Not quite the gentleman

Remembered as an icon of imperial Britain, Elgar has long been misunderstood

It is 150 years since Edward Elgar was born, and he remains an iconic figure. But he is an icon who makes many modern Britons decidedly uncomfortable - especially as his big anniversary happens to fall in the same year as the bicentenary of the UK parliament's abolition of the slave trade. It is no coincidence that this year the Bank of England chose to take Elgar's portrait off the back of the £20 note. He is seen above all as the Bard of Imperial Britain, creator of "Land of Hope and Glory" and the composer who, in "The Banner of St George", proudly lauded the "Great race, whose empire of splendour/Has dazzled a wondering world".

In photographs, Elgar appears a straight-backed Edwardian gentleman, all military bearing and flourishing colonial moustaches. But the harder one looks at those poses, the more obviously staged they appear. Elgar could be tre mendous fun: his letters display a mercurial sense of humour, much of which, surprisingly, hasn't dated. But many of those who met him at the height of his fame were surprised at how nervous, acutely sensitive, desperately self-critical and subject to alarming plunges into depression he could be.

When the influential critic Ernest Newman was introduced to the composer for the first time, Elgar's wife astonished him by begging him to change the subject if anyone mentioned suicide: Elgar, she explained, "was always talking of doing away with himself". This brings to mind the unsettlingly poignant scene of the old man's death in Elgar's turn-of-the-century oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Could it be that the composer had lived through that experience in his imagination over and over again?

Elgar's gentlemanly exterior concealed a relatively humble background. He did not spring from solid English landed stock: his father maintained a toehold on the social ladder only on the lowest rung of the middle class, running a small music shop in Worcester. The house Elgar was born in, now the central exhibit of Worcester's excellent Elgar Birthplace Museum, is tiny. When, in 1889, he married Alice Roberts, daughter of a general, her family disowned her.

Furthermore, the Elgars were Roman Catholics, and Catholicism was still regarded with a suspicion bordering on paranoia. In 1902, when the recently premiered Dream of Gerontius, based on a poem by Cardinal Newman, was proposed for the Three Choirs Festival, the Bishop of Worcester was deluged with complaints. Per formance was permitted only once the text had been purged of its objectionable, "Romish" elements - quite a feat, given the crucial references to Mass, the intercession of saints, purgatory and, worst of all, the Virgin Mother of God.

Some scholars have argued that Elgar adopted his rather bombastic image for defensive reasons. There was no place for sensitive, troubled men in the pre-eminently militaristic culture in which he lived; it was only as a self-made Edwardian gentleman that he could achieve the social leverage necessary to further his art. Elgar, however, was more than just a social opportunist; he knew from the start that the "Land of Hope and Glory" theme from the "Pomp and Circumstance March No 1" was a winner. "I've got a tune that will knock 'em flat - knock 'em flat," he wrote gleefully, and it delighted him that Edward VII quickly became one of the work's biggest fans. Listening to that tune, or to the "glad, confident" melody that opens and closes the First Symphony, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Elgar shared enthusiastically in the dreams and aspirations of his age.

But look more closely at the First Symphony, at the turbulent, impassioned, exquisitely dreamy and at times achingly sad music enclosed by that stirring theme, and a very different picture emerges. Here is an artist divided within himself: embracing the dream on one level, then questioning it and subverting it on another. Consider the reaction of one critic to the first performance of the Second Symphony in May 1911: the unnamed reviewer accused the music of "pessimism and rebellion". Since then, many have wondered if the message at the heart of the Second Symphony, ostensibly dedicated to Shelley's "spirit of delight", is not in fact dark - indeed, despairing.

Even Elgar's "Englishness" is open to question. In the years before Anglo-German relations turned bellicose, he had many supporters in Germany. When Richard Strauss toasted him in 1902 as "the first English Meister", he was not simply saying that Elgar was good enough to compare with the greatest German composers (an opinion endorsed by the great conductor Hans Richter), he was pointing out that Elgar belonged to the German tradition of Meisterschaft. In other words, "he's one of us". When audiences for Elgar concerts dwindled during the First World War, Thomas Beecham delivered one of his most barbed bons mots. "Where are Elgar's supporters?" asked a baffled colleague. "They've all been interned," came the reply.

Elgar was not an English Shostakovich, publicly lauding a regime and its values while privately calling them bitterly into question. Yet there can be little doubt that he is a much more complex and fascinating artist than the purveyors of the national "heritage" image would have us believe. When we have gained a little more distance from his age and its darker achievements, his music may become a means of helping us to achieve a degree of rapprochement with this important stage in our collective history - however much we may continue to lament its international legacy.

Stephen Johnson joins Donald Macleod on Radio 3's "Composer of the Week" for "Edward Elgar - Elgar's Landscapes", 11-15 June, at noon each day

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent