Inspired by the rural beauty of the surroundings at his country retreat in 1917, Edward Elgar embarked on the composition of some of his most inspired and imaginative chamber works.
Both the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet are works of great depth and elegance. Their conservative style disregards the compositional trends of the time and displays an unabashed late-romanticism. Elgar wrote: ‘It is full of golden sounds and I like it. But you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist.’
The disc features sumptuous playing from the acclaimed Goldner String Quartet, who are joined by pianist Piers Lane for Elgar’s sublime Piano Quintet, a large-scale work of almost orchestral sonority.
These masterpieces are accompanied by four previously unrecorded works for solo piano, the last of which was written by Elgar at the age of 72. They are intimate, charming rarities, superbly performed by Lane.
As a young struggling violin teacher in Worcester, Elgar often played chamber music. An early friendship was with a Dr Buck, a keen amateur cellist; Elgar used to visit him at his home in Yorkshire, and play—and compose—little pieces for the family music-making. Then some of the friends ‘Pictured Within’ the Enigma Variations were his ensemble partners. His Op 8 and Op 9, which he destroyed, were a string quartet and a violin sonata. He longed to write quartets ‘but nobody wanted them’. In 1907 his ever-admiring wife noted: ‘E. writing his IVt. all day—beautiful’. Sketches from that were subsumed in his First Symphony and in The Music Makers. He was in fact drafting chamber music all through his life.
During the Great War Elgar had not composed big symphonic works, just patriotic and occasional pieces for the stage. His home was in London, but to escape from town life in 1917 he rented a cottage called Brinkwells among remote woods in West Sussex. There, with no musicians around him, wholly into his imagination came a rush of chamber music: a Violin Sonata, Op 82, a String Quartet, Op 83, and a Piano Quintet, Op 84. He began the Quartet in the summer of 1918, completing it on Christmas Eve, and completed the Quintet some weeks into 1919.
In March 1918 he had to have infected tonsils removed. In those days, such an operation on a man of sixty was severe. Within days he began the Piacevole of the Quartet. Back at Brinkwells he charted the changing seasons: ‘heavenly … nightingales in May … young birds hatching … high summer, rich full & perfect … wheat cut … the sun climbing over our view in golden mist … cold but vividly bright’. But there was sadness too, in the many references to the old days; friends were dying, Lady Elgar’s health was failing, the war had changed his world. He was aware he was not breaking new ground: ‘I know it does not carry us any further’, he wrote of his summer’s music, ‘but it is full of golden sounds and I like it. But you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist.’
The chamber works are indeed conservative, both for their date, and if compared with Elgar’s earlier big works. His first audience was taken aback. This was his first published chamber music, and he was writing as though Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Holst did not exist. Possibly recognizing in himself no wish to absorb recent idioms, he went his own way easily. But surface impressions can be deceptive. What is remarkable is how unalike the two works are. The String Quartet is nervy, inward, plaintive; the Piano Quintet is spacious, noble, a little sinister—Elgar said that it ran ‘gigantically in a large mood’.
The mood of the String Quartet in E minor Op 83 is wry, the sharp rhythmic gestures at odds with the hollow, irresolute harmonies. The first movement is intricate, with subtle internal cross-references. The tonality is fluid. The first two bars are in E minor but rise to a D natural, giving a modal flavour. Elgar often avoids root-position chords, and relates keys by minor thirds rather than by more conventional fifths. The second subject sounds smooth and lyrical but its rhythm turns out to be an expansion of the jerky first subject. When it is developed the viola has it between soaring violin and plunging cello. Recapitulated, it becomes sad and inarticulate, broken by rests. It is extraordinary that this highly strung music should flow so spontaneously. There is a coming to terms with life here, an experienced but undogmatic voice.
The second movement sounds artless. Piacevole, Elgar directed it—‘agreeable, pleasant’. Elgar’s wife likened it to ‘captured sunshine’: perhaps the long spells of drowsy repetitions against pedal points made her think of the ‘sound of bees and insects on a hot summer’s afternoon’. But there are also stabs of pain, and the sound, though sweet, is thin, often in only three parts, sprinkled with harmonics and finally muted. This sunshine is fitful and autumnal.
Lady Elgar wrote that the finale is ‘most fiery & sweeps along like Galloping of Squadrons’. The thrust and resolution of the opening justify that description, as does the breadth of the ending. The second subject allows some relaxation, but a phrase from it is then vigorously propelled, so bringing together the motoric power of the first subject and the lyricism of the second.
The Piano Quintet in A minor Op 84 is a more ambitious, more expansive work than the Quartet. Bernard Shaw wrote to Elgar that it was: ‘the finest thing of its kind since Coriolan. I don’t know why I associated the two; but I did: there was the same quality—the same vein.’ It was an unexpected association, a quintet and a theatre overture which do not begin alike in any literal way. But the ‘of its kind’ must have meant that Shaw was alert to the compressed force in Elgar’s introduction: the serious confrontation of the slow, emotionally rather blank piano theme in octaves, against the insistent stabbing strings and the highly personal chromatic passage that follows. The piano theme reflects the plainsong chant Salve regina. Only the first four notes, A-G-A-D, are a direct link, but the effect is austere. The imploring chromatic passage, the cello rising against the drop of the other strings, portrays human anguish. The whole Quintet is haunted by this drama.
