Five things you didn't know about Elgar

Ahead of Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider's performance of the Violin Concerto on Sunday 29 March, we learn more about Elgar as a composer and a conductor, his relationship with the LSO and some of his unique quirks.

1. Elgar’s wife was a driving force in his career

For many years, Elgar made his living through a number of temporary jobs, such as teaching and conducting for local organisations. He married one of his pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts, in 1889. Despite her family opposing the marriage, Alice had unwavering faith in Elgar’s ability and was a valuable help to him throughout his career, providing inspiration for some of his works, walking miles to post manuscripts and even painstakingly ruling bar lines on score paper. When she died in 1920, the driving force behind his work had vanished and Elgar struggled to regain any motivation to write music for a long time. 

2. Elgar and the LSO formed a close relationship

Elgar conducted the LSO’s first tour in 1905 and the same year the orchestra premiered his Introduction and Allegro. This was the first of a number of premieres of his works given by the LSO, which also include the Violin Concerto in 1910 and his Cello Concerto in 1919. After Hans Richter retired in 1911, Elgar was invited to fulfill the position of Principal Conductor, a post which he held for two years. His relationship with the LSO was unlike any other between a composer and an orchestra, and his wife Alice remarked that the players showed a ‘touching devotion’ to her husband. 

3. He had an affinity for explosions

Elgar in his lab

In his spare time, Elgar would set up a chemistry lab in his basement, where he especially enjoyed concocting an explosive mixture of phosphorus. The experiments were not always successful, however, and when on one occasion he made too much of the explosive mixture, Elgar disposed of it into the rain barrel beside his house. The result was an explosion that destroyed the barrel and flooded his yard with water. Less dangerous hobbies of his included golf and cycling and, surprisingly, he even sold his violin in order to purchase a billiards table.

4. Elgar’s alter ego was a rabbit

As well as a deep affection for dogs, Elgar adored a white rabbit, which was brought home by his daughter in 1905. They named him Peter as a tribute to Beatrix Potter’s character, and Elgar took great care of the animal, even going so far as to make sure the rabbit had a hot-water bottle for his hutch each night. Peter became Elgar’s alter ego, and references to the rabbit can be seen in Elgar’s works. On the title page of the composer’s work The River it is described as a ‘Folk Song, paraphrased by Pietro d’Alba – Peter Rabbit in Italian – and Edward Elgar’. He even wrote letters to Peter, one of which said ‘Your idea – the vigorous entry of the drums – was splendid’, and when the rabbit died, Elgar admitted how ‘really grieved’ he was to have lost his ‘confidant and advisor Pietro d’Alba'. (Photo: Elgar's wife, Alice, with Peter Rabbit)

5. He supervised a recording from his deathbed 

In 1934, it became apparent that Elgar was dying. Fred Gaisberg, the artistic director of HMV, connected a landline between the composer’s bedroom and Abbey Road, where the LSO was recording the Triumphal March and Woodland Interlude. The music was relayed directly to the composer, whose feedback could be heard coming straight from his bed. Elgar died 32 days later and the LSO was asked to play at his memorial service in Worcester Cathedral, performing selections from his last three oratorios with the Three Choirs Festival Chorus – testimony to the longstanding relationship between Orchestra and composer.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider performs Elgar's Violin Concerto, using the very same instrument played by Fritz Kreisler for the 1910 premiere, on Sunday 29 March at the Barbican. Click here for more information or to book tickets.

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Top photo: Elgar with the LSO at the opening of Abbey Road Studios in 1932

Originally posted in February 2018.