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Ian Lace

There is a scene in John Boorman’s film Hope and Glory, set in the days of the blitz of World War II, where a harassed schoolteacher points to a map on which much of the world is coloured red. She then says - "It’s the British Empire - and your fathers and brothers are out there fighting for it … for you!" The scene is remarkably realistic and immediately recognisable to those who were born in the 1930s, like myself, and who were then at school.

After the Second World War, the Empire disintegrated and today it is fashionable to consider the whole concept of imperialism as contemptible. Biographers of Elgar have, quite rightly, identified the recessional aspects of Elgar’s ceremonial music but should we not be any less proud of its processional characteristics? It is, I think, appropriate to quote from John Keegan’s foreword to The Daily Telegraph’s publication - The British Empire, published this summer (1997): "Whatever the Empire’s early crimes, and there were many, the British succeeded, before the Empire’s demise, in atoning for most of them and transforming the institution into what it became: a Commonwealth for the common wealth.... Should the British be proud of the Empire they left behind? Of course they should ... In my childhood, the British Empire was commonly compared in importance with the empire of Rome - as Elgar did in Caractacus. That may prove an exaggeration ... On the other hand, Rome was not loved. There is a sort of love for the old British Empire that remains warm among most of those who belonged to it, and that is its greatest monument."

Elgar lived through the rise, and the beginnings of the end, of the British Empire and it undoubtedly affected him and his music. In a way, it is ironic that in the year he died, 1934, the Empire reached the pinnacle of its growth. This article, therefore, traces an outline of the history of the Empire and how it impacted upon Elgar and his music. One must remember that, at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, values were very different to those that we hold today; those values were changed, irrevocably, by the tragedies of two world wars and all the stresses of our times.


by Ian Lace

On 22 June 1897, Queen Victoria stepped into the telegraph room in Buckingham Palace and sent a message to her subjects all across the globe. She then joined her Diamond Jubilee procession through the streets of London. In this huge procession were representatives from every corner of her Empire. The British Empire was the largest in the history of the world; comprising nearly a quarter of its land mass and a quarter of its population.

Yet many people both at home and in the Empire felt that the best was with them then or had even begun to pass. This mood was caught by two artists: Rudyard Kipling who expressed it in his Jubilee poem Recessional and Elgar who caught it in the upward leaps and downward-turning figures of his Imperial March.

Only two years later, in 1899, British confidence was thoroughly shaken by severe defeats in the Second Boer War. Although, Britain would eventually be victorious these setbacks nevertheless signalled the beginnings of Imperial Retreat.


The tumult and the shouting dies -
The captains and the kings depart -
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
A humble and a contrite heart.

Far-call’d our navies melt away-
On dune and headland sinks the fire-
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Rudyard Kipling

Elgar’s Imperial March catapulted him to fame. It caught the Londoner’s imagination in 1897 and made Elgar’s name well known. Before the Imperial March, Elgar was little known outside the West Midlands. The Imperial March was composed in a bell-tent in front of Forli, the Elgar’s home in Malvern. As Percy Young says in Elgar O.M. - "It was the popular music for a popular mood, broad, simple, and richly garnished. It was played by massed bands at the Crystal Palace on April 25th; at a Royal Garden Party on June 28th, the anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, (by special command of the Queen); at a State Jubilee Concert on July 15th; and at the Albert Hall by the Royal Artillery band on October 24th."

Elgar was then 40 years old. Behind him were his early choral works and one or two small orchestral works: Froissart, Serenade for Strings; The Black Knight and King Olaf etc. Ahead of him was: Caractacus, and then in the next decade or so the majority of his greatest works, beginning with the ‘Enigma’ Variations and The Dream of Gerontius.

The life of Elgar spanned the years of, perhaps the most considerable and tumultuous change in our history. He saw the introduction of motor vehicles, of aeroplanes, telephones, films, radio and television. Less than ten years before his birth, Marx and Engels were writing their Communist Manifesto. When he was born, the Crimean War had just ended and the American Civil War was four years into the future, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species two. Only the English upper and middle classes had the right to vote.

It was the trade-seeking voyages beginning with John Cabot’s discovery of New Foundland, in the reign of Henry VI, that marked the beginnings of the Empire. In the following centuries, due to the exploits of men like Raleigh in the Americas, Wolfe in Canada, Clive in India, and Cook in Australia, plus the activities of the trading institutions such as The Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India Company, that a string of colonies was founded across the globe. At the beginning of the 19th Century, after the Napoleonic War, the British Government began to recognise a deepening commitment to these colonies and so, in 1814, a separate Colonial Office was created. There was a new feeling of confidence as England began to forge ahead as the leading industrial nation and there was also a growing sense of responsibility. It was Britain’s duty to take up "the white man’s burden" - to outlaw the slave trade and to take enlightenment, in the form of education and Christianity, to the "natives."

Throughout the earlier years of the 19th Century, most Englishmen thought little of Empire or of the colonies which had come together "in a fit of absence of mind" as was said of the process, in a famous phrase. Many felt that the possession of an Empire was an irrelevance, or an eighteenth century anachronism.

Six years before Elgar’s birth, in 1851, the Great Exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace specially erected in Hyde Park. It symbolised and boasted to the world of the staggering material progress achieved since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. From this time until the 1880s, Britannia did indeed rule the waves. The Crystal Palace was, of course, later transferred to its site in Sydenham, South London but not before Queen Victoria had personally to intervene to persuade the lady who owned the land to sell it after all previous attempts had failed. The lady was the mother of Frank and Adela Schuster! (The Crystal Palace was burnt down on 30 November 1936).

We should remember that most of Elgar’s life was spent in the reign of Victoria and that he witnessed the ascendancy of the Empire. Elgar was born in 1857; a momentous year in the Empire’s history. The Indian Mutiny occurred in the weeks surrounding the date of his birth (June 2nd). The uprising began in Meerut on May 10th. The sepoys, long considered loyal, rose in rebellion. The flash-point was the use of cartridges with ends greased with either cow fat (sacred to Hindus) or pig fat (unclean to Muslims). This was the last straw; for many years the East India Company had been offending by imposing Western traditions with increasing arrogance and detachment. The revolt spread quickly to Delhi and Cawnpore where the massacre of hundreds of British men, women and children caused considerable outrage in England and equally barbarous reprisals. The following year, 1858, the East India Company was obliged to hand over the administration of India to the British Government. It was both the real beginning of the British Empire and the beginning of its end. It signalled the end because the 1857 revolt was the first step on the long road to Indian independence won in 1947.

After the shambles of the Indian Mutiny, the Empire became more organised and recognised as an entity. India would become the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire and Queen Victoria would become its Empress in 1876. Earlier in 1861, construction had begun of an imposing new headquarters for the British Empire between Whitehall and St James Park.

In 1870, John Ruskin, art historian, painter and social reformer, had just been appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. He expressed his views with a magical conviction, and he was one of the most compelling and popular speakers in Britain. His inaugural lecture at Oxford was on the theme of Imperial Duty. In a packed hall, Ruskin delivered his call for the ideology of Empire:-

"...Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of kings; a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace; mistress of learning and of the Arts, faithful guardian of time-honoured principles? That is what England must either do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able ... teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and sea ..."

James Morris, writing in the first volume, Heaven’s Command of his brilliant British Empire trilogy, Pax Britannica, commented: "Such a view of the imperial summons placed the Empire in the very centre of national affairs ... around which the whole of British life should revolve. Few who heard him (Ruskin) that day could have been unmoved by the appeal, and some we know were influenced by it for the rest of their lives (Cecil Rhodes, for instance); for the first time the imperial idea now seemed to satisfy some craving in the British consciousness. .... In the 1870s, there were signs that the British conviction of merit was growing into a conviction of command. Ruskin’s vision was partly an inspiration, partly a symptom: and during the next decade two astonishing statesmen forced the issue of imperialism into the forefront of British affairs, capping the Victorian age with its passions. Benjamin Disraeli became the maestro of Empire: William Gladstone, its confessor." And the increasing competition for overseas colonies amongst the European nations, epitomised by the scramble for Africa, further stoked imperial fervour.

(As a young man, Elgar had been given books by Ruskin, including Sesame and Lilies and Fors Clavigera by the owner of Severn Grange, an old house about two miles from Worcester. Elgar was later to quote, famously, from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies on the final page of’ ’Gerontius - "This is the best of me ..." It is also worth remembering that the mother of ‘Windflower’ (Alice Stuart Wortley) was the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Millais, but had been married first, disastrously, to John Ruskin.

Throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s, Elgar was taking his first tentative steps in composition making arrangements, experimenting with chamber and orchestral works and composing pieces for the church such as Salve Regina, and writing music for Powick Asylum.

