In the face of all this unprecedented activity Great Britain was, culturally as well as geographically, aloof from the rest of Europe, with the narrow English Channel insulating the island from both the political upheaval and the musical innovations of the mainland. Ironically, Britain had become both the world’s most preeminent military superpower and the musical laughing stock of the European continent, being derided as “the country without music.” For centuries the British had few iconic composers to turn to, and no model on which to base the foundations of a new school of music. That tide would not begin to turn until the arrival of Edward Elgar around the turn of the 20th century.
Edward Elgar was a towering pinnacle amidst the barren plains of English Romanticism. Because of his fame both at home and abroad he was able to act as a two-way emissary in a way that no British composer had before. Not only did Elgar expose the European continent to English oratorio through his own music, he also brought the influence of German symphonic writing and late Romantic harmony to Great Britain. The result was a style that borrowed heavily from the preexisting classical tradition.
Perhaps most crucial to Elgar’s influence is his peculiar aversion to his own country’s folk music. While most nationalist schools began (in countries from Hungary to Spain to Mexico) with classically trained composers delving into their nation’s heritage and folklore, Elgar remained rigidly opposed to this. He even shunned some of Britain’s greatest composers, showing disdain for Renaissance composer William Byrd. Although Elgar did show admiration for composers of English vocal music, including Hubert Parry and Handel, his biggest inspiration came from 19th century composers from Germany and France, such as Brahms, Wagner, Berlioz and Delibes.
Elgar was an ambitious and innovative composer, but it took many years for his networking and musical abilities to catch up. His early works were criticized for their orchestration and general inconsistency, and as a result Elgar relied for many years on teaching in provincial towns for his income, as he was unable to make much through commissions. These humble years made the remarkable success and maturity of his breakthrough work, the 1899 orchestral work Enigma Variations all the more surprising.
Enigma Variations was a series of 14 variations, 13 of which describe several of Elgar’s close friends and the last of which is autobiographical. Enigma Variations achieved immense popularity in Great Britain, Germany and Italy, and composers as varied as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Gustav Mahler both expressed admiration for what was at the time one of the most impressive works from the entire British orchestral repertoire. The titular “enigma” lies in the fact that there is an underlying theme for these variations which is never explicitly stated but, according to Elgar, was a well-known song. To this day musicologists have not been able to agree on what piece Elgar was referring to.
Enigma Variations marked the beginning of an incredible period of creativity for Elgar in which he composed many of his best known works including The Dreams of Gerontius (1900), Violin Concerto in B minor, Cello Concerto in E minor (1919) and of course, the first four Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901-1907), the first of which has become a staple of graduation processionals. Sadly, the passing of Elgar’s wife Alice in 1920 took a heavy emotional toll on the composer, and although he outlived her by another 14 years he composed very little during this time.
It is impossible to understate the enormous impact Elgar had on the reputation and trajectory of British music. For the first time during the entirety of the Romantic era, composers and listeners abroad were clamoring to hear music from Britain. The next generations of composers, including men such as Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, would often differ immensely from Elgar, particularly on the decision to include folk music in their compositions. However, they all owed him an immense debt for starting a British musical Renaissance, the effects of which can still be felt today.