The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.


Sir Edgar Elgar, O. M. by William Rothenstein. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

To couple the names of Edward Elgar and William Shakespeare may seem startling at best and more likely rather quixotic. Aside from Mozart, no composer — British or otherwise — has ever occupied a position as preeminent in the cultural life of the West as Shakespeare. Setting aside the Bard's iconic status for a moment, however, and seeing him primarily as an English artist whose work continues to speak with a particular resonance to his nation, brings into relief some patterns about the relation between that nation and its artists. A comparison between Shakespeare's experience and Elgar's may suggest reasons why this composer's music retains its tenacious hold on the English imagination.

If Shakespeare's career has provided a template for English artists through the ages, then Elgar's personal history conforms to that particular mold to an astonishing degree. Both men were born in provincial towns and, however rooted they may have been in their native soil, sought fame in London. There are striking similarities between the Shakespeare and Elgar families as well. Some contemporary Shakespeare scholars have posited that the author was born into a family of recusant Catholics, and that traces of this circumstance can be discerned throughout his plays. Elgar's mother was an ardent Catholic convert; her son's music both celebrates and questions his childhood faith. If the eminent scholar Stephen Greenblatt's hypotheses are correct, the playwright's father was an unsuccessful businessman and quite possibly a heavy drinker. Of his own feckless father, who enjoyed imbibing heavily at the Worcester pubs, Elgar once remarked,"he never did a stroke of work in his life."

Neither Shakespeare nor Elgar attended university, an experience common to English boys of modest means. Ben Jonson's famous comment on Shakespeare's learning — "small Latin and less Greek" — suggests that the boy from Stratford had as brief a formal education as the earnest young autodidact from Worcester. Both Elgar and Shakespeare made up for their lack of university training by amassing a wealth of practical experience, and both became masters of their respective arts through hard work.

Experiencing early privations, both men evinced a keen ambition and rose in a fiercely competitive world. Shakespeare eventually acquired the status of "gentleman," a level of respectability unheard of for an actor during the Jacobean period. Elgar's talent, combined with a charisma that sent his wife and friends scurrying to their diaries to record his every utterance, allowed him to transcend his working-class origins and reap honors such as a knighthood and the Order of Merit. Having achieved fame and fortune, both men retired to their native counties and rarely practiced their art. In retirement, Shakespeare enjoyed the life of a landed gentleman in Stratford-upon-Avon; after his wife's death in 1920, Elgar lived in a series of comfortable country houses in and around his native Worcestershire — including Stratford itself, where he delighted in attending performances of Shakespeare's plays. In Albion:The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd has commented on Shakespeare's dual allegiance to city and countryside in terms that apply equally to Elgar:"He can never be fully identified with either place, and his hovering between two worlds seems wholly appropriate in a man of such equivocal personality."

Like Shakespeare, Elgar flourished during a lively period for British music. The playwright's contemporaries included such composers as William Byrd, Thomas Morley, and Thomas Tallis, while Elgar's colleagues included Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Frederick Delius, and Ethel Smyth. The late-Victorian period saw a shift in British musical life away from an exuberant amateurism to a polished professionalism. This change was reflected in the establishment of educational institutions for professional training, such as the Royal College of Music. Oblivious to the German origins of the nationalistic ideologies upon which these institutions were predicated, J. A. Fuller-Maitland and others hailed the arrival of an "English Musical Renaissance." Although Fuller-Maitland's proclamation slighted the lively private musical life that had always thrived in Britain, it is certainly true that British composers began at this time to cultivate the public genres of opera and symphony. Stanford's Third Symphony, Op. 28 (the "Irish," 1887) was conducted on the Continent by Hans von Bülow and Mahler. Stanford also tried his hand at opera with varying success, but Delius, Smyth, and Vaughan Williams all composed musically rich and eminently stage-worthy operas during Elgar's lifetime. To those who glanced back longingly to the age of Shakespeare as the golden period of English music, the urge to construe these exciting contemporary developments as signs of a renaissance proved irresistible.