Meanwhile, news reached Worcester about the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and Disraeli’s purchase of shares in it, six years later, so guaranteeing Britain a swifter route to India. News also came of the successful search, in 1872, by American journalist H.M. Stanley for David Livingstone - ardent anti-slavist, missionary, doctor and explorer - who had been lost and feared dead, seeking the source of the Nile; and news arrived, too, of tragedy and heroism associated with the wars against the Zulus at Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift in 1879. Worcester would also have read about the activities of Ned Kelly hanged in Melbourne in 1880 and of Cecil Rhodes founding the DeBeers mining company in that same year. And, more significantly, for Elgarians, news reached home about the martyrdom of General Gordon at Khartoum in January 1885.

Gordon had been a hero of the wars in China. He had also been a former Governor-General of the Sudan. When the Mahdist revolution in the Sudan became a serious threat, Gladstone, against his better judgement, was forced by a press campaign, to place Gordon in charge of the evacuation of Khartoum. Gordon, who had always been something of an eccentric and a loose cannon, went against orders and entrenched himself in Khartoum refusing to leave the Sudan to Mahdism. After a ten month siege, the situation was becoming desperate so a relief force, under Sir Garnet Wolseley set off down the Nile to the rescue. But their progress was slow and an advance party reached Khartoum just two days late after the city had fallen and Gordon had been killed.

(Later, in 1898, Kitchener would avenge the death of Gordon by annihilating the Mahdist army at the battle of Omdurman; but, more importantly for the future of the British Empire, Kitchener went on down the Nile to confront the French, in what came to be known as the Fashoda Incident, and effectively curbed French ambitions in that part of Africa.)

G.W. Joy’s famous painting, General Gordon’s Last Stand, 1885 touched a nerve in England and Gordon became the popular image of a Christian martyr facing death calmly for the cause of humanity. He epitomised the heroic British soldier and his exploits were greatly celebrated in Boys Own Paper-type publications and in many others. Pride of Empire and Victorian values were also prized and lauded in novels by authors such as H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines - 1885 and She - 1887) A.E.W. Mason (The Four Feathers - 1902), John Buchan (Prester John - 1910), Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and G.A. Henty and others. Then, of course, there were the writings of Kipling himself: Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), the Jungle Books (1894-5) and Kim (1901).

The spirit of Gordon would touch the creation of Elgar’s Gerontius and be part of the inspiration for both of his symphonies.

Alice Elgar became one of Elgar’s Malvern pianoforte pupils on 6 October 1886 and despite intense opposition from her family, they married on 8 May 1889. Alice had been born in India, in 1848 (probably, the date is uncertain). Henry Gee Roberts, her father, had served with distinction there as a Lieutenant-Colonel active on the northern frontier under Napier and afterwards he was caught up in the reprisals after the Indian Mutiny. He was promoted to Colonel in 1852, then to Major-General in 1854. In recognition of his services, he was created a Knight Commander of the Bath. He died in 1860 when Alice, youngest of four children, was only twelve.

Clearly, Alice’s family and the distinguished service record of her father would have influenced Elgar and further increased his awareness and pride in the Empire. Indian artefacts - ivory elephants and the like - were always prominently displayed in their homes (but then, these ornaments were prized in so many other houses too).

Elgar was proud of Major-General Roberts’ career. Nevertheless, he was sometimes peevish because of his feelings of social inferiority which probably caused him to make impulsive outbursts or hold quirky principles. For instance, Rosa Burley relates that when Alice told her that she had been barred from shopping at the Army and Navy Stores, Elgar had said - "No, because I don’t make it my business to kill my fellow men!"

Edward and Alice were married at Brompton Oratory in London. Father Knight, the priest of St George’s Church, Worcester gave Edward a copy of Cardinal Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius as a wedding present. Earlier, in 1887, when Alice’s mother had died, Edward had lent Alice his own copy of Cardinal Newman’s poem which had Gordon’s markings on it. (Copies of the markings circulated all over the Midlands when Gordon’s own copy, which had been with him in Khartoum, was sent to the old Cardinal Newman, in Birmingham.)

In 1890, Elgar composed Froissart while the couple were living in London, the heart of the Empire, at Avonmore Road, West Kensington. On the score, Elgar inscribed a line from Keats, ‘When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high’. Here, already, were flashes of the mature Elgar and here, too, was the assertive, nobilmente, heroic voice predating the music that would be written across the turn of the century; music that would be associated indelibly with Empire.

