Movement 1: Moderato – Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Andante – Allegro
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.
from notes by Diana McVeagh © 2011