In 1997, at the funeral of Princess Diana, and in 2021, at that of Prince Philip, the music included Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” one of his Enigma Variations. Elgar composed it around 1898, and it has featured at numerous other funerals and at Britain’s annual Service of Remembrance held on Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to 11 November. In 2022, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II included three short elegiac works by Elgar arranged for organ. Needless to say, the extent of Elgar’s music encompasses far more than stately melancholy.
Probably Elgar is best known for his marches. His Coronation March had its first performance in 1911, and “Land of Hope and Glory,” from his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, published in 1901, has become standard fare in the United States at high school and college graduations. In addition to composing five Pomp and Circumstance marches, Elgar’s “Triumphal March,” from the final scene of his cantata Caractacus, became the theme of a British television drama, The Regiment. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the history and legacy of the British Empire, anyone whose blood does not stir at the rousing drums and horns of Elgar’s March of the Mogul Emperors is clinically dead.
Compared to his marches, less well-known are Elgar’s orchestral works. Whereas his marches tend to last around five minutes, Elgar’s orchestral pieces often require more patience from modern listeners. For example, taken all together, his fifteen Enigma Variations will fill more than an hour. Moreover, in 1900 Elgar set to music a long dramatic poem published in 1865 by John Henry Newman, “The Dream of Gerontius.” Written for orchestra and chorus, with solo vocalists, it lasts more than an hour and a half. Then, in 1910 Elgar composed a violin concerto that runs around fifty-five minutes, the longest such concerto.
As Michael Kennedy observed in his The Life of Elgar (2004), Elgar composed “music that was often happy and boisterous but just as often withdrawn and lonely.” Like many creative people, Elgar had his mood swings, and his life had its share of highs and lows. He grew up Catholic in rural England, and into his early forties he earned his living by giving violin lessons and working in his father’s music shop.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations, premiered in London, brought him critical and popular acclaim. Before long, he had earned the admiration of King Edward VII and then of King George V. In 1924 Elgar became Master of the King’s Music, and by the time of his death in 1934 at age 76, he had received first a knighthood and then a baronetcy, as well as the Order of Merit. Not precisely a life of rags to riches, but certainly evidence of the possibility of upward mobility even in a much starchier era.
Both the boisterous and the introverted sides of Elgar occur in his Cockaigne Overture, subtitled In London Town. Elgar wrote it shortly after the Enigma Variations, and he scored it for full orchestra. It runs around fifteen minutes, with lush lyrical passages alternating with allusions to his marches. In a letter to a friend, Elgar described it as “cheerful and Londony, ‘stout and steaky,’ . . . honest, healthy, humorous, and strong, but not vulgar.” Some hear in its jaunty yet pastoral phrases by strings and woodwinds suggestions of sunny summer hours in a park, with interludes of robust or martial reverberations of brass and tympani. It would, indeed, be rich accompaniment to relaxing with a friend over a few pints of stout and some steaming steak and ale pie.
Moreover, the length of his Cockaigne Overture serves as a good compromise for acclimating a listener used to Elgar’s brisk marches to his longer orchestral compositions. Its rather unusual name derives from a legendary Land of Cockaigne, since medieval times imagined to be an enchanted but debauched place of luxury, comfort, and over-indulgence. That mythic term seemed to certain Victorian critics an apt metaphor for the entrenched hedonism of London. With its similar spelling to the word Cockney, Londoners merrily took on the censorious label as a badge of distinction.
In 1920, George Bernard Shaw wrote in the first issue of a quarterly, Music and Letters, a long appreciative article on Elgar. Shaw declared himself decidedly a fan of Elgar’s music, and he especially enjoyed Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture. According to Shaw, “the material in the overture is purely classical,” as classical, he insisted, as anything by Ludwig van Beethoven. Shaw also compared it favorably with Richard Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
“You may hear all sorts of footsteps in it,” wrote Shaw of Elgar’s overture, “and it may tell you all sorts of stories.” However, as classical music, “it tells you no story external to itself and yourself.” As a result, Shaw asked, “Who knows whether it appeals to the temporal or the eternal in us?” He explained, “In other words, whether it will be alive or dead in the twenty-first century?”
Implied by Shaw’s question is its answer: Any music comparable with works by Beethoven and Wagner will endure for centuries. Even in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, Elgar’s music continues to be performed and recorded. Furthermore, since his death, Elgar has been commemorated in bronze statues and on postage stamps, in trading cards and on British twenty pound notes.
Much of modern London Elgar would find unrecognizable, but much else would feel at home. His was the London known also to G. K. Chesterton, whose novel of 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, takes place in London and reminds readers that human nature never changes. One of the main characters of that story, Adam Wayne, noted that unchanging human nature, like the human brain itself, contains two halves. He asserted that normal humans see “no real antagonism between laughter and respect.”
While neither Chesterton nor Elgar seemed to have been referring to the other, they were making the same point. Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture balances, to use his words, in an “honest, healthy, humorous” cavalcade the languid and vigorous halves of London. Adam Wayne could have been speaking for Chesterton and Elgar themselves when he told another character in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, “We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.”