By the time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, in 1897, this heroic element had manifested itself in other works such as The Black Knight (1892-3), Sursum Corda (1894) and King Olaf (1896) in parallel with the progress of the Empire.

In this Diamond Jubilee year, British statesman boasted publicly of Britain’s "splendid isolation", but, secretly, they were apprehensive about it, and the Empire’s future safety in an increasingly competitive world where Britain had no allies. Britain was no longer the supreme industrial and commercial nation. Her share of global trade had plummeted. In the decade that Elgar was born, England had some 65%, 70% and 50%, respectively, of the world’s coal, steel and cotton production. By 1897 these figures had slumped to 33%, 20% and 22.5%. Britain had already been overtaken by the USA and was about to be overtaken by Germany - and, worse, the countries in the Empire were beginning to develop their own manufacturing industries and trade with them was falling significantly. The escalating costs of policing the Empire were crippling - the naval estimates alone soared from £13 to £22 million between 1886 and 1896.

Quoting James Morris again, this time from the central volume, The Climax of Empire from his Pax Britannica trilogy in which he writes about Elgar in Jubilee Year, he writes:-

"Elgar reached middle age in the heyday of the New Imperialism, in that provincial society which was perhaps most susceptible to its dazzle, and for a time he succumbed to the glory of it all. In Elgar’s Worcestershire of the nineties, the innocent manifestations of imperial pride must have been inescapable, drumming and swelling all around him: but if at first his response was conventional enough, in the end it was to give the imperial age of England its grandest and saddest memorials .... His was not the clean white line, the graceful irony, the scholarly allusion. He plunged into the popular emotions of the day with a sensual romanticism .... He was forty years old in the year of the Diamond Jubilee, and he saw himself then as a musical laureate, summoned by destiny to hymn Britannia’s greatness."

On 22 June, Diamond Jubilee Day, Elgar was in Malvern. His diary page for that day included the entry, "After dinner, Edward and Alice to common to see bonfires." (the beacons which were lit on prominent hills such as the Worcester Beacon).

In Jubilee year Elgar wrote another patriotic work besides his Imperial March - The Banner of St George - a setting of words by, a Bristol man, Shapcott Wensley, with no other claim to fame. It was completed in March 1897. Apparently Elgar, himself, never heard it during the first years of its existence. The work’s Epilogue is a paean to Empire ending with this verse:-

....Great race, whose empire of splendour,
Has dazzled a wondering world!
May the flag that floats o’er thy wide domains,
Be long to all winds unfurled!
Three crosses in concord blended,
The banner of Britain’s might!
But the central gem of the ensign fair
Is the cross of the dauntless knight!

It is interesting to compare these words with those of H.A. Acworth for another paean to Empire at the end of Caractacus (dedicated to Queen Victoria) which was composed during the following year, 1898. (See the end of this article). Acworth, is more concerned with emphasising the more altruistic concerns of Empire - and how much better Elgar responds to such noble sentiments!

Actually, Elgar had wanted to write a large-scale orchestral work in preference to Caractacus. He had suggested a symphony written round the subject of General Gordon, but there was no interest. The demand, then, was for choral works for the large choirs that were popular in those days.

In 1898, Elgar also composed a Festival March which was first performed, under the baton of August Manns, in London at the Crystal Palace on 14 October. Michael Kennedy in his Portrait of Elgar writes that only a fragment of this work remains. It is thought that this Festival March is the Triumphal March from Caractacus (both are in C Major.)

Following the success of the Enigma Variations (again with a noblimente finale), two of the songs from the recently completed Sea Pictures were performed, in October 1899, by Royal Command at Balmoral. Earlier that year Queen Victoria had favoured Elgar by requesting performances of his works on two occasions. Also, in 1899, Edward was asked to compose a madrigal in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday on 24 May. He was summoned to Windsor for that occasion and so it was that Elgar saw the Queen. It was the beginning of Elgar’s associations with royalty which would develop significantly with the reign of Edward VII. (Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901.)

After Elgar had recovered from the disappointment of the premiere of Gerontius in October 1900, he turned to the composition of Cockaigne (first performed on 20 June 1901) - stout and steaky as he described it to Jaeger. Here again the nobilmente and pomp and circumstance elements are prominent. Surely, this is a proud, affirmative, affectionate portrait of the capital of Empire?

