Imagine Elgar without his moustache. Not so flippant an approach to a great composer as it may seem, for there is, surely, an element of disguise about the whole of Elgar’s life and work. It is long since Elgar was regarded as simply the embodiment of the imperial spirit, all glory and swagger, his apotheosis the (belated) appointment as Master of the King’s Music. Now it is the introspective, sometimes tormented, side of the composer which dominates biographical studies. But if this latter interpretation was long in coming, it’s surely because Elgar loved the trappings that high society brought with it – the surface of his life was not without a certain element of bluster and snobbery.
We retain the image of the grand gentleman of the late years – Elgar with his dogs, the quintessential rural grandee. Osbert Sitwell wrote disparagingly of meeting ‘the plump wraith of Sir Edward Elgar, who with his grey moustache, grey hair, grey top hat and frock coat looked every inch a personification of Colonel Bogey’. But we are aware, too, of the other side of his character, the last years that saw Elgar trying, and largely failing, to return to large-scale composition after a gap of nearly 15 years. The photographs of him at work on the Third Symphony are very poignant and reveal a nobility of spirit largely absent from the images of the 1920s.
Was Elgar trying to disguise something? His public reaction would have been to scoff at the idea and he would surely have dismissed out of hand any attempt at psychoanalysis. Yet he was intensely self-aware, and his correspondence and reported words often drop hints of a much darker world beyond the surface brilliance of his creations – a darkness which often colours the music. He was prone to depression; even at the height of his popularity he would feel that he was undervalued. Ernest Newman wrote of his first meeting with Elgar in 1901 that ‘he gave me even then the impression of an exceptionally nervous, self-divided and secretly unhappy man’. In a letter to his confidante, Alice Stuart-Wortley, written in 1912 the day after finishing The Music Makers, Elgar wrote: ‘I wrapped myself in a thick overcoat & sat for two minutes, tears streaming out of my cold eyes and loathed the world, – came back to the house – empty and cold – how I hated having written anything: so I wandered out again & shivered & longed to destroy the work of my hands – all wasted…’
Such outpourings – and they were frequent – had nothing to do with a lack of self-confidence: quite the opposite. Elgar was fully aware of his own worth as a composer. But he was rarely at ease with the world: as a Catholic he felt himself to be something of an outcast in a largely Protestant society (in later life he seems to have become more or less an atheist). He could never forget that his father – the proprietor of a Worcester music shop – was merely a tradesman in the homes of the local gentry whose pianos he tuned. And having married, in 1889, into a higher stratum of society (Alice Roberts was the daughter of a general in the Indian Army), he could never rid himself of the feeling that he was being sneered at in the best circles.
Yet it was Alice Elgar who, by her belief in his future, gave Elgar the security he needed. Before she met him, she had published poetry and a two-volume novel, but any ambition she may have had for herself was completely subsumed in her unwavering devotion to the cause of her husband. Without Alice, Elgar might have remained no more than a provincial journeyman musician. After her death in 1920, he virtually abandoned composition.
Elgar was 76 when he died, but the masterpieces of his maturity all belong to a 20-year span, roughly from his 40th to his 60th year. With his early career of teaching and playing, it took him many years to find a truly individual voice. Oratorio and dramatic cantata were the mainstays of the British tradition, and at first he seemed destined to remain within it. Between 1889 and 1903 he wrote seven such works, but The Kingdom, the second part of a projected New Testament trilogy, was to be the last. In these choral works Elgar was already breaking with tradition through the importance of the role he gave to the orchestra; it was the orchestra which came to dominate his writing, beginning with the Enigma Variations in 1899.
The two symphonies, composed between 1907 and 1911 (although sketches for both of them date from much earlier), are the high point of his orchestral writing. The first sketch for the trio of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 – the ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ tune – dated from 1901 when he was trying to begin work on a symphony. But although he knew he had written ‘a tune that comes once in a lifetime’, he could not make it work in a symphonic context. Equal to the symphonies in scope are the Violin Concerto and Falstaff, while the two overtures Cockaigne and In the South are tours de force of orchestral mastery. The Cello Concerto of 1919 was Elgar’s swansong: nothing that he wrote subsequently has anything like the same substance, although the fragments of the Third Symphony, magnificently realised by Anthony Payne in 1997, reveal that the fires within were still smoldering.
Born in rural Worcestershire, Elgar remained a countryman at heart – his music lived and breathed the landscape in which he lived. He had no pupils or followers, and perhaps because of that, he felt, at the end of his life, ignored and out of place. But almost single-handedly he had created a tradition for English music that, since Purcell, had withered away. Without his commanding presence, the history of music in this country would have been radically different. More than a century after his first great successes, he would be pleased – and perhaps more than a little surprised – at the high regard in which he continues to be held.