Few things in the history of modern music are more remarkable than Elgar's sudden leap into something like worldwide fame; indeed, no composer has had an artistic career like his. Like Berlioz, his nearest parallel, he is free-lance, self-taught, and influenced very slightly by the current traditions of his time; but unlike Berlioz, whose work is all of a piece from the very start, Elgar began on lines almost entirely alien to his later methods. All composers, even the greatest, have of course written relatively inferior (often very inferior) work at some period or other; and some have only for the first time found themselves artistically in middle life, like Wagner, or in old age, like Verdi. But Elgar, till he was considerably over thirty years of age, was known chiefly by, so to speak, ‘smart society’ music: the Salut d'amour kind of production that seeks and finds its reward in the West End drawing-room, clever and shallow and artistically quite unpromising. Even in the days of his high fame, he has had (at any rate for a time) the heavy millstone of aristocratic fashionableness hanging round his neck, and may over and over again well have prayed to be delivered from his friends. Indeed, there was no particular reason for any one to prophesy any special future for him. In the best work of the transition period there were no doubt points of interest of various kinds: the pleasant picturesqueness of The Black Knight and the Serenade for strings, several parts of King Olaf (especially the powerful 'Challenge of Thor'), and the very fine sombre 'Lament' in Caractacus. [However]…these were so much overbalanced by things like the conscientious sentimentality of the great bulk (though not indeed all) of the The Light of Life, the rather blatant hardness of the last section of The Banner of St. George and the Imperial March, and the superficial appeal of the salon music, that it seemed decidedly doubtful whether the obvious talent would ever result in anything really vital. It was not until 1899 that Elgar found his fully individual method of expression in some fine Sea Pictures for contralto and orchestra, and in an astonishingly subtle and imaginative set of orchestral variations (which very many musicians are still inclined to consider his best work). The Dream of Gerontius, in which the new style was first shown on an extended scale, had to wait some time for its second performance, and three years before it was heard in London, but after its great success in Germany its composer's popularity swelled rapidly to enormous proportions.
It was fairly obvious from the start that the movement, which began in London with the performance of The Dream of Gerontius at the Westminster Catholic Cathedral in 1903, was to some extent of a merely evanescent character; and the comparatively cool reception accorded to The Kingdom, which is certainly by no means inferior to Elgar's other mature works, seems to show that it has already nearly spent itself, as was bound sooner or later to be the case. But although pessimistic voices are heard prophesying that Elgar will find his level by the side of people like the composers of The Redemption or The Resurrection of Lazarus, yet the reality would seem to be far otherwise. Elgar is too great a composer not to be able to come out at the other side of his trying experiences as Gounod and Lorenzo Perosi (the priest-musician who, after being urged upon Europe with the whole driving force of the Roman Church, was dropped just at the beginning of Elgar's popularity) were certainly not able to do.
Apart from a certain number of small works, either several years old or written in imitation of earlier models, Elgar has, since 1899, published nothing which does not bear his own characteristic sign-manual; and in slender productions like the Greek Anthology lyrics for male voices or other similarly most remarkable part-songs like 'Weary wind of the west' or 'Evening scene' the individual vitality of utterance is quite as conspicuous as in the large choral works or orchestral compositions such as the In the South overture.
In feeling for colour colour of every conceivable kind Elgar is surpassed by no living composer, English or foreign, and as an orchestrator he is among the very greatest in musical history; his melodies and harmonies are always his own and sometimes very beautiful, and he shows, like his contemporary and great admirer, Richard Strauss, a singular power of reaching the essence of the words he chooses to set especially when they give opportunity for the expression of emotional drama or religious feeling in the terms of mystical but modern Catholicism.
The sort of entrancing unearthly charm of such music as the songs of the Angel in Gerontius or the setting of the Beatitudes in The Apostles is without parallel in English work; it is wonderfully subtle and intimate, and yet the appeal which it makes, is very direct. He threads the mazes of the most elaborate polyphony with easy assurance, vividness and courage: modernity inspire every page of the works by which he bids fair to live.