In that summer of 1901, Arnold Bax met Elgar at Birchwood. In his autobiographical Farewell, My Youth, Bax commented that Elgar’s appearance, at that time, "was rather that of a retired army officer turned gentleman farmer than an eminent and almost morbidly highly strung artist." Was this image of a retired army officer cultivated? Cultivated, perhaps, partly, for Alice’s benefit? Alice was always one to preserve the proprieties and, after all, she had married "beneath herself", as they put it in those days. She supported and guided Elgar towards the pinnacle of his success now practically upon him. Soon they would be equals with the cream of society and would be meeting people influential in business, the military, the arts and politics. Bax’s impression of Elgar as a highly strung artist is likewise perceptive. How much, one wonders, in addition to those mysterious and prophetic forces that compel the pens of geniuses like Elgar, did the violent mood-swings that burdened him, etch into sharp relief for us, the high processional proclamations and the contrastingly deep recessional lamentations in his music?

In October 1901 the First Pomp and Circumstance March in D Major, received a tumultuous ovation at the Queen’s Hall. Henry Wood recalled the scene:- "The people simply rose and yelled. I had to play it again with the same result. In fact they refused to let me get on with the programme. To restore order, I played the march a third time."

Elgar knew its worth. To Dorabella he had said, "I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em - knock ’em flat!" and to King Edward VII - "I’ve been carrying that around in my pocket for twenty years."

It was the King who first suggested that the air from this Pomp and Circumstance March should be sung. It was first incorporated into the Coronation Ode as the Final Movement but then became a work on its own. Land of Hope and Glory swept the country in 1902 and it practically became a second national anthem.

Elgar was proud of his stately music. In 1904, he said: "I like to look on the composer’s vocation as the old troubadours did. In those days it was no disgrace to a man to be turned on to step in front of an army and inspire the people with a song. For my part, I know there are a lot of people who like to celebrate events with music. To these people I have given tunes. Is that wrong? Why should I write a fugue or something which won’t appeal to anyone, when people yearn for things which can stir them."

Parry recognised this ability. Speaking of Elgar when he was awarded the O.M. in 1911, Parry said, "He deserves it. You see he has touched the hearts of the people." Elgar was particularly proud of his Order of Merit and he valued it above all his other honours. Sir Edward Elgar (knighted in July 1904) had most definitely overtaken Alice’s father the old Major-General who had been a KCB. The Order of Merit (O.M.) was instituted by King Edward VII, in 1902, to be awarded personally, by the sovereign, to those who excelled in the arts, in public life or in other fields. There can only be 24 O.M.s at any one time.

The Edwardian era - and we must include the years up to 1914 - was an age of transition. The foundations as well as the surface of a long familiar world were moving - although few people realised it at the time. King Edward did. So, too, did Elgar, for not only was he on friendly terms with the King himself, but he was also meeting political and military leaders including Admiral Lord Beresford who showed Elgar something of the fleet in the Mediterranean, and who was outspoken about naval unpreparedness in comparison to the growing naval strength of Germany. Elgar saw the changes evolving and sensed the implications. And this is conveyed in the music - the shadows lurking behind the Pomp and Circumstance.

Before his accession, Edward VII’s reputation for unconventional behaviour and dubious associations gave rise to concern about the future of the monarchy. They were unfounded. Edward became a conscientious monarch who made pleasure his servant not his master. He revived pageantry and moved his court from Windsor to Buckingham Palace. He took immense interest in affairs of state (including the forging of the Entente Cordiale with France, leading Britain away from her dangerous "splendid isolation"), and he sought every opportunity to improve the state of the armed forces.

Although it was not a colony, Ireland had been dominated and exploited, as though it had been one, for centuries and the clamour for Home Rule had grown more and more insistent since the last years of the old century until it would climax in open rebellion with the Easter Rising of 1916. Elgar, himself, was caught up in the controversy of Home Rule for Ireland for in March 1914, as the Liberal government prepared to pass the Home Rule Bill through Parliament for a third time to override the Lords’ veto, he was persuaded, with "twenty other distinguished men (including Rudyard Kipling)", to sign a "solemn covenant" against Home Rule for Ireland and the implied subordination of Ulster to an uncongenial government in Dublin. The pledge appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph and it very quickly gathered more than a million supporters. It was widely felt that the granting of Home Rule to Ireland might cause an unfortunate precedent that could threaten the stability of the Empire.

