Scholar Groups – Composer Profiles, Part 1

This year, our Music Scholars and Award Holders have been divided into groups, each led by a member of staff, as part of the department’s vision of creating a Music family, regardless of year groupings. Scholars are awarded points for attending concerts, for performing in concerts, and for doing anything extraordinary in their musical lives. Each group is named after a composer, so for a little inspiration, we are going to take a closer look at each composer and why they have been deemed worthy of having a group named after them.

First up is Elgar, the composer for the group led by our Director of Music, Mr. Cook.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was a British composer in the late Romantic and early Twentieth Century, and is often credited with reviving the English music tradition after a lack of prominent composers since Henry Purcell in the seventeenth century. Dubbed ‘Das Land Ohne Musik’ (the country without music), Britain quickly came to love Elgar’s music, which has become closely linked to British nationalism and the “glory days” of the British Empire.

Born near Worcester, Elgar was encouraged to develop his musical skills by his mother and had piano and violin lessons from an early age. He became involved with Worcester Cathedral’s music making and started learning the organ. After failing to enter the Leipzig Conservatory, Elgar initially started working as a clerk for a local solicitor, while making his first public appearances as a violinist and organist. Music soon became his career of choice and he left his clerk job to teach piano and violin, compose, arrange works, and start conducting. Within Worcester’s musical circles, Elgar thrived as a performer, conductor and arranger.

After marrying, Elgar and his wife Alice moved to London, and Elgar embraced the opportunity to hear unfamiliar music. At this time, Elgar was commissioned to write a work for the Three Choirs Festival being held in Worcester that year, his first important commission. Having had few opportunities in London, Elgar and his family returned to Worcestershire, where he began to build his reputation as a composer. Just before the turn of the century, Elgar hit the big time when his Enigma Variations were premiered in London by Hans Richter, and the work soon became an international success. Many more successes and important works followed, including Dream of Gerontius, the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and the Cello Concerto.

Elgar was knighted in 1904, following a series of prestigious appointments, including a commission for Edward VII’s coronation, and a three-day festival of his own works in Covent Garden. He also has the accolade of the being the first ever Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, in the role from 1905-1908. His popularity started to wane after the Violin Concerto, starting with a disappointing premiere of his Second Symphony. The outbreak of the First World War damaged Elgar’s health permanently and his last works were a mixture of successes and failures. Elgar’s later years were taken up with making recordings of his own works with the new technology available, before his sad death from cancer.

Nowadays, Elgar is probably best known for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, which have been a fixture at the BBC Proms for many years. The famous “Land of Hope and Glory” is a crowd favourite and is always sung with gusto by the audience at the Last Night of the Proms. Elgar’s Cello Concerto is another favourite at the Proms, as well as at other concert series, and usually makes an appearance in “best works of all time” charts such as Classic FM’s Hall of Fame. But Elgar’s talents go far beyond these crowd-pleasers: he contributed to so many different genres and brought them up to date (such as the oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius), and encouraged musicians of both amateur and professional level. Some people even claim that Elgar’s music has signs of musical modernism that came to prominence in the twentieth century.

Recommended listening:

The Dream of Gerontius – Elgar’s choral masterpiece, this oratorio continues in the tradition established by Handel, but brings the genre firmly into the late-Romantic idiom that Elgar is famous for. Ranging from ethereal beauty to extreme violence, this work has it all for listeners and performers alike.

Violin Concerto – not one of the most famous violin concertos around, which is surprising given Elgar’s incredible violin writing. This work deserves greater recognition and appreciation among wider audiences.

Serenade for Strings – string orchestra music is often undervalued by concert goers, and this is one of the finest works of the string orchestra canon. An inspiration for Holst’ and Vaughan Williams’s later contributions, Elgar’s work combines Romantic and modernist ideas to create such beauty and intrigue.

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