The Imperial Mystique: Sir Edward Elgar and the Twilight of Empire

Date: Friday January 26, 2007 – 7:30 p.m. at the Almonte United Church Social Hall

Speaker: Alan Gillmor

Topic: The Imperial Mystique: Sir Edward Elgar and the Twilight of Empire


Elgar reached middle age in the heyday of British Imperialism, and for a time he succumbed to the glory of it all. He was forty years old in 1897, the year of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and he saw himself then as a musical laureate, summoned by destiny to hymn Britannia’s greatness. Between 1897 and 1898 he wrote three celebratory works. There was a cantata called The Banner of St. George, with a grand finale glorifying the Union Jack. There was another called Caractacus, predicting out of its ancient context the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the British. There was an “Imperial March,” played first by massed bands at the Crystal Palace, and later, by special command of the Queen, at a State Jubilee Concert. Then in 1901 came the first Pomp and Circumstance march, whose trio section, later set to the famous words, “Land of Hope and Glory,” gave Britain a virtual second national anthem. In short, Elgar became the musical laureate of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the mixture of idealism and imperialism prevalent during those years found perfect expression in his music.

This talk will demonstrate that this popular view of Elgar as the very musical incarnation of British Imperialism is seriously unbalanced, for there is another side to Elgar that is often missed by those who equate his name almost exclusively with high Victorian jingoism. In his greatest music (the three symphonies, the violin and cello concertos, the late chamber music) many hear the funeral march of a great civilization. As James Morris has written: ‘It is as though he sensed that all the pride of Empire, expressed at such a comfortable remove in the country drawing-rooms of his beloved West Country, would one day collapse in bloodshed and pathos.’ Thus it was that Sir Edward Elgar, who wrote the triumphant hymn of Empire, lived to compose its elegy.

Speaker’s Profile:

A native of Fort Frances, Ontario, Alan Gillmor was educated at the University of Michigan (B.Mus., M.A.) and the University of Toronto (Ph.D.). He taught at McGill University and Carleton University, from which he retired in 2003 as Professor Emeritus. Among his professional honours are teaching awards from Carleton (1982, 1992), the prestigious 3M Teaching Fellowship (1995), and the Capital Educators’ Award (2002). Dr. Gillmor’s scholarly publications have appeared in professional journals both in North America and Europe, and his monograph on the French composer Erik Satie (1988, 1990) was shortlisted in 1990 for the Ottawa-Carleton Book Award for non-fiction. He lives in Ottawa with his artist wife Susan and, when not travelling, puttering in the garden, or listening to music accompanied by a decent single malt, continues to pursue scholarly research and writing.

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