Romance: Andante [8'06]
Allegro non troppo [8'48]
Moderato – Allegro [14'12]
Andante – Allegro [10'44]
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Elgar’s final and arguably his finest distillation of creative energy came on the eve of the 1920s as The Great War reached an uncertain end. For it was the years 1918 and 1919 that saw the emergence of three moving chamber works and the elegiac cello concerto.
In his early twenties Elgar had already attempted to compose chamber music; but those tentative forays proved less than satisfactory. Part of a youthful quartet ended up in transcribed form among Vesper Voluntaries for organ (1891). A string quartet (Op 8) and violin sonata (Op 9) of 1878 were both destroyed, while quartet sketches from 1905 and 1907 have similarly failed to survive.
During the second decade of the twentieth century Elgar’s major works had been theatrical in nature, among them The Starlight Express (1915), The Sanguine Fan and Fringes of the Fleet (both 1917). The polarity of his chamber works is obvious. Writing during Elgar’s lifetime, biographer Basil Maine regarded all three mature chamber compositions as a reaction to the preceding period: ‘It is as if, after the excessively emotional response to immediate events, the artist in him demanded a balancing of accounts and called in chamber music with its more temperate and reflective style to adjust the temporary disorder.’ In earlier years Elgar built a reputation with more widely popular choral and orchestral music, works which also produced more handsome returns. But now he adopted a leaner, more interrogatory style and the music has an added contemplative dimension. Percy Young believes the chamber works ‘represent facets of the composer that had hitherto been hidden … the overall tautness of effect and economy, amounting almost to austerity, was … and is … startling’.
In 1917 the composer turned sixty. He was increasingly disturbed by the wholesale slaughter of young men on Europe’s savage battle fronts. His own health and mood were suffering and the prevailing atmosphere of jingoism filled him with dismay. After an operation for infected tonsils in March 1918, Elgar endured a painful convalescence and confided in his friend the essayist and art professor Sidney Colvin: ‘I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us.’ In all likelihood this was as much a comment on his personal condition as reference to the war itself. At the time, conditions for further significant work were clearly unpropitious.
This hiatus proved the lull before a final flurry of inspired, if somewhat conservative work. The catalyst appears to have been his temporary departure from London. In 1917, while close to Fittleworth, West Sussex, Alice Elgar and their daughter Carice discovered Brinkwells, a thatched cottage with oaken beams set amid tranquil woodlands. Here was a welcome haven and it provided an isolation the composer had often sought. It became the family’s summer cottage until 1921. From this vantage point one could look out to the South Downs, and Elgar loved it. He took long walks, chopped wood, built bonfires and enjoyed the solitude. At Brinkwells his health improved and for a time inspiration appeared dramatically rekindled.
The Violin Sonata in E minor Op 82 was begun in mid-August 1918 and completed by 5 September. The next day, in his correspondence with Colvin, Elgar reported that W H (Billy) Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, had stayed at Brinkwells as the sonata took shape. ‘The first movement was written’, Reed later recalled; ‘he finished this while I was there … and the opening section of the finale. We used to play up to the blank page and then he would say “And then what?”—and we would go out to explore the wood or fish in the River Arun.’
Elgar also wrote to German-born friend and musical hostess Marie Joshua. She had been especially supportive during his recent illness and was asked to accept dedication of the newly completed work. ‘It is full of golden sounds and I like it’, he commented, ‘but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist.’ Mrs Joshua’s obvious delight was short-lived. She died suddenly on 10 September, five weeks before Op 82 was heard in full.
On 28 September Elgar informed Colvin that the Sonata was complete. Adrian Boult, a pupil of Nikisch, had just made his conducting debut and with typical enterprise he sought permission to present Elgar’s newest work before a gathering of the infant British Music Society. Instead, its first performance came at the composer’s London home, Severn House, Hampstead, on 15 October. Reed and pianist Anthony Bernard were the performers. The Reed/Bernard duo finally introduced the sonata at a BMS meeting on 13 March 1919 and the first ‘open’ presentation came a week later, on 21 March, this time with Reed and Sir Landon Ronald in the Aeolian Hall.
Perhaps the most succinct summation of Elgar’s Violin Sonata is in his own words, part of a letter to confidant and sometime companion Alice Stuart-Wortley. He tells her: ‘The first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin … they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in the expressive way … the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony.’
At the outset Elgar surprises us, adopting a foreign key, A minor, rather than E minor, a stratagem he upholds to within a bar of the movement’s end. His tempo marking is Allegro and the movement begins with a vaulting risoluto theme leading to a descending phrase in characteristic tripping (trochaic) rhythm at the ninth bar. Young detects a distant parallel between the second subjects of both this movement and the Romance (Op 1). In any event Elgar reaches his poetic subject via a section derived from inverting the opening statement. Thereupon the movement follows customary sonata lines (comparisons with Brahms readily spring to mind) before its stormy conclusion.
The second, more inward movement is titled Romance and prompted Young to conclude: ‘This is a personal utterance, owing to no one and, for that matter, influencing no one.’ It proceeds in 3/4 time and begins without sharps or flats, borrowing and reshaping Elgar’s descending motif from the Allegro. There now follows a freer, more gentle B flat major theme heard first on the violin and reiterated by the piano.
Close to Brinkwells stood a skeletal clump of trees at one time struck by lightning and resultingly gaunt, twisted and foreboding. Elgar was fascinated by the legend that these were the arrested forms of Spanish monks stricken for wanton and unspecified acts of a capricious nature. As a consequence much is made of the trees as a programmatic component in the chamber music, notably in this Romance. After an expressive climax the Romance subsides with a reference to its opening, concluding in A major.
The solemn finale begins in E major and its broad opening theme shows Elgar’s inclination towards unaccented sequence. Again there is a more animated motif and as the two contrasted themes are counterbalanced a final nod in the direction of the Romance is heard. Final impetus comes in the short-lived coda bringing the Sonata to an emphatic conclusion.
Work on all three chamber works overlapped and the Piano Quintet was created at both Brinkwells and Severn House; this despite Elgar’s declaration to friend and arts patron ‘Frank’ Schuster: ‘It seems that if I have to live again at Hampstead, composition is “off”—not the house or the place, but London—telephone etc all day and night drives me mad.’ The previous September Elgar had reported from Brinkwells that he was already at work on the quintet. Then, in a letter dated October 1918, he told the critic and biographer Ernest Newman of the ‘incipient quintet’: ‘The first movement is ready and I want you to hear it’, the composer wrote. ‘It is strange music I think and I like it—but it’s ghostly stuff.’
The movement was introduced at Severn House on 7 January, though Newman, the quintet’s dedicatee, was not present. Nor did he attend when the completed work was heard in Hampstead two months later (7 March). The first assessment came in a letter from one of the guests present, Mr Bernard Shaw: ‘The quintet knocked me over at once’, he observed. ‘This was the finest thing of its kind since Coriolan—there was the same quality—the same vein.’ Shaw promptly qualified these glowing remarks, noting: ‘You cannot begin a movement (first movement) in such a magical way and then suddenly lapse into the expected.’ On 3 May both the quartet and quintet were heard, this time at Bray, near Maidenhead, home and venue of host Frank Schuster and his sister Adela. Pianist William Murdoch joined violinists Albert Sammons and Reed, violist Raymond Jeremy and Felix Salmond. The premiere of these two important works was at Wigmore Hall on 21 May 1919.
A mood of dark intensity informs the unequivocal opening measures of the spacious quintet. The impression is rather like that of plainchant. Resonances of conflict are sounded and these surface more fully in the final movement. It was this eerie aura of premonition that gave rise to Shaw’s remarks (above), though Percy Young’s judgement is less double edged. He ranks this ‘in some ways Elgar’s single greatest movement’, citing Johnson’s appreciation of greatness in King Lear.
Soon after Elgar’s opening, the piano octaves and restless string disturbances are lost among the lower strings and a new chromatic string theme is introduced, permitting the twin ideas to shed light on one another within the Moderato. The following Allegro proceeds via a rhythmic ‘sing-song’ motif with strings in octaves and the piano providing a simple harmonic cradle. Maine notes that here Elgar works in subject groups as in the symphonies. ‘In its composition and design’, he adds, ‘the Quintet is traversing ground between Elgar’s symphonic and his chamber music styles.’ A further emotional dimension arises with chromatic thirds, a second subject in ‘Spanish’ mode from the violins. The recapitulation brings a compelling, urgent summation with the troubled mood remaining operative.
The noble Adagio is in E major and 3/4 time. It begins in tranquil mood with a viola solo, cooperative unperturbed strings and politely decorative piano counterpoint. A related, more contentious idea follows, which breaks up the rhythm. With the development of this material the key is modified and the emotional temperature raised. Equilibrium is eventually restored and the two themes assume a new closeness as the movement fades to silence.
Similarities with Brahms’s clarinet quintet are frequently and logically drawn. Both preface their finales with an introduction and here Elgar lends cohesion to the work as a whole, integrating the second ‘arpeggio’ theme of the first movement and the second subject of the Adagio. The proceedings have an aura of improvisation.
Young says of Elgar’s work:‘Less intense than Schumann’s [piano quintet], less gracious than Dvorák’s, less doctrinaire than Franck’s it is at once outspoken and reticent; the string parts are those of the virtuoso composer, the pianoforte part the reverse … In all the chamber music Elgar’s style is notable: in the quintet the ideas are worthy of the style.’ In 1971 Ian Parrott observed that: ‘In one sense the composer has too few instruments, yet in another—too many. His thought, like Haydn’s, was often in two or three parts: a melody, a bass and sometimes a counter melody—and this may account for his sometimes doubling alto and tenor lines. In orchestral works he demands a large number of instruments and in innumerable ways touches up all three basic lines.’
Parrott detects an unadventurous streak in Elgar’s work at Brinkwells: ‘Gone are the brash, brassy modernisms. He is content to play about with formal differences.’ Indeed, these are contemplative works. The grandeur is no more. Gone is the old triumphalism. In their place we hear a more intimate, private ‘voice’ and with it the distilled vision of a richly creative, uniquely English artist.
Howard Smith © 1993