Elgar and the First World War

Last Wednesday night, Westminster Music Library played host to Simon Baggs, professional violinist and our resident Behind the Lines* expert on the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar.

Simon Baggs at Westminster Music Library
Elgar’s music has held a fascination for Simon since his teens, what with lending his expertise and giving advice on stylistic and interpretive points to professional orchestras and chamber groups, arranging and orchestrating a number of Elgar’s works, and now completing a book on the ‘Enigma Variations’, a subject he has been researching for over eighteen years, Simon is clearly one of the best people to talk about and play the music written by The Great Man.

Most of us are familiar with Land of Hope and Glory and images of flag-waving at the Last Night of the Proms. We may be familiar with photographs of Elgar in his old age, a stout, tweed-clad, moustachioed Knight of the Realm, looking every inch a member of the establishment. Indeed his style is best known for its English patriotic fervour, but underneath the surface lies a sadness which is deeply personal. We were to learn much about this side of Elgar…

Elgar was deeply affected by the horrors of the First World War. During this period, he composed several patriotic works; music for the children’s play The Starlight Express, settings of Laurence Binyon’s poems The Spirit of England, and the ballet The Sanguine Fan. After the war, a new introspective Elgar turned to chamber music, writing his last four masterpieces – the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet, the Piano Quintet, and the great Cello Concerto. These works show a turnaround in his style – they are much more introverted and melancholy than the grandiose symphonies or marches. The Cello Concerto in particular expresses Elgar’s despair over the tragedy of the war.

When the armistice was signed in November 1918, Laurence Binyon approached Elgar again and invited him to set to music words he had written for peace. Elgar replied “I do not feel drawn to write peace music somehow… the whole atmosphere is too full of complexities for me to feel music to it; not the atmosphere of the poem… the individual sorrow and sacrifice – a cruelty I resent bitterly & disappointedly.” For Elgar such pomp and circumstance was totally inappropriate given what had been lost.

With a brilliant performance of part of the violin sonata, Simon’s fascinating insight into the great composer’s life and works drew to a close, leaving us all pondering on the real character of Sir Edward Elgar, this most English of composers.

“Fascinating insight from a top specialist, perfect event for Westminster Music Library.”

“Innovative and informative, thank you, as a musician it is good to see the music being made accessible this way.”

“For the uninitiated, an excellent introduction to Elgar, and the way the First World War influenced his life and music.”

*Learn more about Simon’s involvement in our recent Elgar music workshops, plus all the latest news of Westminster Music Library’s Music and Composers of the First World War project on our Behind the Lines website:



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