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ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR: Enigma Variations / In the South / Coronation March
BBC Music Magazine
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Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934)
Enigma Variations / In the South / Coronation March
We tend to forget that the most famous English composer, Edward Elgar, was 42 before the nation realised that at long last they had a symphonist of international stature. The work that was to change his fortunes was a curious score that became known as the 'Enigma' Variations.
He was born in Worcester in the west-midlands of England in 1857, the fourth of seven children to William Henry Elgar, a piano tuner and music shop owner. He was destined to be a musician from an early age, and by the time he was ten he had composed music for a family play, of such quality that he was to use it in later life. His parents were not wealthy and he had a basic education, having to start work from the age of 15 in a solicitors office. He was, however, a proficient pianist, organist and violinist, and at 16 decided to chance his life as a freelance musician. He never again had a permanent post, and for the next ten years worked as a professional, but largely in the world of amateur music, conducting local choirs and orchestras. He continued to compose and had several of his works played by local orchestras. By now he was also teaching and in 1886 he had sufficient income to marry a wife from an affluent background.
They moved to London in 1890, but he was not accepted as a musician or composer, and retreated to Malvern, near to his place of birth, the following year. But if London had rejected him, he did begin to make headway in the provinces, and in 1896 a major choral score, 'The Light of Life' was given its first performance in Worcester at the Three Choirs Festival, one of England's most prestigious annual festivals. Then in 1899 came that work that changed his life, the 'Enigma' Variations. It was in the next twenty years that his major output was composed, for while he was 42 before recognition arrived, he also to write no large-scale work in the last 15 years of his life. Maybe the death of his wife in 1920 removed much of the purpose of life and also the support that his very existence needed.
He died in 1934 having composed two symphonies, concertos for both violin and cello, a number of symphonic poems, choral works both sacred and secular, chamber music and a limited amount of instrumental music.
The 'Enigma' Variations started out life as something of a humorous exercise, picturing his friends in music. At first some of them were only known by their initials in the score, but the owners names were soon discovered. The theme, however, has remained a secret, and though many believed they have unearthed its origin, it is still an 'Enigma'. Certainly much of its immediate attraction comes in the virtuosity of the score, the short sections contrasting the mercurial with slow pictures of great beauty. Nimrod, one of the long slow sections, has become a work in its own right, recently entering the world of 'pop' classics. Equally it has a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than British music of that time, yet the grandiose finale is a foreigner's view of England amid the pomp of the past empire.
After the success of his oratorio, 'The Apostles' in 1903, he took a holiday in Italy, staying in Alassio. It proved to be the stimulus for the overture, 'In the South'. It is a virile score, rich with thematic material, and full of sun. Yet there is still something of the Malvern Hills in the background.
Coronation March comes from 1911, and is one of a number of marches written for specific occasions. They did, however, tend to become so popular that they deflected from Elgar's major works, and at times he wished to reject them.
Made in September 1995 at the Wessex Hall in the Poole Arts Centre.
The Enigma Variations is one of the most frequently recorded works by a British composer. The difference here is the conductor - George Hurst - who directed the Naxos recording of Elgar's First Symphony rated number 1 by the world's leading Elgar authority Jerold Northrop Moore.
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ELGAR: Enigma Variations / In the South / Coronati...