In conversation with Catherine Nasskau
CN: Sir Edward, thank you for sparing the time to chat to us today about life and work. Could you tell us something about your early years?
EE: My pleasure, even though I am not very used to talking to someone from the modern age. I was born many years ago in 1857. My father owned a music shop and was a church organist who taught me the piano, organ, and violin. It was a wonderful upbringing, but I always felt something of an outsider, not only musically, but socially.
CN: In what way?
EE: Well, in musical circles dominated by academics, I was a self-taught composer. And in Protestant Britain, my Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters. Furthermore, in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, I was acutely sensitive about my humble origins, even after I achieved recognition.
CN: But you found local employment as a young man?
EE: Yes, I conducted, performed, taught, composed and managed to scrape by. But then everything changed in 1889 when I married the lovely Caroline Alice Roberts who was a published novelist, and also of some wealth.
CN: I understand the early days of your career were a little shaky.
EE: Indeed, but Alice inspired me both musically and socially. She and many friends stood behind me during this time, and I wrote my next major work as a tribute to them all in 1899. This was the 'Enigma Variations' which suddenly catapaulted me to fame and was immediately popular in Britain and overseas.
CN: And this was the start of your most fruitful period, the first decade of the twentieth century, during which you wrote some of your noblest, most expressive music.
EE: It was truly a golden age, before the horrors that were to come. During this time I composed the 'Sea Pictures', a song cycle of five songs by various poets. I wrote it initially for a soprano but then transposed it to lower keys for an orchestral version, largely at the request of Miss Clara Butt. The premiere was in 1899, conducted by myself with Miss Butt singing and dressed as a mermaid! We later performed it for Queen Victoria at Balmoral.
CN: Was it in this period that you composed the Pomp and Circumstance Marches?
EE: Yes. It was a glorious time, and the first of these, subtitled "Land of Hope and Glory", became an unofficial national anthem for the British Empire. I also composed chamber music and songs.
CN: And in 1909, one of your greatest works, 'The Dream of Gerontius'. But I understand the Anglican establishment were not too happy about it.
EE: No, they were not. 'Gerontius' was based on a Roman Catholic text and it caused some disquiet in the Anglican establishment in Britain. But I was never going to take much notice of them when it came to music!
CN: You might be pleased to know that, despite their reaction, 'The Dream of Gerontius' has become a core repertory work in Britain and elsewhere.
EE: That is good to hear, especially as I believe my later full-length religious choral works, although initially well received, did not then enter the regular repertory. But I then suffered a terrible blow when my friend and publisher Jaeger (the Nimrod of the 'Enigma Variations') died later that year.
CN: Was it this that led to a drop in your productivity?
EE: Yes and, without doubt, the horrors of the World War also greatly deepened my melancholic outlook.
CN: Although you are often regarded as a typically English composer, most of your musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. Could you tell us a little about that?
EE: I had great respect for German music, which is one reason I why I found the war so extremely unfathomable. How could Germans be the enemy when they had given the world so much?
But I was still inspired to compose, and in 1919 I wrote the Cello Concerto in E minor. My beloved Alice was very ill at this time and the deep sadness and impending loss I was feeling came out in the music. And then she sadly died the following year. I am not sure I ever fully recovered.
CN: Is there anything else you would like to say?
EE: Just that I hope tonight's audience can be uplifted by the 'Sea Pictures', and feel a little revived by the words and music from one of the happiest times of my life.
In 1924 Edward Elgar was appointed Master of the King's Musick. He set to work on a third symphony, but this was left unfinished at his death in 1934.