Sir Edward Elgar is often perceived as quintessentially English – golfing tweeds and bicycles, handlebar moustache, pomp and circumstance – and yet, despite composing for state occasions, he didn't regard himself as an establishment figure. He felt an outsider, both musically and socially. Elgar was from a relatively humble background – his father ran a music business in Worcester – and he was largely self-taught in the art of composition. 

Sir Edward Elgar (1931)
© Public domain

During his early years, Elgar’s music was seen as provincial, and yet his outlook was distinctly Central European. Works like In the South owe a huge debt to Richard Strauss’ dashing Don Juan; indeed, Strauss was an admirer of Elgar’s music and, after hearing the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius in Düsseldorf, he toasted the composer as “the first English progressive musician, Meister Elgar”. Arthur Nikisch, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, considered Elgar’s First Symphony “a masterpiece of the first order”, on a par with the great German symphonists, Beethoven and Brahms. 

Where does the Englishness come in? Elgar’s compositions for state occasions meant he was seen as a musical standard-bearer for the British Empire. His Pomp and Circumstance Marches – particularly the first with its jingoistic added lyric “Land of Hope and Glory” – put him at the heart of an establishment to which he never felt he truly belonged. 

Sir Edward Elgar in the Malvern Hills
© Public domain

There is an elegiac quality to much of his music – Elgar was the first composer to use the score marking nobilmente – and it’s tempting, in hindsight, to hear in his later works a sense of loss, of the sun setting on the old order. 

But the real Englishness behind this Edwardian can be heard in the music reflecting his beloved Malvern Hills, where he felt most at home. Walking the hills was an inspiration to him. “My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” 

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

Addressing the London Symphony Orchestra at their rehearsal of the First Symphony, shortly after the Manchester premiere, the conductor Hans Richter announced: “Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country.” Universally acclaimed at the time, and quick to travel the world, Elgar’s First is rarely played outside Britain these days, but it’s a tremendous work, in cyclical form where the nobilmente theme in the first movement returns grandly in the finale, a poignant, almost bittersweet moment. 

2Enigma Variations, Op.36

The official (dry) title of this early work is the Variations on an Original Theme. The enigmatic element was introduced by Elgar himself, who cryptically wrote that “the Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed… through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played.” People have taken this to mean a secret theme appears, scrabbling for likely musical quotations, with many different theories expounded. 

Unlike many composers’ variations, Elgar’s theme was his own, extemporised at the piano at which point, encouraged by his wife, he then improvised variations in the style of their friends, mostly Malvern or Worcester acquaintances. Most variations carry the initials of the subject, but the famous Nimrod refers to Elgar’s friend and publisher Augustus Jaeger (“Jaeger” being German for “hunter”, Nimrod being the “mighty hunter” in the Old Testament), specifically to a conversation they had about Beethoven piano sonatas. Rather than any specific musical theme, the larger, unspoken theme is simply – for me – that of friendship, an affectionate, often humorous tribute to Elgar’s nearest and dearest, ending with a self-portrait, Edu (his wife’s nickname for him). 

3Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85

This is a work overloaded with sentimentality (from an English perspective) because it is so closely associated with the young cellist Jacqueline du Pré who made what is, for many, the definitive recording of this concerto, before her career was cruelly cut short by Multiple sclerosis. The work itself is highly emotional, lyrical and passionate. Composed in the wake of the First World War, Elgar was disillusioned at the senseless destruction, seeming to recognise that the world could never be the same again. Much of the cello writing is like an extended soliloquy. It is beloved by cellists and is the Elgar work that is most performed around the world. 

4Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61

In 1905 Fritz Kreisler told The Hereford Times: “If you want to know whom I consider to be the greatest living composer, I say without hesitation, Elgar… I wish he would write something for the violin. He could do so, and it would certainly be something effective.” By the time Kreisler officially requested a concerto the following year, Elgar has already jotted down a few sketches, but composition was delayed until 1909. The premiere was a triumph and Kreisler played the concerto often, although he never recorded it. 

The score is headed with another Elgarian enigma: “Herein is enshrined the soul of…” The identity of the composer’s inspiration – or muse – remains a matter of conjecture. The concerto itself is expansive and turbulent, intense and serene. Elgar delays the cadenza until the finale, where it floats hauntingly above a thrummed pizzicato tremolando effect in the orchestral strings. Elgar, one of the first composers to take the gramophone seriously, made lots of recordings of his works, including the Violin Concerto with the 16-year old Yehudi Menuhin in 1932. 

