To A Truly English Gentleman

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of perhaps the greatest English composer ever, Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934). That he was born on June 2nd is a remarkable coincidence, given that most American graduation ceremonies occur around this time.

Elgar was the epitome of a middle class English gentlemen, a tradesman, risen to greatness through his art. He was most definitely not the devout Catholic others made him out to be, having rejected religion and any belief in an afterlife during his later years. Despite this, he wrote some wonderful oratorios – the essence of which caused many to consider him a religious man. Anyone viewing my music collection might well make the same mistake. A love of Handel, Bach, and the oratorios of Elgar is not evidence of a religious bent, merely a passion for good music.

But it is the military aspect of Elgar’s music that truly captivates most listeners, including myself. Incidentally, I regard myself as a pacifist. It is the sheer delight of his five “Pomp and Circumstance Marches”, truly capturing the epitome of all things British, that stirs my heart when all around me is the flat dullness of Illinois, or the brash cacophony of American life. Despite Tony Blair, the endless traffic jams, and often miserable weather, Edward Elgar never fails to remind me of all the good things about England, and being British.

Oh, and the link between Elgar’s June birthday and graduation? Some Americans may not realize it, but the rousing tune played at all graduation ceremonies was stolen from the British. Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No 1”, hummed absentmindedly in every American college, is best known by its other name – “Land of Hope and Glory”, Britain’s unofficial second National Anthem.

If you listen really hard as you read this, you might just hear it playing in the background on my sound system.

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2 Replies to “To A Truly English Gentleman”

  1. Totally unexpected and very interesting post RJ!

    I suppose that Elgar represents to the British exactly what Grieg does to the Norwegians or Sibelius to the Finns. His music could have never been composed by anybody but an Englishman just like Rossini’s had to be hatched by an Italian.

    I must confess, though, when I listen to some of the Elgar’s composition, I start thinking of the class society, the Empire where the Sun never sets (hate that one) and the feeling of superiority. Maybe this has actually very little to do with Elgar and his music but perhaps it’s sheer Britishness gets one started along these lines. Maybe it’s just me?

    I refuse to put all these great composers in some sort of an order based on how I feel about them. This, to me, depends on one’s mood in any given time. However, Handel and especially Bach never fail to stir me and their genius is never wasted on Godless creature such as I.

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