10 of Elgar’s greatest pieces of music

29 July 2022, 15:56 | Updated: 11 August 2022, 12:54

Elgar’s greatest compositions
Elgar’s greatest compositions. Picture: Alamy
Classic FM

By Classic FM

From Nimrod to the enduring Cello Concerto – here are the most memorable works of English composer, Edward Elgar.

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Best-known for his sweeping orchestral works, Sir Edward Elgar is one of Britain’s most popular, home-grown composers.

Although often heralded as a typically English composer, Elgar’s musical influences included the likes of Brahms, Wagner and Dvořák, making his work more sophisticated and complex than it would initially seem. His final masterpiece was the Cello Concerto, completed in June 1919. After the death of his beloved wife in 1920, Elgar went into retirement. He continued however to work on a third symphony, a piano concerto and an opera before his death in 1934.

Elgar’s works are often thought to be synonymous with the Age of Empire and stirring patriotism. But the personal tragedies of his life imbue his music with a melancholy grandeur, emotional depth and a unique nostalgia. Here are 10 of his most memorable pieces of music.

Read more: 10 British composers who shaped the nation’s classical music legacy

  1. The Dream of Gerontius (1900)

    Elgar’s finest choral work may well be his masterpiece – he wrote “This is the best of me” on the final page of the manuscript. The text is based on a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which tells the story of the journey of a righteous man’s soul from his deathbed, to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. Gerontius’s popularity has only grown over time – it was initially poorly received and was banned in some cathedrals for its overtly Roman Catholic theme.

    Read more: 10 of the best 20th-century composers

  2. Cello Concerto (1919)

    Although now considered a stone-cold masterpiece, inadequate rehearsal time meant the premiere of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in 1919 was a disaster. In fact, the piece languished somewhat until Jacqueline du Pré’s seminal recording in the 1960s. It was Elgar’s last major work before he opted for semi-retirement after the death of his wife. That – and the knowledge of the piece’s origins in the aftermath of WWI – lend it an almost supernatural sense of melancholy.

  3. Violin Concerto (1909-10)

    An unimpeachable classic, the Violin Concerto was composed for Fritz Kreisler, one of the all-time great violinists. This gives it an unquestionable pedigree. Even Elgar the perpetual self-critic thought highly of it, apocryphally announcing; “It’s good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional, but I love it.” Although dedicated to Kreisler, Elgar wrote an inscription in Spanish, “Aqui está encerrada el alma de …” (“Herein is enshrined the soul of …”), a quotation from the novel Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage. Several names have been proposed to match the mysterious inscription.

    Read more: 13 glorious pieces of English classical music

  4. Enigma Variations – includes ‘Nimrod’ (1898-99)

    The road to Elgar becoming an overnight sensation had been a long one. Already a quarter of a century into perfecting his art, he was an unlikely celebrity in his 40s. His series of variations on hidden themes is still the go-to guessing-game – academics never tire of trying to identify the unplayed theme on which the variations are based. The work’s high-point, ‘Nimrod’, written for Elgar’s friend August Jaeger, was to serve as Jaeger’s musical epitaph, when he died in 1909. This, exacerbated by the horrors of the First World War and Elgar’s wife’s death somewhat later, almost destroyed the composer’s writing. He certainly never recovered emotionally.

  5. Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901-30)

    The Pomp and Circumstance Marches are a series of five marches for orchestra composed over a period of almost 30 years. A sixth was intended but not completed until 2006, when Anthony Payne completed it from Elgar’s notes. Each march was dedicated to a particularly close friend. A lover of all things “establishment” – the title comes from a quote from Othello – Elgar was delighted at the almost-overnight adoption of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – a vocal setting of March No.1 – as the second, unofficial National Anthem (although that might just have to go to Jerusalem now).

    Read more: What are the lyrics to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’?

  6. Symphony No.2 (1911)

    Like many elements of Elgar’s life and work, the inspiration behind his second symphony remains something of a mystery. Officially dedicated to the recently passed King Edward VII, some believe his friend Alice Stuart Wortley was its true inspiration, perhaps given validity by a supposed affair between the two. Unfortunately for the composer, the symphony seemed to lack the immediacy of his previous works, with the composer uncharitably comparing its premiere audience to ‘stuffed pigs’. Like many great works, it took a while for its genius to be fully appreciated.

  7. Salut d’Amour (1888)

    This touching vignette was an engagement present from Elgar to Caroline. Mere rings would not sufficiently express this couple’s love, so she wrote poems which he set to music. It was originally titled Liebesgruss (Love’s Greeting) and written for piano, but Elgar also arranged it for violin and piano and orchestrated the work. His publisher renamed all three versions Salut d’Amour, which seemed to boost its sales in the music shops.

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  8. Serenade for Strings (1892)

    ‘Short and sweet’ best describes this piece in three short movements. Its significance lies in the fact the composer considered it his first satisfying work. Dedicated to E. W. Whinfield – a local musician and builder of instruments – it mixes the traditional and contemporary, with massive dollops of an innate self-confidence.

  9. Sea Pictures (1894)

    Sea Pictures, a work based on poems by five different authors, is the only song cycle Elgar wrote for voice and orchestra. The performance required contralto Clara Butt to dress as a mermaid. Following the success of his Enigma Variations it only served to confuse critics and public alike – again.

  10. Symphony No.1 (1908)

    “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” No wonder the Great War and loss, crushed Elgar. His first Symphony was lauded when premiered and remains somewhat a beacon of hope. In its first year, nearly one hundred performances were given globally. From today’s vantage point, its innocence and hope seem desperately innocent and misguided.