Sir Edward Elgar
The Music Makers
Born: 2 June 1857, in Broadheath (near Worcester)
Died: 23 February 1934, in Worcester
Although he eventually became the leading British composer of his day, Edward William Elgar had a background that did not suggest such a destiny. He was born in the English Midlands, near Worcester (pronounced “wooster,” obviously), rather far from the center of British musical life in London; he was from the wrong social class (his father was in “trade”—the horror!); and he was Catholic at a time when Catholics were still very much a minority in Britain and looked upon with some suspicion (readers born before the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States may remember fears that his first allegiance would be to the Pope rather than to the Constitution). Rather more significantly, he had almost no formal musical training and also lacked the connections that an Oxbridge education could bring.
But Elgar was not without his own set of advantages. Worcester was one of the venues of the important Three Choirs Festival, which was held there each three years, and it served as an important training ground for Elgar (he played violin in the festival orchestra, for example; he also played bassoon). His family was musical; his father played organ and violin, tuned pianos, and was the organist at St. George’s Catholic church. The church performed masses by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and others, with orchestra, and visiting opera singers sang there as well. And it was immensely useful that, even though Elgar’s father was a shopkeeper, he was not, say, a greengrocer: the shop he kept was a music store. Thus Elgar had an entire musical world at his fingertips, for the family lived over the shop.
Most important of all was Elgar’s own assiduity in acquiring musical experience. His desire to study at the Leipzig Conservatory was impossible to realize, but after a short stint in a solicitor’s office, this resourceful and almost entirely self-taught young man earned his living through music, playing in and conducting various ensembles (and assisting and then succeeding his father as church organist), teaching violin, helping his father in the shop, composing works for local groups and writing popular-style pieces for publication. He also visited London regularly to experience the most up-to-date music; for a while he studied violin there as well bur recognized that the career of a soloist was beyond him.
In 1889 Elgar married “up” when he wed Alice Roberts, the daughter of a Major General. Alice, who was nine years older than Elgar, wrote poetry and sang in a choir (typical female activities for the time), knew German (not so typical), and had published a novel (not at all typical). Her unshakeable belief in her husband and her social skills were important for his development, even if he remained susceptible to the attractions of other women (e.g. Alice Stuart Wortley, his “Windflower.”) The Elgars had one child, Carice (a contraction of Alice Elgar’s full name, Caroline Alice), born in 1890. The family lived briefly in London but then returned to the Midlands when it became impossible for Elgar to earn a living in the capital.
Elgar continued composing and his works met with increasing success. In 1897 his Imperial March was created for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and brought widespread recognition, but that was surpassed by the acclaim given to his “Enigma” Variations from two years later. This composition, Elgar’s second-most-famous work, consists of a theme and 14 variations, the first and last representing Alice Elgar and Elgar himself, respectively, while the other dozen present portraits of friends. My absolute favorite is “Nimrod,” for August Jaeger, Elgar’s publisher and close friend. I can only imagine what Jaeger’s reaction must have been when he heard this noble and deeply moving tribute.
1899 also produced Elgar’s lovely orchestral song cycle Sea Pictures, and the following year saw his most famous choral work, the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. That premiere was unsuccessful (the chorus master died while the work was in rehearsal, and the chorus simply wasn’t up to the part), but a performance in Germany two years later won the praise of Strauss and put the seal on the work’s importance.
The years before the start of the first World War saw a series of important works: his Cockaigne Overture, the Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra, his first and second symphonies, the Violin Concerto, his symphonic study Falstaff, the Music Makers, and two oratorios of a projected trilogy, The Apostles and The Kingdom (the third oratorio, The Last Judgement, was never finished). This was also the period of Elgar’s single most popular work (outpacing even the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius): the first of his five Pomp and Circumstance marches. The central portion of this march has served as the processional music for innumerable high school and college graduations around the world and shows no sign of ever being replaced; it’s just too perfect. Fitted with words some years later (as part of his choral/orchestral Coronation Ode, Op. 44, for the coronation of Edward VII), it became an alternative national anthem for Britain as The Land of Hope and Glory.