The second subject—swaying violins in thirds in a languorous dance, in A major with G naturals and B flats—sounds Spanish. The sublime Adagio reaches a profound romantic stillness; the finale is vigorous and handsome. But the full implications of the first movement are not revealed until the middle of the last movement, where ghostly presences return; confidence falters, and memories and presentiments play out some interior drama, dispelled as the recapitulation gathers strength.
Elgar dedicated the Quintet to the critic Ernest Newman, who wrote of the ‘quasi-programme that lies at the base of the work’. The primitive isolated cottage, and the music Elgar composed there, have gathered associations and myths around them. Early biographers wrote of a legend that a group of dead, twisted trees near Brinkwells were the forms of Spanish monks struck by lightning while performing impious rites. Lady Elgar’s diary about the Quintet refers to the sad and sinister trees and the ‘wail for their sins’. She records a visit during the composition by Algernon Blackwood, teller of occult tales, and of Elgar’s reading Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story. But research has since shown that there was no settlement of Spanish monks in Sussex, and no local knowledge of the legend.
However, the story was published while Elgar was alive and he didn’t contradict it. That makes the matter more, not less, interesting, for it seems likely that the Spanish monks, the blasphemous dance and the lightning blast of retribution were fastened by Elgar’s own imagination onto the twisted trees; and who can be sure whether the music, shaping itself in his subconscious, suggested the ‘legend’, or the ‘legend’ the music? Lady Elgar felt too that the ‘wonderful weird beginning’ of the Quintet had the same atmosphere as Owls, Elgar’s part-song of 1907 to his own eerie and nihilistic words: ‘What is that? … Nothing […] A wild thing hurt but mourns in the night […] All that could be is said.’
So all those experiences formed the background to Elgar’s Quintet. The details matter less than that there is some great drama being played out. After private run-throughs the two works were performed on 21 May 1919 at Wigmore Hall in London by Albert Sammons, W H Reed, Raymond Jeremy, Felix Salmond and William Murdoch.
A surprise for that 1919 audience was that Elgar used the piano in the Quintet. He wrote very little piano music. His only major solo piece, the Concert Allegro composed for Fanny Davies, was unpublished. Nevertheless, as a child he was famed for his improvising: ‘The violin is my instrument, not the piano. I scramble through things orchestrally in a way that would madden with envy all existing pianists.’ Bernard Shaw, after hearing Elgar play the Quintet, said the same thing, wrapped up in blarney: ‘There are some piano embroideries on a pedal point that didn’t sound like a piano or anything else in the world, but quite beautiful … they require a touch which is peculiar to yourself, and which struck me the first time I ever heard you larking about with a piano.’ Elgar’s recordings (1929) of his ‘Improvisations’ reveal him as an enchanting pianist, and more little piano pieces exist than is generally known. Piers Lane gave the first known public performance of four such pieces at Potton Hall, Suffolk, on 2 July 2010.
The earliest is the March in D major of 5 August 1887 (MS 118 at the Elgar Birthplace Museum), a cheerful forerunner of Pomp and Circumstance with a trio that Elgar marked ‘sugary’. The same year he composed the Laura Valse, probably for a soprano from Stratford whose family discouraged the attentions of the obscure music teacher. The autograph belonged to Steve Race, Elgarian and collector as well as radio personality. It was confirmed as being in Elgar’s hand for the 2001 New Grove Dictionary, and Race recorded the piece for a talk he gave to the Elgar Society. Since his death in 2009 the autograph has not been found, but Laura was transcribed from Race’s performance on cassette by the composer Tim Murray.
Mina (the name of Elgar’s Cairn Terrier) is known in its orchestral version of 1933. Piano sketches and a fair copy exist in the British Library. When Elgar sent it and other pieces to Keith Prowse he allowed that ‘they can be adapted to any [arrangement] you think fit’. An edition was published in 2005 by David Patrick, and Piers Lane made his from all the available sources.
The Impromptu is quite unknown. In 1932 Elgar visited Belfast to conduct The Dream of Gerontius. After the composer’s death the BBC producer there, Godfrey Brown, wrote in a letter of condolence to Elgar’s daughter: ‘He sent my secretary (Miss Dales) a little piece of music in the style of a nocturne made out of her initials, and which he wrote specially for her. This she has framed and is, of course, exceedingly proud of it.’ The autograph was bought at Sotheby’s by Richard Westwood-Brookes, who has kindly given permission for its use. Elgar begins it with her initials, E[velyn]-F[rances]-B[arron]-D[ales], sounds them again in an inner voice, and ends inconclusively, with an imperfect cadence and his own initials, an octave E-E. The Impromptu lasts a mere 27 seconds; Elgar was 72 at the time; it is as romantic as anything he ever composed.
Diana McVeagh © 2011