5Sea Pictures, Op.37

As with the Cello Concerto, Sea Pictures is often associated with a single performer: Dame Janet Baker. Based on five poems by five different authors (including In Haven, written by Elgar’s wife, Alice), this song cycle celebrates different responses to the ocean, from its beauty to its dangers. 

It was composed in 1899, on the heels of the success of the Enigma Variations, written for the stentorian voice of Dame Clara Butt who, as the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped, “On a clear day you could have heard her across the English Channel!” She sang at the premiere of Sea Pictures at the Norwich Festival, wearing a dress said to have resembled a mermaid!

6Symphony no. 2 in E flat major, Op.63

The Second Symphony was composed only three years after the First, but Elgar’s world had changed: political tensions in Europe had grown; King Edward VII had died. At the head of the score, Elgar quoted two lines of a poem by Shelley: “Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!” It is a complex work, more mellow than the First, with themes cross-referenced in different movements, as when the ghostly first movement melody returns as an angry outburst in the Rondo. The second movement Larghetto is a sombre funeral cortège – the symphony is dedicated to the late king – and the whole symphony is imbued with a sense of restlessness, until the “spirit of delight” theme from the symphony’s opening bars returns at the work’s glowing conclusion. The symphony received a muted response at its premiere. “What is the matter with them, Billy?” Elgar asked the orchestra’s leader, William Reed. “They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.”

7Falstaff, Op.68

Falstaff is the name,” wrote Elgar, “but Shakespeare – the whole of human life – is the theme.” The composer was possibly being a little coy. Isn’t Falstaff, his symphonic study in four movements and two interludes, another self-portrait, like Edu in the finale of the Enigma Variations? The adventures of Falstaff and Prince Hal are reminiscent of the “japes” that Elgar enjoyed, and when the Fat Knight falls asleep and dreams of his youth as the Duke of Norfolk’s page, isn’t Elgar thinking about what might have been? The second interlude is an idyll set in a West Country orchard, before Falstaff scurries to London for Prince Hal’s accession, the pomp and circumstance punctured when Falstaff is dismissed and banished.

8The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Elgar composed a number of large scale choral works – The Apostles, The Kingdom, Caractacus – but The Dream of Gerontius is by far his most-performed in the genre. Yet Gerontius was a problematic work, not least due to Cardinal Newman’s poetry, on which the libretto is based, and its Roman Catholic theology, which caused difficulties in getting the oratorio performed in Anglican cathedrals. 

Gerontius was commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival. Elgar, a Catholic, had known Newman’s poem for years. It details the final moments of a dying man, his death and, guided by a guardian angel, his journey to judgement and Purgatory. It calls for a huge orchestra, three soloists and a double chorus. Elgar poured his soul into the work and headed the score with a quotation from John Ruskin: 

‘‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.”

9Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84

Elgar’s chamber music is nowhere near as well known as his orchestral works, but are worthy of serious investigation. The Piano Quintet was composed towards the end of the First World War, when Elgar and his wife were staying at Brinkwells, the Sussex cottage they rented. Lady Elgar hinted at a programmatic element in the first movement. According to legend, a cluster of trees in a nearby park marked the remains of Spanish monks who had engaged in sacrilegious ceremonies there, and were struck by lightning: “sad ‘dispossessed’ trees and their dance and unstilled regret for their evil fate.” Elgar described the music of the first movement as “ghostly stuff”. There is something Nimrod-like about the slow movement, while the finale is jauntier, eventually battling into a blaze of A major sunshine.

10Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 in D major, Op.39

Elgar composed five ceremonial marches under the “Pomp and Circumstance” banner (a sixth was published posthumously). The title references a line from Shakespeare’s Othello, where the general suspects his wife, Desdemona, of infidelity: 

“Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!”

Each brisk march has a gentler central section, the First containing a tune that Elgar would later reuse in his Coronation Ode, itself then turned into Land of Hope and Glory, which is traditionally sung at the Last Night of the Proms. Elgar immediately recognised it was a rousing melody: “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em flat – knock ’em flat!... a tune like that comes once in a lifetime.”

And here is Elgar himself rehearsing the LSO: 

Bonus: March of the Mogul Emperors

Elgar wrote many ceremonial marches, but perhaps the most fun one comes from his masque The Crown of India. Written in an unusual 3/2 time signature (for a march), the March of the Mogul Emperors uses a whole battery of percussion, including cymbals, timpani, bass drum, tambourine and tam-tam.