Edward Elgar – Enigmatic composer who saw both heights of fame and depths of anonymity

English music composer Edward Elgar’s birthday falls on June 2. He struggled for fame, got it and lost it. But is it fame that he really wanted? Or was he influenced by the women in his life?

Edward Elgar with his beloved dogs
Edward Elgar with his beloved dogs

Kartikey Sehgal

Western music lovers may not be familiar with enigmatic English composer Edward Elgar’s name but they know his work and admire it. He struggled for fame, got it and lost it. But is it fame that he really wanted? Or was he influenced by the women in his life?

He is popular among movie lovers today. They may not know his name, but they know his music from the very popular film Dunkirk (2017).

In his lifetime (1857 – 1934), this English composer saw immense popularity, and then, suddenly, he realised that he was forgotten by those who loved him.

Mr and Mrs. Elgar
Mr and Mrs. Elgar

He was knighted by the Queen, but he was also sensitive about his farm-life upbringing. But it’s that same farm life that gave him imagination. His mother encouraged him to read literature and enjoy the beautiful English countryside. Thus, even though he couldn’t get into expensive schools, Edward developed a keen sense of art.

Later, he married his student, a woman eight years older to him. This woman’s family disinherited her as she had married an unknown composer. However, she tried her best to bring Edward’s music into the chic social circles. She didn’t succeed much. But she never resented her efforts. She believed that, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.”

Meanwhile, Edward became gloomy and sad as success eluded him. Until he met August Jaeger who promoted him and encouraged him to not give up.

It is said that August reminded Edward about another composer, Beethoven – if Beethoven could make music despite his increasing deafness, Edward too can come out of depression and persist!

The friendship bloomed, as did Edward’s music. His work titled Enigma Variations became popular. It is remembered till today. One of the pieces from this work, called Nimrod, was prominently used in the film Dunkirk and to great effect. Edward’s other works brought him good fame and money. His wife’s desire to see him in the highest social circles came true.

And then, the fame dissolved. From being considered as one of the greatest modern composers, to being considered out of fashion, Edward saw closely the fickle nature of fame.

After all, before being sidelined as old-fashioned, he was dismissed as being too modern! This is what he wrote to August in a letter in 1900:

“It is curious to be treated by the old-fashioned people as a criminal because my thoughts and ways are beyond them.”

Eventually, he preferred living in the countryside, lonely, but in the company of his beloved dogs.

Critics say that the real reason for his withdrawal from society and music, was the death of his wife. He could not get over the loss. Perhaps it was for her sake that he was trying to fit in to the rich lifestyle. After her, he lost the reason and went back to what his mother had originally encouraged in him – a love for the English countryside.

Could the answer lie in this quote:

“Anything obscene or trivial is blessed in this world and has a reward – I ask for no reward – only to live and to hear my work.”

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