These years were also marked by a series of honors: knighthood in 1904, a three-day Elgar Festival the same year (the first ever for a living English composer), dinner with King Edward VII; honorary doctorates from Cambridge, Yale, and other institutions, the inaugural Peyton Professorship of Music at Birmingham University, the Order of Merit in 1911. He was also conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1911–1912, and moved back to London in 1912. The honors continued to accrue in later years: Master of the King’s Music from 1924, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1928, first Baronet of Broadheath 1931, Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order 1933. Not bad for a shopkeeper’s son!
Elgar wrote a batch of popular and patriotic works during the first World War. His last choral work, The Spirit of England (which includes “For the Fallen”) is considered the best of the batch. In general, few of his overtly flag-waving compositions have endured; imperialistic texts make most of them distasteful today and they did not bring out his best efforts. Diana McVeigh, for example, describes the once-popular Crown of India, written to mark the change of the Indian capital, as both “pompous” and “trivial.” Elgar produced his last major works shortly before and immediately after the conclusion of the war: three chamber works (the violin sonata, string quartet, and piano quintet) and his moving Cello Concerto, often considered Elgar’s own “war requiem.”
In 1920 Alice Elgar died, and no significant work was completed thereafter (a third symphony and an opera, The Spanish Lady, were left unfinished; Anthony Payne elaborated Elgar’s symphony sketches into a full work in 1998—against Elgar’s express wishes, however). Elgar left London in 1923, eventually moving back to Worcester, and was simultaneously both the Grand Old Man of English music and viewed as someone whose time had passed; certainly modernism had rendered his style old-fashioned (something that doesn’t matter to us today). Fortunately Elgar was fascinated by the burgeoning recording industry, so we have invaluable documentation of him conducting his own works. And we can also be glad that he stuck to his compositional guns without chasing trends that were uncongenial to him.
The Music Makers, Op. 69
After his three big oratorios (The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, The Kingdom), The Music Makers is Elgar’s best-known choral work. The ode set by Elgar is the creation for which British poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844–1881) is most famous; it was published in 1877. O’Shaughnessy is an unknown name to most today, and not simply because he died young; he stopped writing poetry at age 30, and in any event he was not one of the great talents of the age (think of Keats, who died at age 26). But his poem attracted Elgar, and the first two lines are enough to make any musician swoon. O’Shaughnessy’s day job, incidentally, was as a herpetologist (one who studies reptiles and amphibians), and four species of lizard bear his name today: Calumma oshaughnessyi, Cercosaura oshaughnessyi, Enyalioides oshaughnessyi, and Pachydactylus oshaughnessyi. Just thought you’d like to know.
Elgar expressed interest in the work as far back as 1902, but did not complete it until 1912; it was not part of a commission but simply a piece he wished to write. For contralto solo, SATB chorus (occasionally splitting into SSAATTBB), and orchestra, the work is a substantial one lasting almost 40 minutes, and his last major choral composition. It premiered at the Birmingham Festival on 1 October 1912, but was not a success.
The text, given below, is in nine stanzas, but Elgar did not simply set it straight through. He alters some words (indicated in italics) and repeats batches of text (marked in brackets), and not simply the immediate repetitions that all composers do. The entire sixth verse is repeated, for example, along with sections from other verses scattered throughout. Elgar’s treatment of the final verse is the most complex, and that section also has the most frequent key changes. The most significant repetition, though, is that of the opening couplet, which returns after verse 3, after the first iteration of verse 6, and at the very end of the piece. It is, of course, the most compelling text of the whole ode. The work is given as one long movement, but sections are delineated by tempo changes and often key changes as well. The soloist appears in verses 5, 6, and 9, but it is the choir alone that ends the work.
Overall the work is rather gloomy; it begins and ends in f minor and visits that key at various times within; minor mode in general is more common than major. Elgar’s Wagnerian influences show up here as well in an overall harmonic restlessness that doesn’t make the work especially easy to sing. One of the most striking things about the work, though, is Elgar’s use of self-quotation in various places (also a characteristic of Strauss’s self-glorifying Ein Heldenleben—“A Hero’s Life”—of 1899; Elgar knew the work). Elgar cites bits from the Enigma Variations (the theme appears not far into the orchestral introduction of Music Makers), the Dream of Gerontius (first on the word “dreams”), the Apostles, Sea Pictures (at “Wand’ring by lone seabreakers”), the Violin Concerto (thus referring to Alice Stuart-Wortley, the inspiration for the concerto), and both symphonies. He also quotes Rule Britannia at one of the references to empire that blot the text at certain points; La Marseillaise pops up as well). A quotation from the “Nimrod” variation of the Enigma Variations, in verse 5, accompanies the words “But on one man’s soul it hath broken, A light that doth not depart,” a tribute to August Jaeger (Elgar’s Nimrod), who had died in 1909.
