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Elgar (1962)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

As a boy, Edward Elgar's greatest passion was to ride a pony in the Malvern Hills: he was born in 1857 in Worcester in their shadow. Elgar's father runs a music shop in the high street: Elgar teaches himself orchestration by experimenting with the instruments.

He begins composing at fifteen with a song called 'The Language of Flowers' written for his sister. He writes pieces for everyone in the household, but there is no question of him studying music formally. Instead, he works in the shop, playing the organ in the local Catholic church on Sundays. He also writes motets and takes up conducting local ensembles.

In 1886, Elgar meets Alice Roberts, who begins as a piano pupil and ends up his wife - with the ambition to turn him into a great composer. He writes 'Salut d'Amour' as an engagement present. Despite family objections, they marry in 1889.

They move to London, where Elgar sends pieces to a dozen different publishers, but they are all rejected. He gets the opportunity to rehearse a piece with a large orchestra, but this is cancelled when Sir Arthur Sullivan demands an unscheduled performance. The Elgars cut their losses and return to Worcestershire.

Elgar returns to teaching and conducting, and revisits his old haunts. A daughter is born, but Alice remains obsessively focused on her husband's career, forcing him to work and even creating her own manuscript paper when they cannot afford the printed kind.

In 1897, Elgar composes a march in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Although largely forgotten today, it catches the public imagination. Over the next few years he writes 'Caractacus', the 'Enigma' Variations and 'The Dream of Gerontius', the latter his masterpiece to date, a perfect fusion of his public and deeply private personas.

Elgar's music is discovered by the German conductor Hans Richter, which leads to his becoming acclaimed as "the first modern genius of English music" by Richard Strauss. Elgar travels to Germany and is feted in person.

Back home, Elgar takes up kite-flying with his daughter, while turning his friends' doubts about his future into the 'Enigma' Variations, the piece that finally makes his reputation in Britain. Within the next three years, he becomes internationally famous, knighted and honoured. Moving to Hereford, he lives the life of a country gentleman - but he still worries about money. While writing many of his greatest works, he takes up chemistry, attempting to invent a new kind of soap.

In 1910, the year of Edward VII's death, Elgar's music becomes bleaker, almost as though he senses impending disaster. War is declared four years later. Music written in 1901 becomes a rallying call to the nation, though he disapproves of the jingoistic text ('Land of Hope and Glory') written by others. During the war, he writes private, low-key chamber music.

In 1918, the relief of the Armistice is not shared by Elgar, who turns down an official commission to write an anthem for piece. Instead, he writes his mournful Cello Concerto, his last masterpiece. In 1920, his wife Alice dies suddenly. Elgar wanders through a room full of shrouded furniture. He buries his honours in his wife's coffin and retreats into biology, taking solace in the cold, abstract patterns of life.

In 1924, Elgar conducts his music at the opening of the Royal Empire Exhibition at Wembley. He planned to perform new music, but King George V insists on 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Elgar despairs at the vulgarity of English life, later denouncing the horribly mechanistic nature of the display.

He returns to the Malvern Hills for good with his beloved dogs, his only companions. He lives his final days as a country gentleman, receiving further honours - an Order of Merit, a baronetcy, Master of the King's Musick. But his work falls out of favour with the public, who regards him as archaic.

In the 1930s, he begins a friendship with George Bernard Shaw and works on a violin concerto with the young prodigy Yehudi Menuhin, but illness takes his toll. He spends his final years in Worcestershire surrounded by recordings of his music, reminding him of his life and loves.