Sir Edward Elgar was born in 1857 in Broadheath, a small village just outside the City of Worcester[i]. Elgar, one of Britain’s leading composers of the era, is synonymous with Worcestershire to where he often returned during his life.
Elgar’s father owned a music shop in Worcester’s High Street, and his family was musical[ii]. Hence, the young Elgar had always been thoroughly immersed in music, laying down the foundations which drove his determination to become a composer and musician, despite being entirely self-taught[iii].
Much of Elgar’s music is reflective of the people and countryside within his home county, from which he drew inspiration[iv]. It is understood that Elgar harnessed the peace and tranquillity of Worcestershire’s landscape and the rolling Malvern Hills to influence some of his music[v].
Throughout Elgar’s life, he maintained close ties with the Three Choirs Festival which has been held at Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester Cathedrals respectively almost each summer since the early eighteenth century[vi]. One of Elgar’s most notable works is The Dream of Gerontius, written in 1900 for the Birmingham Music Festival, and subsequently performed at the 1902 Three Choirs Festival. Elgar offered The Dream in place of The Apostles which was too much of an extensive endeavour at that time[vii]. At its première, due to the complexity of the score and lack of expertise of the chorus, the performance was a disappointment. However, future performances were to prove that this was not the case, and it is now regarded as Elgar’s finest and most impressive composition.
Based on the poem Dream of Gerontius, written by John Henry Newman, the oratorio draws upon Catholic theology. This caused upset for some Anglican clergy who wrote to Sir Ivor Atkins requiring him to adapt the language for performance at the Three Choirs Festival[viii]. Later performances at the Three Choirs Festivals in the 1920s and 30s saw Elgar being invited to conduct The Dream, demonstrating that the piece had become accepted[ix]. In fact, he had also been invited to conduct it in 1914, but the festival had not gone ahead due to the outbreak of the First World War[x]. The Cathedral’s Library holds an original score of the oratorio, signed by Elgar on 15th March 1917[xi]. In March this year Worcester Festival Choral Society will be performing The Dream at Worcester Cathedral, celebrating Elgar’s music within his home city and cathedral.
When Elgar visited the Cathedral on 15th March 1917, it was for a Red Cross fundraising concert, which he conducted[xii]. A number of works by various composers were performed, including Elgar’s famous setting of For the Fallen, a commemorative piece for those who had lost their lives during World War One. The 1917 concert was staged by the Worcester Festival Choral Society and the Cathedral Choir. It cost them £15 to produce. All donations collected from the audience at the concert were given to the Worcester Red Cross Depots. On the 11th November each year, places of worship across the UK and beyond commemorate those who in the armed forces sacrificed their lives in conflicts and Elgar’s music plays a fundamental role in these remembrance services.
Another famous piece is Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which has been performed a number of times locally[xiii]. The Enigma Variations, a collection of fourteen movements, were written between 1898 to 1899 and the whole piece is dedicated to Elgar’s friends[xiv]. The most famous movement, Nimrod, is one of Elgar’s most celebrated compositions. The word enigma means a mystery or puzzle; the variations are based on people he knew in his life. Nimrod is Enigma IX and represented August Jaeger, his publisher and close friend. On one particular occasion, on visiting Elgar who was depressed at the time, Jaeger encouraged him to write beautiful music and the result was the beginning of the Nimrod Variation[xv].
Worcester Cathedral Music Library and Archive.
Kevin Allen, Gracious Ladies: The Norbury Family and Edward Elgar, Kevin Allen, Alverstoke 2013.
E. Wulstan Atkins, The Elgar-Atkins Friendship, David and Charles, London 1984.
Anthony Boden, Three Choirs. A History of the Festival, Alan Sutton, Stroud 1992
Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987.
Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar. A Creative Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1990
[i] Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar. A Creative Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1990, p.8
[ii] Worcester Cathedral Music Archive (hereafter WCMA) A1.3.B4, A1.3.B12
[iii] Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987, p.15
[iv] E. g. Kevin Allen, Gracious Ladies: The Norbury Family and Edward Elgar, Kevin Allen, Alverstoke 2013.
[v] Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987, p.334
[vi] Anthony Boden, Three Choirs. A History of the Festival, Alan Sutton, Stroud 1992, p.10
[vii] E. Wulstan Atkins, The Elgar-Atkins Friendship, David and Charles, London 1984, p. 51
[viii] WCMA D5.14.5 and D5.14.6
[ix] WCMA D5.12.11 and D5.12.14
[x] WCMA D5.11.23
[xi] WCML B.1.7
[xii] WCMA C1.14.43
[xiii] WCMA D5.11.12, M4.32.19
[xiv] WCMA M4.32.19, p.9
[xv] Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987, p. 93