic. Although only 14 minutes long, the work has something of the quality of a larger work.

Performers: English Chamber Orchestra; Julian Lloyd Webber

Taken from Naxos 8.573250

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Elgar particularly loved which part of England?

a. The Malvern Hills
b. Cornwall
c. The Fen Country

 Elgar wrote which work with mysterious titles for the various movements?

a. Symphony No. 1
b. ‘Enigma’ Variations
c. The Dream of Gerontius

 Elgar supported which football team?

a. Manchester United
b. Arsenal
c. Wolverhampton Wanderers

 Elgar had a hobby – what was it?

a. Stamp-collecting
b. Model trains
c. Chemistry experiments

 Elgar could play which instrument?

a. Violin
b. Oboe
c. Guitar

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Elgar was an amateur chemist who spent ages in his garden shed making stink-bomb gas.
  2. Each of the 14 movements of the Enigma Variations has a mysterious subtitle relating to an animal or person important in Elgar’s life. That’s why they’re called ‘Enigma’ Variations.
  3. Elgar supported Wolverhampton Wanderers. He wrote an anthem for them entitled: ‘He Banged the Leather for Goal’!
  4. Elgar never completed his Third Symphony. It was finished off by a modern composer called Anthony Payne and has become quite popular.
  5. Elgar once had a holiday steaming up the Amazon River, visiting the opera house at Manaus – one of the largest in the world as well as the most remote.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Works

Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, ‘Enigma’

This is Elgar’s best-known long work, a masterful set of variations on a simple theme. Each variation refers to a friend or animal indicated by initials (shown below). The 10th variation, called ‘Nimrod’, is played each year at the Cenotaph commemorating the dead of the world wars. It is intensely moving, intensely noble. It brings tears to the eyes.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; George Hurst

Taken from Naxos 8.553564

Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 55

Elgar’s First Symphony is a work of great nobility. The first movement is stately and yet sad. It was immediately popular and had 100 performances within a year of publication. An English composer had at last produced a symphony as good as the Germans’!

Performers: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; George Hurst

Taken from Naxos 8.550634

Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63

Elgar’s Second Symphony meant a lot to the composer. He described it as ‘the passionate pilgrimage of the soul’. It was his last completed symphony.

Performers: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Downes

Taken from Naxos 8.550635

Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61

Elgar’s Violin Concerto is a passionate work and was a favourite of two great violinists of the 20th century, Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. Kreisler had encouraged Elgar to write it and even gave him a bit of advice, sometimes making the solo part more playable and sometimes making it more showy. Elgar was pleased with his concerto: ‘I love it,’ he said.

Performers: Dong-Suk Kang, violin; Polish National Radio Symphony; Adrian Leaper

Taken from Naxos 8.550489

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85

This Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last notable work, and also one of his saddest. It seems to breathe an air of regret, sadness, weariness, as if it were written as an elegy for the British Empire as well as Elgar’s own life. He wrote it at the end of the First World War. It has become one of the most popular cello concertos.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550503

Choral Works

The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (excerpts)

Elgar’s choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, is one of the most heartfelt of all choral works. The words by Cardinal Newman, who left the Church of England to become a Catholic, are quite flowery – but Elgar, a religious man, found Newman’s words inspiring. They moved him to write some of his finest music. Four excerpts are in the playlist.

Performers: Sarah Fryer, mezzo-soprano; William Kendall, tenor; Matthew Best, bass-baritone; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Wayneflete Singers; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; David Hill

Taken from Naxos 8.553885-86

The Apostles, Op. 49 (excerpt)

Not as well-known as The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles is still a fine oratorio. Elgar originally planned to write three oratorios on biblical themes. This is the first; he wrote a second, The Kingdom, but never completed the third (which was to be called ‘The Last Judgement’). Here to listen to is one of the most popular numbers from The Apostles.

Performers: Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.557288

Other Works

Sea Pictures, Op. 37

These wonderful songs were first performed by a famous contralto, Dame Clara Butt, dressed as a mermaid! If you listen carefully, you can hear how Elgar repeats part of the first song in the later songs, creating an impression of unity for the whole work.

Performers: Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright

Taken from Naxos 8.557710

Romance in E minor, Op. 1

This is an early work by Elgar and characteristically sweet. It was written for one of Elgar’s friends, an amateur violinist who worked during the day as a grocer!

Performers: Marat Bisengaliev, violin; Benjamin Frith, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572643-45

Organ Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 28

Elgar wrote several works for organ, all popular with organists. This was his first organ sonata. He often left his composing to the last minute, finishing things off just before the deadline, and this was no exception. The poor organist giving the first performance hardly had time to practice it!

Performers: Gareth Green, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.550582