In spite of the great inspiration of Empire, Elgar saw remarkably little of it. He visited the colonies the Empire lost, that constituted the USA, which he appears to have loathed, four times in 1905, 1906 and 1911 and on the latter occasion, he took in Montreal and Toronto. Apart from that, Elgar seems to have only come close to what had been a Mediterranean British protectorate (between 1815 and 1864 before it was ceded to Greece) - Corfu. (In 1905, Elgar and Frank Schuster were invited by Lady Charles Beresford, whose husband had recently been made Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, to join a party on HMS Surprise to cruise with the Fleet in the Mediterranean for a fortnight. Elgar and Schuster travelled by train and thence by ship from Brindisi, in Southern Italy, across to Patras via Corfu and thence on to Athens, Lemnos, Istanbul and Smyrna which of course inspired Elgar’s piano piece, In Smyrna.

Three more Pomp and Circumstance Marches were to follow from Elgar’s pen: No 2 in the same year as No. 1 (1901), No. 3 in 1904 and the magnificent No. 4 in 1907.

But Elgar had ambitions to write a symphony. This ambition had been nurtured since 1898 (or earlier) when he had the idea of composing a symphony based on the idea of the life of General Gordon. Sketches and ideas had been accumulating for years. At length, in June 1907, Elgar felt ready to commence composition of his Symphony No. 1 in A flat major which was completed in September 1908 and first performed in Manchester by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Richter who said of it, "Let us now rehearse the greatest symphony in modern times and not only in this country." Elgar writing of the Symphony to Walford Davies said, "There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future." The Symphony’s music is forceful and confident. The nobilmente, heroic elements are very pronounced and one senses that it proclaims the greatness of Britain and her Empire. It also includes an exquisite Adagio, evoking the serenity and beauty of the Worcestershire countryside, which Jaeger considered to be the best of its kind since Beethoven.

The Symphony was outstandingly successful. In 1909, it received nearly 100 performances - all over Europe and in America, in parts of the Empire and in Russia. Londoners even heard it played by palm court orchestras in the large department stores. But from then on Elgar’s music took on an increasingly sadder, and much less confident tone.

King Edward VII died on 6 May 1910. He had been greatly depressed about the constitutional crisis into which he had been drawn following the rejection of the People’s Budget, and about his fears of war with Germany. The shadows were beginning to lengthen. Quoting Morris again:-

"His (Elgar’s) Jingo period was short and delusory, for very soon there entered into his music, once so bellicose, a sad and visionary note ... Greater matters than pomp and circumstance engaged his spirit, those manly tunes deepened into more anguished cadences, and there seemed to sound through his works premonitions of tragedy - as though he sensed that all the pride of Empire, expressed at such a comfortable remove in the country drawing-rooms of the West Country, would one day collapse in bloodshed or pathos."

The shadows were prominent in Elgar’s Second Symphony first performed on 24 May 1911. The second movement was a funeral march - a lament for the passing of King Edward (and Rodewald) and the small audience at its first performance was puzzled by the quiet ending of the Finale. They were undoubtedly expecting the work to end on a high note of confidence. They were disappointed - especially when they were in a mood to celebrate the coronation of the new King (George V), scheduled a month later on June 22 … and for which Elgar composed a Coronation March.

In 1912, Elgar wrote the music for a masque The Crown of India. He drew upon surplus material from The Apostles, sketches for a second Cockaigne overture and other ideas that would not fit into the symphonies. The Crown of India was staged at the London Coliseum to mark the Royal visit to India. For the most part, and despite some exotic rhythms and harmonies, The Crown of India music was rather more "Malvern-flavoured" than Indian. Of it, Elgar remarked ruefully, "When I write a big serious work like Gerontius, we have to starve and go without fires ... this small effort allows me to buy scientific works I long for." The masque proved to be enormously popular and through the first fortnight of its run, Elgar himself conducted two performances a day.

Only two years later, Land of Hope and Glory was to become the rallying cry to the Great War - causing Elgar great anguish. The First World War cost 1,115,000 lives, many of them from all over the Empire - 4,000 Empire troops died at Gallipoli alone. Appositely, in The Spirit of England (1916-17) the sentiments of Laurence Binyon’s words were made almost unbearably poignant by Elgar’s music:-

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
... At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

In 1917, too, Elgar was approached by Lord Charles Beresford to set some verses by Kipling entitled Fringes of the Fleet. The pairing of the two laureates of Empire - the author of Recessional with the composer of Land of Hope and Glory seemed too good a chance to miss. Kipling’s verses drew breezy pictures of life aboard small commercial vessels now mounted with guns for minesweepers, the submarines and the patrol boats in outlying waters. Elgar sketched hearty tunes for baritone and men’s chorus but then Kipling objected to his verses being turned into entertainment after his son had been reported missing in action. Attempts were made to get Kipling to change his mind, and a year later they seemed to be successful. The completed Fringes of the Fleet was signed up for a fortnight’s run at the Coliseum, with Elgar conducting, in June 1917. It was a big success and the cycle was recorded with Charles Mott - who sang on-stage. The run of performances was extended but eventually, Kipling succeeded in stopping further performances.