In contrast to the braggadocio Strauss expressed in Heldenleben, the self-portrait implied throughout Music Makers is a much more subdued one. Elgar wrote that the theme from the Enigma Variations, quoted in Music Makers, represents the loneliness of the artist; he further added that a quote from Tasso that appeared at the end of the Variations score was equally appropriate here: “I essay much, I hope little, I ask nothing” (Elgar’s translation of “Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio”). And, in general, Elgar was not a cheerful or optimistic person. Byron Adams describes him as a “torturous personality, riven by lacerating self-doubt and envy;” adjectives used to describe Elgar include disillusioned, despondent, depressed, insecure, aggrieved. So the sadness that pervades much of the Music Makers reflects Elgar’s own melancholy on the fate of the artist. But remember that Elgar also wrote that “music is in the air”—simply there for the taking. And take he did.
- The Wand of Youth Suites 1 & 2, Op. 1
- Froissart Overture, Op. 19
- Serenade for Strings, Op. 20
- Imperial March, Op. 32
- Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (actual title = “Variations on an Original Theme”)
- Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Op. 39 (“Military Marches”)
- Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40
- Dream Children, Op. 43 (“Enfants d’un rêve”)
- Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47
- In the South (Alessio) Overture, Op. 50
- Symphony #1 in Ab, Op. 55
- Violin concerto in bm, Op. 61
- Symphony #2 in Eb, Op. 63
- Falstaff, Op. 68
- Cello concerto in em, Op. 85
- Symphony #3, Op. 88 (Elgar/Payne)
- The Black Knight, Op. 25
- Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, Op. 27
- The Light of Life, Op. 29
best known excerpt = “Light of the world, we know thy praise”
- King Olaf, Op. 30
best-known excerpt = “As torrents in summer”
- Caractacus, Op. 35
- The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
- The Apostles, Op. 49
best-known excerpt = “The spirit of the Lord is upon me”
- The Kingdom, Op. 51
- hearken thou, Op. 64
- The Music Makers, Op. 69
- Op. 2 choruses: Ave verum corpus, Ave Maria, Ave maris stella
- They are at rest
- My love dwelt in a northern land, Op. 18 #3
- Spanish Serenade, Op. 23
- Four Choral Songs, Op. 53
- There is sweet music
- Deep in my soul
- wild west wind
- Go, song of mine, Op. 57
- The Shower, Op. 71 #1
- Salut d’amour, Op. 12 (for violin and piano; also versions for solo piano and for orchestra)
- Violin Sonata in em, Op. 82
- String Quartet in em, Op. 83
- Piano Quintet in am, Op. 84
- Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (orchestral song cycle)
- Severn Suite, Op. 87 (for brass band)
- Organ Sonata, Op. 28
- The Starlight Express, Op. 78 (incidental music)
A Personal Note
Normally when I write an entry for The Choral Singer’s Companion, I am about to perform the work I’m writing about. The process of reading about the composer and gathering the information into an entry is one of the enjoyable tasks leading up to performance week. I don’t always have time to do this, so not everything I sing has generated an entry.
The Music Makers is a work I performed in 2012; I was grateful for the opportunity since I had never sung any Elgar, and the piece is not something that gets a lot of air time anyway (at least in America). I didn’t have time then to write an Elgar entry.
Because I’ve been listening to Elgar’s Cello Concerto recently, the Cambridge Companion to Elgar was one of the books I grabbed from my office when it looked as if I would not have access there for a while. Reading the book, and listening to the Cello Concerto, made me think more about The Music Makers. All of my choirs have fallen silent to prevent the spread of illness; like all choral singers, I miss rehearsal terribly, along with the wonderful voyage towards each concert. But, as always, “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” The silence is temporary; if now we can only dream, at some point we will sing again.