Saturday 17 March 2018

Self-taught composer who, even now, is never too far from the races

Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar

George Hamilton

There was a musical connection to the winner of the 8.05 at Windsor one summer's evening a few years back. Sir Edward Elgar came home at 15/8, his only success in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed.

The horse had an appropriate name all right, for the original Edward Elgar was a great fan of the turf. The quintessential English composer was a countryman at heart, and though he would go off to watch Wolverhampton Wanderers play football, racing was his recreation of choice.

He was born in 1857 in a village in the Malvern Hills near Worcester, famous these days for its stunning cathedral, its rugby and cricket teams, and a table sauce that's made there. The small city on the banks of the Severn was very much the centre of the young Elgar's world. His father had a music shop and tuned pianos in the big houses of the district. There wasn't the money to spend on a musical education for the fourth of seven children, so young Edward was pretty much self-taught.

He clearly had talent, and it was a source of much frustration that he couldn't go on to study when he left school at the age of 15.

Instead, he went to work as a clerk in a local solicitor's. That was enough to convince him he had to try to carve out a life in the world of music.

He got great support in this from the woman he would marry, Caroline Alice Roberts, who was eight years older than he was. The sweet 'Salut d'Amour' ('Love's Greeting') was his engagement present to her.

His sumptuous 'Serenade for Strings' marked his orchestral debut; the 'Enigma Variations' made his name. Elgar was already an Establishment favourite. It had been his 'Imperial March' that had featured in the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the British Queen Victoria.

The music flowed. The 'Dream of Gerontius', his choral masterpiece, and the song cycle 'Sea Pictures' were the pinnacles of his achievement for voice. There were two symphonies as well, and concertos for violin and cello, the latter becoming the signature piece of the late British performer Jacqueline du Pré.

Sport, though, was never too far away from Elgar's music making. The story is told of a recording session in Abbey Road in London in the 1930s. Yehudi Menuhin, just 16 at the time, was performing the violin concerto, with the composer himself conducting (it's available on Naxos 8.110902).

Menuhin's interpretation blew Elgar away. They wrapped there and then. There would be no Take Two. Elgar brought the youngster out for a day at the races.

And the connection lives on -- one of the private suites at the local racecourse in Worcester is called the Elgar Box, and there's a three-year-old chestnut gelding by the name of Edward Elgar that'll be seeking its first success for trainer Richard Whitaker when the flat racing season resumes.

  • George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment