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Elgar, Sir Edward (1857-1934)

Sir Edward Elgar

born: 2 June 1857
died: 23 February 1934
country: United Kingdom

Elgar’s father, a trained piano-tuner, ran a music shop in Worcester in the 1860s. Young Edward, the fourth of seven children, showed musical talent but was largely self-taught as a player and composer. During his early freelance career he suffered many setbacks, and he was forced to continue teaching long after the desire to compose full-time had taken hold. In later life Elgar likened the experience of teaching to turning a grindstone with a dislocated shoulder. A picture emerges of a frustrated, pessimistic man, whose creative impulses were restrained by his circumstances and apparent lack of progress.

The cantata Caractacus, commissioned by the Leeds Festival, brought Elgar wider recognition, the editor of The Musical Standard calling it ‘one of the most considerable of modern British compositions’ after its first performance in 1898. The Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’; 1898–99) and his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (1900) cemented his position as England’s finest composer, crowned by two further oratorios, a series of ceremonial works, two symphonies and concertos for violin and cello. Elgar, who was knighted in 1904, became the LSO’s Principal Conductor in 1911 and premiered many of his works with the Orchestra. Towards the end of World War I he entered an almost cathartic period of chamber music composition, completing the peaceful slow movement of his String Quartet soon after Armistice Day. The Piano Quintet, finished in February 1919, reveals his nostalgia for times past. In his final years Elgar recorded many of his works with the LSO and, despite illness, managed to sketch movements of a Third Symphony.

from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2006

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