Edward Elgar, Britain's Musical Icon, Turns 150 We know him as the man who wrote the music used at graduations, but in Britain, Edward Elgar means a lot more. It's the 150th anniversary of the birth of the composer who gave the British "Pomp and Circumstance" and one little "Enigma."

Edward Elgar, Britain's Musical Icon, Turns 150

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, one of England's most famous composers was born. Sir Edward Elgar was the son of a piano tuner and was largely self-taught. His music - stirring, patriotic and emotional - captured the spirit of England. It has endured as music we turned to for momentous occasions.

NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of song "Pomp and Circumstance Military March No. 1")

JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR: The composition for which Edward Elgar is best known today is not instantly recognizable. A minute or two of sprightly and bombastic music comes before the entire character of the piece changes.

(Soundbite of song "Pomp and Circumstance Military March No. 1")

FREYMANN-WEYR: It's "Pomp and Circumstance Military March No. 1". Elgar wrote it in 1901 with a title borrowed from a fellow describing the pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war. Elgar reused the theme at the king's request in music for the coronation of Edward VII, setting the words of A.C. Benson's poem, "Land of Hope and Glory". The tune became a second British national anthem.

Its first appearance at an American graduation ceremony was at Yale University in 1905. Elgar was there receiving an honorary degree and it was played as the invited guests were leaving the hall. Ever since then, it's become a mainstay at graduations and feels appropriate for the occasion. It's stately, dignified and indomitable.

After the attacks of September 11th, orchestras in the United States turned to another work by Elgar to express sorrow, pain and the need to begin healing. One of his "Enigma Variations", the section called "Nimrod", appeared on many memorial concert programs.

(Soundbite of song, "Nimrod")

FREYMANN-WEYR: The set of variations was Elgar's first great public success in 1899. Each variation musically depicted the character of a friend or a colleague. Many of the movements are playful, showing the side of Elgar's personality that liked wordplay, codes and riddles. Each section's title is either a nickname or a set of initials. And Elgar hinted that there were other secrets to discover that were hidden in the music.

There will be concerts in the U.K. throughout this season, and had been many observances of the anniversary - the biggest gala at Royal Albert Hall. That program included Elgar's "Cello Concerto", a piece that legendary British cellist Jacqueline Du Pre made her own in the 1965 recording.

(Soundbite of song "Cello Concerto")

FREYMANN-WEYR: In the U.S., one major celebration of Elgar's sesquicentennial will be held this July and August in Upstate, New York, at the Bard Music Festival. Elgar's stature in his homeland has been a bit mixed recently. The British Arts Council turned down a request by the Elgar Society to fund a commemorative series of youth concerts.

And earlier this year, Elgar's portrait, which had been on the 20-pound note, was replaced with the image of economist Adam Smith. But his popularity continues. In a British survey of the general public in 2005, Sir Edward Elgar was named the most popular British composer ever.

Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Cello Concerto")

ELLIOTT: To learn more about Elgar and hear how the riddle behind his "Enigma Variations" might be solved, go to npr.org/music.

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