Five things you didn't know about Elgar

Ahead of Sir Mark Elder's performance of Symphony No 2 on Sunday 11 February, 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, another of which was the 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
Elgar hard at work in his laboratory

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 Elgar disposed of the paste 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.’

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.

What's On

LSO Discovery Day: Elgar
Sunday 11 February 2018 10am
Barbican & LSO St Luke's
> More info

LSO Platforms: Guildhall Artists – Elgar Piano Quintet
Sunday 11 February 2018 5.30pm
Barbican Hall
Free entry, no ticket required

Elgar Symphony No 2
with Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Sunday 11 February 2018 7pm
Barbican Hall
> More info

Elgar Cello Concerto
with Daniel Müller-Schott (cello) & Susanna Mälkki (conductor)
Sunday 15 April 2018 7pm
Barbican Hall
> More info

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