His times: Elgar was born eight years before the Finn Jean Sibelius, a composer who like many others on the edges of Europe would become associated with musical ‘nationalism’. That idea arrived late to England, which at the time of Elgar’s rise and success hadn’t had a composer of international significance for more than a century. But it was he who arguably kick-started nationalism on these shores, even if it was only brought to fruition by the generation of composers after him. Perhaps Elgar will be most associated with Edwardian England, its air of nobility, duty and restraint – even if much of his music suggests otherwise.
His music: Elgar himself never used folk melodies in his works, but there can be little doubt his music ‘sounds’ English. Some say that’s because his melodies and climaxes always stop just short of full declamation in a very ‘English’ way; others say a typical Elgar melodic line imitates the pattern of English speech in its wide leaps and falling intervals. But Elgar’s music is both acutely moving and assuredly Romantic – its language comes from Brahms and Wagner (the latter had a huge effect on him) while belying the anger and frustrations the often-marginalised, Roman Catholic Elgar felt about early 20th-century, war-ravaged Britain.
Himself: Elgar worked for all his success. As a youngster he took jobs in accountancy offices and played the violin as a freelancer at the back of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra while also conducting the band at a local West Midlands asylum. In a sense, he taught himself and, perhaps for that reason, was often visited by neurosis and self-doubt when viewing his own work. While he’s sometimes viewed as the artistic exponent of the virtues of Empire, Elgar was actually a rather introverted man – visited frequently by feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression.