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Essential Elgar

By Gary Barton

Edward Elgar's father, William Henry Elgar, settled in Worcester, England in 1841 and established himself as a piano tuner. In the 1860s, he opened a music shop. Although a Protestant at the time, he was also the organist at St. George's Roman Catholic Church. A violinist and pianist as well, he became a real force in the city's musical life. William married Anne Greening in 1848. She was a countrywoman with a taste for the arts who converted to the Catholic Church after marrying. Edward was the fourth of their seven children.

Edward Elgar was educated at local dame and Catholic schools, then at Littleton House. Musically, he was predominantly self-taught, learning what he could by studying the music and instruments his father sold at his store and by listening in the church's organ loft during services and at the city music societies' performances. He did, however, take violin, organ and piano lessons from his father and studied with Adolph Pollitzer in London. Elgar became a free-lance musician at the age of 16; he never held a secure post. One of his jobs was to rehearse and conduct an 18-piece band at the Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum (Powick Hospital, in later, more politically correct, terms). This ensemble was comprised of staff at the Asylum. The administration believed that the group provided beneficial "music therapy" for the inmates. In later life, Elgar would often deflate sycophantic hangers-on with the words, "When I was at the lunatic asylum…"

Elgar met Caroline Alice Roberts when she became one of his piano students in 1889. She came from a distinctly higher social class. Born in India in 1848, she had published a novel, had a facility for verse, knew German and sang in a choir. They married in 1889.

After a failed attempt to establish himself in London, Elgar retreated to Malvern with Caroline. With her resources to sustain them, Elgar continued to compose, having had a minor success with Salut d'amour ("Love's Greeting") and the Froissart Overture. There is a lovely recording of Elgar's Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 20 (written in 1892) in surround sound on Telarc SACD 60623 with Conrad van Alphen conducting the Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra. Elgar wrote this piece with the help of his wife. Mrs. Elgar was always tremendously supportive of her husband, ruling bar lines on score paper by hand, walking miles to mail packages of scores and manuscripts and attending to his creature comforts.

Elgar's music was not successful until his "Enigma" Variations were published in 1899. This was the work that made him famous and he became known as England's greatest composer. Unfortunately, his fame waned at the end of his life. He composed little music during his last 15 years and withdrew from almost all musical contacts. A long struggle with cancer ended February 23, 1934, when death put an end to his suffering. He was buried quietly at Malvern, by the side of Lady Elgar, who died in 1920.

From early in life, Elgar considered himself an artist and a man apart. To his neighbors, however, he was a shopkeeper's son who had married above him. He is described by Diana McVeagh in her entry on Elgar in The New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians as "…volatile, proud and shy, (developing) violent and severe depressions, masked by a manner sometimes jocular, sometimes touchy."

The Essential Elgar

Two of Elgar's most well known works, Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma", more commonly known simply as the "Enigma" Variations, and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, can be found on Deutsche Grammophon 469136. A relatively early success, the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 became (at least part of it) the patriotic "Land of Hope and Glory" at the urging of the King. Today, this piece is generally associated with high school or college graduation ceremonies. The two-CD set also contains La Capricieuse, Op. 17 with violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Rohan De Silva. Shaham is joined by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Salut d'amour, Op. 12. Pierre Fournier does the honors for the Concerto for Cello in e minor with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. Disc two offers the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Introduction and Allegro for Quartet and String Orchestra and Symphony No. 2 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. If you only buy one Elgar recording, this is the one to choose.

Virgin Classics 61430 contains performances of Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 3 plus Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Op. 39, Coronation March Op. 65, "Empire March" from Pageant of Empire (1924) and Imperial March, Op. 32 on Virgin Classics 61430 (a two-CD set). All performances are by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yehudi Menuhin.

Elgar composed -- or to be accurate, revised and rescored -- the music of The Wand of Youth Suites in the spring of 1907 before he began serious work on Symphony No. 1. The result is one of his most exquisite works. I recommend Capriccio 10501 with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. It also contains an insightful performance of the "Enigma" Variations.

Elgar loved cryptograms, ciphers, anagrams and puzzles and enjoyed plays on words and riddles. (He enjoyed playing golf and flying kites too.) When writing the "Enigma" Variations, he drew musical sketches of 13 of his friends, including his wife and a dog. Although initials or pseudonyms disguise them, their identities have long since been revealed. The "enigma," however, has never been identified.

The first performance of The Dream of Gerontious was a failure. The chorus director, who understood Elgar's music, had died suddenly and unexpectedly and was replaced by another less sympathetic to the music. The choir was uninspired and drifted dreadfully off pitch, the soloists capabilities did not meet the music's demands. The composer vehemently forswore to never again reveal his innermost thoughts. A benchmark performance of this work, recorded in 1976, features the John Alldis Choir, the London Philharmonic Chorus, the New Philharmonia Orchestra and some fine soloists. Sir Adrian Boult conducts on EMI 66540 (a two-CD box). It runs about an hour and 38 minutes. Although the texts are briefly characterized, the complete printed text is not included. Also on this recording is The Music Makers with Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano, and the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrien Boult.

The Cockaigne Overture (In London Town), a concert piece for orchestra and organ, derives its title from the French word "cockaigne" which means, according to my Cassell's French/English Dictionary, "never-never land." When I picture Elgar in my mind's eye, I see a figure resembling John Darling, the father of Wendy, Michael and John in Barrie's Peter Pan - a man no longer believing in fairies, but aching with the memory of the time when they were real to him. I like the performance found on Angel 69022, with Sir Adrien Boult conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The Concerto for Violin in b minor (1910), expertly composed for Elgar's own instrument, was a work of intense personal feeling for Elgar. It is dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, who gave the first performance. There is an excellent performance by Itzhak Perlman on Deutsche Grammophon (445564) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. A surround-sound performance by violinist Hilary Hahn with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis was just released on Deutsche Grammophon 302602. Ms. Hahn uses Fritz Kreisler's cadenza in the last movement.

Again deferring to McVeagh: "So much is made of the poignancy of the Cello Concerto that its daring can be overlooked. But there is consummate technical confidence in opening a concerto with a solo recitative of such panache, allowing it to die to nothing, and then presenting so gentle and unobtrusive a main them for violas alone. My recommendation for the Cello Concerto is EMI 62887, with Jacqueline du Pré, cello, and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The disc also contains Elgar's Sea Pictures, a work in five sections, each a setting of a poetic text relating to the sea. The words to the second, "In Haven" (Capri), were written by Lady Alice Elgar. Dame Janet Baker is again the mezzo-soprano soloist.

After the Cello Concerto, Elgar published very little music of consequence although in his last years he worked on a third symphony. On his deathbed Elgar begged that no one tamper with his sketches for this work, but Anthony Payne went against those wishes by piecing together and elaborating upon the sketches 60 years later. You can hear his attempt on a London Symphony Orchestra CD (LSO 0019), issued as part of the "LSO Live Series," with the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis conducting. Speaking only personally, I find it as unsatisfying as Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2. Perhaps the fault is mine, but to me they speak only of the transience of human life, the frailty of human emotions, and the sadness of time passing.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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