The Great War; a Cavalry officer negotiates a mined road


Lo, all our pomp of yesterday 
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

For Stuart Millson, loss and decline inform Elgar’s music

The biographer Jerrold Northrop Moore remarks that if Elgar had died in his early thirties, his name today would only live on in specialist books about English music – his few, mainly choral works being given the occasional outing at provincial festivals. Elgar was 39 when his Norse saga, King Olaf, was written for a festival in North Staffordshire. His masterpiece, the Enigma Variations, championed by the great Wagnerian Hans Richter, would come three years later, in 1899.

Fortunately, Elgar lived a long life, drawing inspiration from many sources: the lanes and hills of Worcestershire, Herefordshire – and, in his Introduction & Allegro for strings, the coast of West Wales – and thirteen years later, the woodland and local legends of Sussex, in the Piano Quintet.

Elgar was also inspired by Britain’s imperial destiny and its history, and by sagas from the pen of Longfellow. It was from the latter that King Olaf derives. A “blue-eyed Norseman” and a Viking in reverse, Olaf converted to Christianity, was baptised in the Scilly Isles, and later set forth on expeditions to fight for his new religion. Noble and dramatic ideas pulse through the score, and the choral contributions anticipate The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom.

1897 saw the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. True to form, Elgar responded to the mood of the times with an Imperial March, and a cantata, The Banner of St. George, with words by Shapcott Wensley (the pseudonym of writer, Henry Shapcott Bunce), with “deathless heroes” and “glorious deeds of old” abounding.

Yet Elgar was in many ways an outsider – a man whose Roman Catholicism and social origins in the lower-middle-class (his father ran a music shop in Worcester) might well have set him against the grain of Britishness and the establishment. Yet the composer saw himself, above all, as a loyal Briton. Indeed, Elgar signed Sir Edward Carson’s pledge to defend British Protestant Ulster from absorption into Ireland. And throughout his life he was dedicated to the monarchy. Witness the Coronation Ode (1902) and the Second Symphony (1911).

During the First World War (too old to serve on the Western Front), he enlisted as a Special Constable, and tried to keep spirits high by conducting his patriotic “potboilers”, including The Fringes of the Fleet, with words by Kipling. But the desolation and destruction of the Western Front filled the composer of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with an equivalent sense of loss and hopelessness. Elgar was horrified by the death of a generation. But it was not just the dead soldiers which he mourned. The plight of the artillery horses of the Great War – “my beloved animals” – deeply affected him: “let God kill His human-beings”, he wrote in bitterness.

The years 1918-19 saw even greater introspection. The Piano Quintet and other chamber works from that time, inspired by rural Sussex, were said by Lady Elgar (who would die in 1920) to represent a “wood magic” or “captured sunshine”; and his Cello Concerto, probably one of his best-known works, is viewed as a memorial to a lost England – although many fathomless, complicated feelings are at work in this and other pieces.

The 1920s and ‘30s reportedly marked the end of Elgar’s inspiration, but he produced dark and lyrical music for a production of King Arthur at The Old Vic, and large-scale sketches were made for a BBC-commissioned Third Symphony – which he wrote on his deathbed. The symphony only received its premiere in 1998.

The greatest European, Russian and American conductors and composers performed and praised Elgar’s music. His wife recalled how they were feted at their appearance at the prestigious Lower Rhine Festival. Elgar was also honoured in the United States, when he was invited by the composer Horatio Parker to visit Yale. For Hans Richter, Elgar was “this English genius” and for Richard Strauss, he was “The first English progressive musician”. But the landscape of England and the drum-taps of imperial marches also echo in his greatest works.

Stuart Millson is QR’s classical music critic

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