Elgar also composed a number of patriotic songs for the War effort. Big Steamers, 1918, again a setting of Kipling verses, is a song for children in praise of the merchant ships risking enemy fire to bring home their cargos. It is simple direct and wholly charming. Of it, Elgar wrote, "I have endeavoured to bring the little piece within the comprehension of very small people indeed."

Quoting the first two verses:-

"Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England’s own coal, up and down the salt seas?"
"We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples and cheese."

"And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers?
And where shall I write to you when you are away?
"We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver,
Address us at Hobart, Hong Kong, and Bombay"

In the latter days of the War, Elgar sought peace and solitude in Sussex where he composed his last great masterpieces: the chamber works and his Cello Concerto. Here was an autumnal and reflective Elgar. The pomp and circumstance of Empire was but a memory.

Picking up the threads of the history of the course of the British Empire, as James Morris shrewdly observed in the third volume, Farewell the Trumpets of his Pax Britannica, "the British Empire more than survived World War I ... The straightforward annexation of colonies was unacceptable now; it was as distasteful to the mass of the British people as it was to the world at large. Instead, the British Empire took shrewd advantage of the peace terms to extend its power and safeguard its security .... Nearly a million square miles were added to the Empire with 13 million new subjects ... In Africa the Empire gained control not only of South-West Africa, satisfactorily rounding off Imperial South Africa, but also of Tanganyika, at last fulfilling the vision of an all-red Cape-to-Cairo corridor. In the Middle East, Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine became British Mandates and Persia was virtually a British protectorate, so that India was linked with Egypt and the Mediterranean by a continuous slab of British-controlled territory, and one could travel overland from Cape Town to Rangoon without once leaving the shelter of British authority."

But in the 1920s the British were losing interest in their Empire. H.G. Wells estimated that nineteen out of twenty knew no more about the British Empire than they did about the Italian Renaissance. It is amazing how quickly events that seem so imperative, become dusty, forgotten history. People were disillusioned after the Great War. The times were changing, leaving behind the old world Elgar knew and revered. This feeling of being out of joint with the times coupled with his depression after the death of Lady Elgar in 1920, inhibited the composition of new works.

The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 was meant to remind people of the importance of Empire but many went to the Exhibition for the wrong reasons preferring the dodgems and the dance halls to the exhibits of New Zealand or Ceylon. Elgar, now Master of the King’s Musick, and the most celebrated musician of the Empire, conducted the massed choirs at the opening ceremony and they sang Land of Hope and Glory; but by now the very sound of that work was anathema to its composer’s ears. Writing to ‘Windflower’ on 16 April about the preparations for the Exhibition, Elgar had commented, "the K. insists on Land of Hope & there were some ludicrous suggestions of which I will tell you ... But everything seems so hopelessly & irredeemably vulgar at Court .... I was standing alone (criticising) in the middle of the enormous stadium in the sun: all the ridiculous Court programme, soldiers, awnings etc: 17,000 men hammering, loudspeakers, amplifiers - four aeroplanes circling over etc. - all mechanical and horrible - no soul & no romance & no imagination ..."

For the Wembley Exhibition, Elgar wrote Pageant of Empire - eight songs to words by Alfred Noyes for solo or S.A.T.B. The songs’ titles reveal all: Shakespeare’s Kingdom, The Islands, The Blue Mountains, The Heart of Canada, Sailing Westward, Merchant-Adventurers, The Immortal Legions, and A Song of Union.

Elgar was also asked to write a March for the Pageant of Empire to open the huge Exhibition on St George’s Day 1924. The idea of the March appealed to him rather more than the songs. When he finished it, he was told that it would not be performed at Wembley because of the difficulty of all the contingent bands rehearsing a new piece separately. He was asked to conduct the old Imperial March instead, together with Land of Hope and Glory, Parry’s Jerusalem, and the National Anthem.

