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Happy birthday, Sir Edward Elgar

Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, Last Night at the Proms 2006, with cameo appearances by HM The Queen and a crescendo of voices singing Land of Hope and Glory.

Sir Edward William Elgar, baronet (1857–1934), composer and conductor, was born on 2 June 1857 at The Firs, Broadheath, Worcestershire, the fourth of the seven children of William Henry Elgar, a tradesman, and his wife, Ann, the daughter of a Herefordshire farmworker.

Edward Elgar’s father owned a shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. He was also a piano-tuner, and took his young son with him to play on the pianos he tuned. Years later the composer could remember the yarns spun for his benefit by the old ostler who watered his father's horse. The boy loved music, literature, and the countryside. He liked to sit on a riverbank with pencil and music paper, trying to fix the sounds he heard. Lacking the money for music lessons or conservatory study, he went to work in his father's shop, where he studied scores on his lunch break and taught himself harmony, counterpoint, and form. The most helpful book was one by Mozart, "something human", he said later, and "the only document in existence of the smallest use to a student composer".

By the time he was 26, Elgar had composed a number of musical pieces, but aside from a few small orchestras, no one seemed to recognize how good they were. He didn't mind. He had fallen in love. Unfortunately the woman contracted TB, and left for New Zealand. Not long afterwards he met Alice, who fell in love with him. Alice believed in his genius, and married him despite the indignation of her wealthy family.

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Alice was right. Small and indomitable, she made countless sacrifices to make sure her husband had the time to compose, and Elgar created some of Britain's most romantic and popular orchestral and choral works, including the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. When Alice died, he quit composing.

The DNB writes,

“He wrote magnificently for voices and as an orchestral colourist he could stand comparison with Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Parry said of him that ‘he reached the hearts of the people’: his ceremonial music has become part of the national heritage, while his lighter pieces appeal to a public which might not care as much for his symphonies and oratorios. But they are all a part of the whole man, tributaries feeding into the mainstream. That he was largely self-taught is miraculous. . .”

You can read about him this week in the DNB .


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