Elgar shared a trait with Shakespeare, Byrd, and other Tudor artists: a passion for adapting foreign models to British purposes. The great architect Christopher Wren noted this proclivity in 1694 when he declared "that our English Artists are dull enough at Inventions but when once a foreigne patterne is sett, they imitate so well that commonly they exceed the originall." Shakespeare often drew upon diverse foreign sources: Romeo and Juliet, for example, comes from an English poem based on a French translation of an Italian story. Such use of foreign models is evident in British music history from John Dunstable through Elgar to Thomas Adès. The predominant influences on Elgar were those of Brahms and Wagner, whose differing aesthetics comprised the Scylla and Charybdis between which most fin-de-siècle British composers navigated uncertainly. In Elgar's case, however, a habitual empiricism, allied with a lack of academic prejudice, enabled the composer to assimilate elements from these Teutonic giants into an inimitable style, all the while leavening his music with a soupçon of French poise distilled from the music of Camille Saint-Saëns, Léo Delibes, and, above all, Gabriel Fauré.

The biographical parallels drawn here between Shakespeare and Elgar cannot, and should not, be taken too far, of course: there are huge differences between the two men, starting with the centuries that separated them.The England of Queen Elizabeth I could not have been more different from the Empire over which Victoria reigned. More importantly, there are wide disparities in their temperaments and personal histories. Elgar was nervous, emotional, and prone to confession, while all available evidence suggests that Shakespeare possessed a high degree of caution, steadiness, and discretion. Elgar's devoted wife, Alice, was a far cry from Shakespeare's spouse, Ann Hathaway, the notorious recipient of the "second-best bed."While a mere handful of reliable facts are available to Shakespeare's biographers, Elgar's life has been documented exhaustively. This plethora of information about Elgar does little to dispel the many mysteries and contradictions that surround him, however; his protean personality remains elusive.

One characteristic in both men sets them apart and places them among the most admired artists of Western culture. Elgar shared with Shakespeare an empathetic ability to enter into the souls of others, whether real or fictional; a signal instance of this is the Enigma Variations, Op. 36. Framing the work as a set of character studies allowed his imagination to make two liberating moves. The first was to recognize the Enigma theme itself as a symbol of his essential nature; the second was to imagine that symbolic theme as refracted through the prisms of his friends' characters. Elgar often inserted himself into his works in just this way. In one of his finest later scores, the "symphonic study," Falstaff, Op. 68 (1913), based on one of Shakespeare's most achingly human characters, Elgar uses this same strategy in order to project himself into the eponymous protagonist in a manner as poignant as it is uncanny. In Falstaff, Elgar melds with Shakespeare to remake the disreputable knight according to his own vision. In light of this act of creative expropriation, Ackroyd's insightful description of Shakespeare is equally true of Elgar:"His being is so fluid that it can acquire the shape of a nation, his personality so little known or understood that it can be endlessly reinterpreted."

Thanks to this fluidity, both Shakespeare and Elgar will always remain at once parochial and universal, masculine and feminine, poignant and witty, vulgar and refined. They were sturdy populists who never disdained to provide patriotic entertainment for the groundlings. At the same time, both playwright and composer evince a persistent tendency to turn inward that at times darkens into a melancholy nihilism. In The Tempest, thought to be the last play authored exclusively by Shakespeare, the protagonist, Prospero, informs his future son-in-law that the "great globe" and "all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a wrack behind." To the doctor who delivered the fatal diagnosis of cancer, Elgar unconsciously echoed Prospero when he confided,"I believe there is nothing but complete oblivion."

Ralph Vaughan Williams once declared that "if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil, and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls." Like Shakespeare, Elgar transcended the circumstances of his birth by holding up a transforming mirror to his own people and his own age, and by so doing created a series of imperishable, highly individual scores that ultimately gained him the whole world. Elgar's gift to his country is secure: his music will always live in the hearts of the British people. Beyond the shores of Albion, Elgar is hailed as the peer of his contemporaries Richard Strauss, Leos Janácek, Gustav Mahler, and Gabriel Fauré. Our festival honors Elgar by providing a rich context of words and music to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth in a simple little cottage just outside of Worcester.


Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; pp. 3-6.

Last modified 20 November 2012