A Pearl recording (SHE CD 9635) by The Tudor Choir directed by Barry Collett - who is also the pianist on this recording - with Teresa Cahill (soprano) and Stephen Holloway (bass), includes Sailing Westward and The Immortal Legions. Barry Collett in his booklet notes writes, "Incidental music for the masque The Pageant of Empire occupied Elgar during 1924. Much of the score seems to be lost, although the Empire March, a song and these two choruses remain."

Elgar would eventually retreat from London, and the heart of the Empire, to retire to his beloved Worcestershire. Then, in 1930 came the final Pomp and Circumstance March No 5 in C Major.

The germ of it went back fifty years to a sketch from his Powick days. It was as brilliant as any of its four predecessors - a recalling of the glories of Empire in an Indian summer of composition. It was at this time that Elgar felt a renewed vigour for composition but the promise of an opera and the Third Symphony was never to be realised.

T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) whose World War I adventures had played no little part in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire and the spread of British influence in the Middle East, was a great admirer of Elgar. In August 1932, Lawrence, with George Bernard Shaw, visited Elgar at Marl Bank and was able to hear the first test pressings of the HMV recording of the Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin. Vera Hockman wrote of this occasion:-

"… we all sat spellbound ... Aircraftsman Shaw - Lawrence was then hiding in the Air Force under that name - serious and silent, looking straight ahead with those unforgettable blue eyes which seemed to see into the life of things ..."

Lawrence was to go to his rest, a year after Elgar, in 1935. Rudyard Kipling died the following January, 1936.

The end of Empire was in sight even though it reached its greatest extent in 1934 as Elgar passed away. Ireland had become an independent, self-governing Dominion in January 1922; then in 1937, as Eire, the country abolished all symbolic ties with Britain; and finally, in 1949, it became the Republic of Ireland. In India, Gandhi’s campaign of passive resistance eventually led to independence but the road to it was long and bloody. The Amritsar massacre of 1919 was probably the most notorious incident in that struggle. Then the rest of the Empire would break free as the 20th Century progressed.

In conclusion, I would again quote from John Keegan writing in The Daily Telegraph’ s The British Empire: "The test of the greatness of the British Empire is that its former subjects treat its surviving servants as friends, and not only them but the British as a people also. Of what other Empire is that true? The French dare not go to Africa. The Hapsburg Empire has little but unresolved ethnic hatreds. The Russians are at war with their ex-imperial provinces. The Ottoman Turks are unloved by the Arab successor states. Latin America is another world away from Spain. By contrast, the British, as they wander backpacking about Rajasthan, or in the Himalayas, are welcomed as old familiars." (British law, custom and culture still thrive throughout the territories that were once occupied.)

This benevolence is reflected in those words that Elgar set at the end of Caractacus, and which are too often forgotten or chosen to be ignored by insensitive critics or sub-editors -

"And where the flag of Britain
Its triple crosses rears,
No slave shall be for subject
No trophy wet with tears
But folk shall bless the banner
And bless the crosses twin’d
That bear the gift of freedom
On ev’ry blowing wind...


For all the world shall learn it
Though long the task shall be
The text of Britain’s teaching,
The message of the free."

Looking back on Elgar and Empire from the perspective of the late 1990s, and thinking of the Finale of the Second Symphony that puzzled audiences at its premiere in 1911, surely this is a radiant vision of a sun setting on an Empire sometimes cruel but more often benevolent and paternalistic. The last word comes from Morris - "Elgar, who wrote the paean of Empire, lived to compose its elegy."

Ian Lace - © 1997
originally published in The Elgar Society Journal in 1997

Sources and recommended reading:-

Edward Elgar - A Creative Life by Jerrold Northrop Moore (Oxford University Press)

Portrait of Elgar by Michael Kennedy (Oxford University Press)

Edward Elgar - The Windflower Letters - Jerrold Northrop Moore (Oxford University Press)

Elgar O.M. by Percy Young (Purnell Book Services)

Alice Elgar - Enigma of a Victorian Lady by Percy Young (Dobson).

Edward Elgar - Music and Literature (edited by Raymond Monk) Scolar Press

The British Empire (The Daily Telegraph)

Pax Britannica by James Morris (The Folio Society/Faber and Faber)

The Jubilee Years compiled by Roger Hudson (The Folio Society)

Extract from Elgar’s Diary Tuesday 22 June - reproduced by permission of Raymond Monk.

Information within brackets is either additional data or explanatory comments of the author on quotations from other sources.

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