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June 2 Composer birthday: Elgar, the ultimate “be proud of this achievement” composer

June 2 Composer birthday: Elgar, the ultimate “be proud of this achievement” composer featured image

Alice, the woman behind Edward Elgar’s success, poses with her husband

Edward Elgar was the ultimate composer of Edwardian England. He was the first significant classical composer since Purcell a few centuries before. While he doesn’t use English folk tunes to capture an English sound, if anything he captured the English attitude: broad, dignified melodies, mighty in tone, which inspired feelings of pride and inspiration. It’s likely the reason why his music is the standard soundtrack to graduation ceremonies across the globe.

Elgar’s rise to success was slow, as he considered himself an outsider – a Catholic from little means in Protestant England, who did not benefit from years of musical study, as he was entirely self-taught. He married up – the daughter of a major-general and published author, a family active in high society. This woman, Caroline Alice Roberts, called “Alice”, was an extraordinary woman who deserves a great deal of credit for Elgar’s success. Her horrified family disinherited her when she married Elgar, an unknown musician who worked in a shop. Once they married, she looked after his business affairs, was his secretary, put up with the composer’s dips in morale as a struggling artist, and had a sharp ear (she was originally his student) for music. Their marriage was a true partnership. Through her society connections, she helped him network as best she could. Later on, he realized the incredible sacrifices she made for him, and accepted the honours bestowed upon him, knowing it would give them a semblance of status in society, which mattered to her, and was the least he could do for her.

If you graduated high school or university, chances are good you heard Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 2:

If you were up in the middle of the night (as I was, since my family was visiting Banff that summer) to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding, you would have heard Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 4. This was performed during the recessional, as the couple walked out of St. Paul’s Cathedral to wave to the crowds.

Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet, was born June 2, 1857 in Worcester, England, and died February 23, 1934, in Wercestershire.

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