Elgar's Enigma Variations began at the piano, the composer improvising a melancholic tune that caught the ear of his wife, Alice. Elgar wondered what would happen if it were interpreted by some of their friends, and the Enigma Variations, one of English music's greatest orchestral works, was born.
Dedicated to 'my friends pictured within', each movement is entitled with the initials or name of the person it is based on, starting after the theme with Elgar's wife and ending with the composer himself. The 'enigma' of the title, however, has never been solved, Elgar writing: "the 'Enigma' I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed....further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played".
The work had its first performance on 19 June 1899 at St James' Hall, London, conducted by the great Hans Richter. It has remained a constant favourite in the repertoire and contains variations of great beauty, such as Nimrod, alongside more humorous elements in Troyte, G.R.S and Dorabella.
The leading British composer of his time, Sir Edward Elgar composed a significant amount of orchestral music and arguably the greatest oratorio by an Englishman. Much of his music, in drawing inspiration from the culture and landscape of England, has become particularly popular as an expression of national culture. However, in his style, he leans more toward the influence of continental Europe than any home grown musical traditions.
Elgar was born near Worcester on 2 June 1857, the son of a local piano tuner, organist and music shop-owner. As a child he won praise for his improvisations at the piano, but had little formal music tuition. After undergoing a local Catholic education, Elgar began work at a local Solicitor's office, but left at the age of 16 to become a freelance musician.
For many years, Elgar taught violin, played in various local orchestras, and conducted. He made trips up to London to hear works by Wagner, Schumann and Brahms , and composed often. However, none of his early works seem particularly exceptional, and none were performed until the 1880s.
In the late 1880s he found someone to share his own self-belief, a piano pupil named Caroline Alice Roberts. The couple married on 8 May 1889 even though Caroline came from a higher social class. In a bid to establish himself, Elgar resigned his midlands appointments and moved to London. A number of publications appeared, but no major performances took place and, dejected, the Elgars moved back to the Malverns.
Throughout the 1890s, Elgar's reputation began to grow in the provinces, prompting in 1897 the foundation of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society, which Elgar conducted until 1904. He wrote a number of cantatas, including Caractacus for the Leeds Festival of 1898, and heard a great deal of Wagner, Weber and Gounod.
However, it was the Enigma Variations of 1899 that brought Elgar to national prominence. The most distinguished British orchestral work yet written, it was quickly followed by one of the greatest oratorios, The Dream of Gerontius, prompting Richard Strauss to hail Elgar as 'the first English progressivist'.
These years of success were also marked by financial instability and in 1904, Elgar even talked of teaching the violin again to make ends meet. Prestigious honours continued to pour in, including honorary doctorates from Cambridge and Yale and, for a short time, Elgar also held the new Professorial Chair of Music at Birmingham University.
Having moved to a house in Hereford called 'Plas Gwyn', Elgar concerned himself with writing a first symphony. It finally appeared in 1908 and was a huge success, performed from St Petersburg to New York to huge acclaim.
After completion of the Second Symphony, Elgar moved back to London in 1912. However, war was looming and Elgar's music for the Coronation Ode of 1902 (based on the trio for the 1st Pomp and Circumstance March) had already acquired the Benson's words of 'Land of Hope and Glory'. When war broke out, Elgar begged for more restrained words as the tune swept the nation.
Elgar's Cello Concerto, composed in an isolated Sussex cottage, is generally regarded as a wistful and elegiac requiem for a society destroyed by war. Its first performance in October 1919 was the last first performance of any major Elgar work. Alice Elgar had been very ill and on 7 April 1920, she died taking a large part of Elgar's creativity with her.
A period of creative retirement followed. Elgar, fearing that his time had passed, wrote little more than arrangements or small-scale works, and spent more time in the recording studio than composing. His low self-confidence must have been further shaken by EJ Dent's inflammatory article describing Elgar's music as 'too emotional and not quite free from vulgarity'.
Senior musicians rushed to his defence and, perhaps also buoyed by an emotional attachment to young violinist Vera Hockman, Elgar began a last period of creative activity. Work on an opera and on a 3rd Symphony, commissioned by the BBC, proceeded at a pace until the autumn of 1933 when an operation revealed that the composer had been suffering from cancer.
Having gained assurances that no one would be allowed to 'tinker' with the Symphony (since 'completed' against his last wishes), Elgar was able to return home, where he died on 23 February 1934. He was buried next to his wife.