The biography of every great artist is a history of the interaction between temperament and experience: between the natural endowment which is the content of genius and the training, whether of the schools or of the world, which gives it form and experience.
In the career of Elgar this interaction has been singularly close and harmonious. His natural endowment is a keen sense of beauty of tone, an imagination vivid and poignant rather than wide of range, a special gift of pathos and tenderness, and above all a sheer intellectual power which might equally well have made him a great scientist, or a great man of letters.
It is no coincidence, it is still less a pose, that he takes far more interest in discussing a chemical problem or extricating a seventeenth-century dramatist than in any question concerning this technique of his own art. ‘I like music' he once said 'but I do not in the least care to know how it is made,' and he is probably to this day unconscious of the extent to which in his recent character music he has superseded the old classical form.
Of direct musical training he had little or none. Schumann learned most of his counterpoint from Jean Paul: Elgar's composition owes less to the music teacher than to the collections of Old English authors which he found in an attic at home and devoured through every spare moment of his boyhood.
His astonishing gift of orchestration was trained not in any school but in amateur bands when he had the inestimable advantage of testing each experiment as he made it, and the result is a mastery of instrumental dialogue, which, had he nothing else, would give him rank among the great artists of the world. And he has much else.
Of his limitations which are plain and obvious, there is no need here to speak criticism has too often deserved its definition as the art of complaining about something because it is not something else and Elgar has given so much that it would be ungrateful to discuss what he has withheld.
A master of the grave and elegiac mood in music, a colourist whose richness of tone is reinforced by the full texture of his polyphony, he is above all conspicuous for the variety and interest of his musical structure. In the Malvern [Enigma] Variations, in the Concert Overture, in Falstaff, in the slow movement of the first symphony and the whole of the second; in the violin concerto, in the pianoforte quintet he has taken his place among the great composers and has written work which bids fair to live so long as the Art endures.
From TWENTY-FOUR PORTRAITS by William Rothenstein