Elgar, Edward William


Perhaps the most notable figure in the English-speaking musical world of today is Sir Edward Elgar. Since Purcell, England has produced no other composer of genius; and whether or not posterity concedes that rank to Elgar, he has attained at least one valid claim to distinction the disagreement of the critics. He stands unique among English musicians of note in the fact that his musical education, theoretical as well as practical, was a matter of varied experience rather than instruction received of study along accepted lines. The fact that Elgar came of a Roman Catholic family, and breathed from his earliest years the atmosphere of that exceptional form of worship in which music is so integral a part, isolated him from the musical traditions of Protestant England, and his early musical training, or lack of training, in the usual sense, was another factor in the development of his powers. He was born at Broadheath, near Worcester, June 2, 1857. His mother was wellread, and loved the best literature; and, in spite of the limited means and opportunities, the boy was brought up in an intellectual atmosphere; but the varied musical occupations of his father decided the bent of his mind. The  elder Elgar was a partner in a music-selling firm, was the organist of St. George's Church in Worcester for thirty-seven years, and played the violin in the orchestra of the Three Choir Festivals. The young Elgar also played in this orchestra, and before the age of fifteen assisted his father occasionally as organist, picking up his knowledge of these instruments, also of the piano, the bassoon, and other instruments, in his father's warehouse, which gave him opportunity to make many experiments along this line, and to acquaint himself with a great variety of musical compositions. After leaving school he was placed, as so many embryo musicians have been, in a solicitor's office, where for a year he worked steadily at the study of law, and then returned home to become his father's assistant, no further effort being made to induce him to follow a distasteful profession. He read and studied alone numerous works, both ancient and modern, on harmony, counterpoint and other branches of musical theory. It was intended that he should study at Leipsic, but this proved impracticable. Meanwhile, he occupied himself with composition; among his earliest efforts were popular airs for minstrel performances, and music for a little family orchestra, in which his brothers and sisters joined in playing different instruments. In leading the orchestra at the instrumental meetings of the Worcester Glee Club, of which he was, in 1879, appointed pianist and conductor, and at which his early compositions received performance and encouragement, he became acquainted with the masterpieces among the English glees and the music of Corelli and Haydn. Two years before this he had gone to London, where he took a few lessons from Pollitzer in violin, which proved to be the end of regular instruction in music for him, although for some years he visited this teacher at intervals. In 1881 he passed with honors an examination in violin of the Royal Academy of Music, having been solicited to become a candidate by Brinley Richards, the examiner for Worcester. From 1879 to 1884 he was leader of a unique band, the instruments being a first and second violin, first and second cornet, a flute, a clarinet, a euphonium, a bombardon, a doublebass, and a piano, played by attendants at the County Lunatic Asylum. For this combination, which might be said to be well suited to the nature of the institution, he wrote quadrilles and other kindred pieces, and in due time the authorities voted him a small recompense for such work. He also composed continually for the church service, and for a quintet in which he played the bastsoon. Thus he became known as a soloist and orchestral leader in Worcester and its vicinity, and these varied experiences were valuable in developing his sense of orchestral coloring. He was for a time a member of Stockley's Orchestra at Birmingham, where his intermezzo was successfully presented in 1883. The year previous he visited Leipsic for three weeks, and was appointed conductor of the Worcester Instrumental Society, writing analyses for its programs. In 1885 he succeeded his father as organist, and continued to compose much music for the Catholic Church service.

In 1889 he married a Miss Roberts, whose knowledge and appreciation of music and literature became a most beneficial stimulus to Elgar, and in the same year they removed to London. For two years he endeavored to bring his work before the public, but with no success or encouragement. He heard much good music, however, and once a week returned to his old home neighborhood to give lessons. In 1891 he retired to Mal- yern, where he spent his time largely in composing, doing whatever teaching or conducting came his way. His Froissart Overture had been produced the preceding year at the Worcester Festival, but owing to unfavorable acoustic conditions it made no particular impression.