As a young woman I studied the violin at the Royal College of Music, and that is how I became a fan of Edward Elgar. If you are not British you probably haven’t heard of him. But he was about the same age as Gustav Mahler, and like Mahler, wrote music that reflected the folk-tunes of his native land. (In Mahler’s case that was Austrian music, in Elgar’s case it was English folk-songs.)
Elgar’s most famous music includes his violin concerto (written for Fritz Kreisler), his haunting cello concerto (written during the First World War), his Pomp and Circumstance marches and the Enigma Variations, where each variation is a musical portrait depicting the personality of each friend. The theme that ties all these variations together is an enigma, a hidden theme. Many have tried over the years to guess what this theme is, but it is probably based upon the slow movement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony (his symphony No. 38.)
Edward Elgar was born in 1857 in the village of Lower Broadheath just outside Worcester. To my great surprise I discovered his home, The Firs, to be just down the road from The Dewdrop Inn, where I am currently residing.
Edward’s father William Elgar, was a professional violinist who also played the organ well enough to hold the post organist of St George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, from 1846 to 1885. Like many professional musicians, William Elgar made a living by doing many different things. Not only could he play the violin and the organ, but he also opened a shop in Worcester where he sold sheet music, and musical instruments. In addition to all this, he worked as a piano tuner at many of the great houses in Worcestershire.
William and his wife Ann had seven children, all of whom were given a musical upbringing. Edward was the fourth child, and William would often take him along on his piano tuning gigs so that he could show off his boy’s prowess to the various aristocrats lounging around waiting for the piano tuning to stop. (If you have even heard someone tune a piano, you know what I mean!)
Like many musically gifted people, Elgar did not receive much formal instruction in music, beyond violin and piano lessons from local teachers, and one or two snatched lessons from Hungarian violinist Adolf Politzer in London during 1877-1878 when he was about 20 years old. So he was obliged to teach himself, working through manuals of instruction on organ playing, and reading every book he could find on the theory of music.
At fifteen, Elgar began to study German as he wanted to go to the Leipzig Conservatory, one of the most famous music schools in the world at that time. Unfortunately, his father could not afford to send him. So when he left school at the age of 15 in 1872, he worked as a clerk in a law office.
It didn’t take long for the 15-year-old Edward Elgar to realize that working in an office was not for him. And so he threw himself into his musical career, appearing in public as an organist and violinist, taking lessons from Politzer in London and becoming an active member of Worcester’s Glee Club where he composed and arranged music.
Elgar impressed Politzer so much, that he believed Elgar could be one of the leading violin soloists of England. However, 20-year-old Elgar didn’t agree. He had already heard many leading virtuosi at various concerts he attended in London, and felt that his own playing lacked fullness of tone. And so he abandoned that idea to become a conductor instead.
Many have said that Elgar’s melodies reflect the lines of the Malvern Hills, and so when I went on my Elgar tour the other day, I made sure to climb up Worcestershire Beacon to see the magnificent rolling countryside for myself.
Worcestershire Beacon is part of the Malvern Hills which run for about 8 miles north to south along the Worcestershire-Herefordshire border. It is the highest point in Worcestershire rising to 425 metres or 1,394 feet. I actually managed to climb up it!!