A Pen Picture
The picture often painted of Elgar is of the social outsider, a devout Catholic, snubbed by the English musical establishment but eventually, through the force of his music, reaching the pinnacle of British society and close friendship with royalty. As with all caricatures, there is some truth in this, but it is far from the whole picture.
Unlike his close contemporaries Parry and Stanford, Elgar’s was not a privileged background. He was born on 2nd June 1857 in the small Worcestershire village of Lower Broadheath, to a mother of farming stock and a father who was a piano tuner and proprietor of a music shop close to Worcester Cathedral. When recognition arrived, Parry and Stanford, at that time both composers of some esteem, were quick to speak out in support of him. And if their support seemed at times ambivalent, it should be remembered that Elgar, conscious of his lack of social standing, was acutely sensitive to any perceived hint of criticism.
After a number of abortive attempts to gain acknowledgment, first as a violinist and later as a composer, Elgar finally achieved fame both in Britain and abroad, with his Variations on an Original Theme ‘The Enigma’. The immediate success of this work was the starting point for a wide ranging output that included symphonic composition, concerti, oratorio and chamber music as well as a selection of light salon pieces of infinite charm. Elgar’s interests outside of music were many and varied. He was an enthusiastic cyclist and golfer, enjoyed a day at the races, had a keen interest in literature and was an amateur scientist, having at least one scientific patent to his name.
Supported by the ever faithful Alice, whom he had married in 1889 and with whom he had a daughter, Carice, Elgar continued to compose with varying degrees of public and critical acclaim. In 1904, he was knighted by King Edward VII, the first of many honours and awards he was to receive up until his death in 1934.