Edward Elgar: The Music Makers


Edward Elgar is fondly remembered as one of the forefront English composers of the late 19th/early 20th century. His music is often incorporated into international concerts, with some of his most famous compositions including Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Enigma Variations and his Cello Concerto. Whilst all of these works are fantastic in their own right, one particular work by Elgar really excites me, and that’s The Music Makers. Composed between 1903-1912, this work is scored for contralto, mezzo-soprano, chorus and a full orchestra.

The first public performance of The Music Makers was on 1st October 1912, at the Birmingham Festival. Elgar conducted the premiere, with Muriel Foster as one of the acclaimed soloists. The work was not created for a specific commission, which might explain why Elgar intermittently worked on this for nearly a decade. After the premiere Elgar came under quite a lot of criticism for The Music Makers, due to his self-quoting throughout. The music quotes passages from Nimrod, Rule Britannia, La Marseillaise, Sea Pictures and the First and Second Symphonies. Critics said that the work was self-centred and wholly unoriginal, however you can make your own minds up about this!


The Lyrics

The text that Elgar uses for The Music Makers is from a poem called Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881). Ode was published in his collection ‘The Athenaeum’ in 1873. It seems that Elgar took quite a liking to Ode, which is why he begun trying to set it in its entirety in 1903. O’Shaughnessy’s Ode deals with the role of the artist in mainstream society, with the artist being referred to as the ‘dreamer’.

The poem takes various twists and turns throughout, however, with the artist claiming that it is indeed the artist that changes the world and offers progress for society. Elgar felt that the duty of an artist is to do exactly that, with him claiming that this duty is for “all artists who feel the tremendous responsibility of their mission to renew the world as of yore.” 

Below is the text of Ode:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself in our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

We are the music-makers,
A breath of our inspiration
Is the life of each generation
A wondrous thing of our dreaming
Unearthly, impossible seeming…
The soldier, the king, and the peasant
Are working together in one,
Till our dream shall become their present,
And their work in the world be done.

They had no vision amazing
Of the goodly house they are raising;
They had no divine foreshowing
Of the land to which they are going:
But on one man’s soul it hath broken,
A light that doth not depart;
And his look, or a word he hath spoken,
Wrought flame in another man’s heart.

And therefore today is thrilling
With a past day’s late fulfilling;
And the multitudes are enlisted
In the faith that their fathers resisted,
And, scorning the dream of to-morrow,
Are bringing to pass, as they may,
In the world, for its joy or its sorrow,
The dream that was scorned yesterday.

With our dreaming and singing,
Ceaseless and sorrowless we!
The glory about us clinging
Of the glorious futures we see,
Our souls with high music ringing;
O men! It must ever be
That we dwell in our dreaming and singing,
A little apart from ye.

For we are afar with the dawning
And the suns that are not yet high,
And out of the infinite morning
Intrepid you hear us cry…
How, spite of your human scorning,
Once more God’s future draws nigh,
And already goes forth the warning
That ye of the past must die.

Great hail! we cry to the comers
From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers;
And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song’s new numbers,
And things that we dreamed not before:
Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers,
And a singer who sings no more.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams.

The Music

Starting with an orchestral prelude, the two major melodic themes of the work are set out. Speculation has led us to believe that these two themes represent the artist’s ‘mission’ and the spiritual unrest that this might bring for them. With a similar feel from Elgar’s Sea Pictures, this opening prelude is romantic, yet uneasy in places. The countermelodies from the strings and the brass creates a colourful soundscape for the rest of this work to build from.

The chorus enters for the first verse unaccompanied. The atmosphere created here depicts the isolation of a creative artist – something that Elgar could perhaps relate to. The eerie feeling here is then accentuated by the orchestra who play a chromatic phrase to accentuate the dissonances. For the most part, the music feels like it is rather personal to Elgar, with much of the focus being on the text and what that represents.

That is not to say that the music should be disregarded in any way, in fact it should be quite the opposite. The complex tapestry that Elgar has created for the instrumentalists is challenging due to the constant changes in mood. These changes are likely to represent the extremes of mood that many creative people experience on a day to day basis. The yearning for the chorus and orchestral to meet up melodically very much heightens some of the more intense passages of the work. The work feels like a journey as it is set as one 40 minute movement, with the soloist singing the fifth verse.

The soloists role in the fifth verse is a moment of poignancy and staticism as the chorus settle after proclaiming the rights of the artist. The placing of the soloist in the middle of the work is intriguing as it feels like the music has been somewhat halted. It is here that Elgar’s most recognisable self-quotation happens. The latter half of the solo morphs into a very emotional setting of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. Elgar comments on his use of Nimrod:


“I have used the opening bars of the theme (Enigma) of the Variations because it expressed when written my sense of loneliness of the artists as described in the first six lines of the Ode, and to me, it still embodies that sense.

I have quoted the Nimrod Variations as a tribute to the memory of my friend, A. J. Jaeger: by this I do not mean to convey that his was the only soul on which light had broken or that his was the only word, or look that wrought ‘flame in another man’s heart’; but I do convey that amongst all the inept writing and wrangling about music, his voice was clear, ennobling, sober, and sane, and for his help and inspiration I make this acknowledgement.”


The ending is rather subdued, marking the point that all things must end and inevitably change (in spite of a dreamer who slumbers/and a singer who sings no more). After the soloist finishes, the orchestra repeat the opening melodic line, and the chorus then repeat the opening choral line. This gives the work a cyclic feel, with it starting and ending with the same material.

What Elgar has cleverly done with The Music Makers is undercut the meaning of the text somewhat with the orchestral music. Although sometimes the work displays the hope and vision of the poem, it largely looks back at the music of the past. His frequent self-quotation and the complex palette of emotions throughout perhaps represent Elgar’s feelings towards how an artist is perceived in society, and how big the burden can feel at times. So although this work was not composed for a certain commission, it was composed because Elgar evidently connected with the text so much so he put it into an epic cantata-esque work.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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