Edward Elgar was born in the village of Broadheath, near Worcester, in 1857. His father was a local organist, piano tuner and music shop proprietor. Through his father's shop, the young Elgar was exposed to music from a very early age and showed a great aptitude for it, learning the organ, violin and bassoon. However, his hopes of going to the Leipzig Conservatoire when he left school were never realised because of his father's financial limitations. Instead, he became assistant organist at his father's church, began to play the violin in local ensembles and formed a wind quintet with his brothers, for which he composed some of his first pieces.
Over the following years he, became known locally and was in some demand as a conductor and violinist. Success as a composer did not really come until the early 1880s. In 1882, Elgar joined a local Birmingham orchestra conducted by William Stockley. This orchestra gave a successful performance of his Sérénade mauresquethe following year, and in 1884 his Sevillana was performed in a concert at Crystal Palace. Elgar was also known locally as a teacher of both the violin and the organ. In 1889, he married one of his pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts. Alice's family was against the union, but she became the cornerstone of Elgar's life. She organised his everyday life and supported him whole-heartedly through success and failure with his composing and conducting.
During the 1890s, Elgar's reputation grew. The Three Choirs Festival commissioned his Froissart overture in 1890 and such works as the Serenade for Strings (1892), Imperial March (1897) and the oratorio Caractacus (1898) were well received. However, almost overnight recognition came when, in 1899 Hans Richter conducted the premiere of the 42-year-old Elgar's, Variations on an original theme (Enigma variations).
The Birmingham Festival of 1900 commissioned Elgar to write a large choral work. The composer, a Roman Catholic, decided to set a poem, The Dream of Gerontius, by Cardinal Newman and the masterpiece of the same name was the result. Unfortunately, the premiere was a disaster, largely due to a lack of rehearsal time, a fate that was also to befall his Cello Concerto 20 years later. However, two performances in Düsseldorf followed, to huge acclaim, and the eminent German composer Richard Strauss proclaimed Elgar the greatest English composer of the day.
The years 1901 to 1914 were Elgar's most successful. He became the first professor of music at the University of Birmingham (1905 - 1908) and was knighted in 1904. 25 years of neglect in his home country was seemingly forgotten by everyone except Elgar himself. His music was in fashion on the continent and in America, and many conductors including Richter, Strauss and Busoni included it in their programmes. A string of successes followed, including the Pomp and Circumstance Marchs (1901), his Introduction and Allegro for strings (1905), a Violin Concerto written for the great violinist Fritz Kreisler (1910), and two symphonies, the first in 1908 and the second in 1911. Hans Richter, who again conducted the premiere, hailed the First Symphony as 'the greatest symphony of our time'. Elgar's last major work before World War I was the oratoria, The Music Makers, premiered in 1914.
World War I affected Elgar deeply and, with the exception of The Spirit of England, a setting of war poems by Laurence Binyon and the ballet The Sanguine Fan, he wrote little of consequence between 1914 and 1918. After the war, a new introspective Elgar turned to chamber music, writing, amongst others, a Violin Sonata (1918) and a Piano Quintet (1919). Elgar's last large-scale work was his Cello Concerto of 1919, premiered by Beatrice Harrison.
In 1920 Lady Elgar died. Elgar was devastated and found himself unable to compose without her. However, he continued his successful career as a conductor and produced a few small-scale compositions and arrangements of earlier works. He was made Master of the King's Music in 1924 and created a Baronet in 1931. Elgar was also one of the first composers to realise the possibilities afforded by the invention of the gramophone, recording most of his own orchestral work between 1914 and 1933. At the time of his death in February 1934, the 77-year-old Elgar had finally found the inspiration to write major works again, and left a Third Symphony and an opera, The Spanish Lady, unfinished.