About this Recording
8.572643-45 - ELGAR, E.: Violin Music (Bisengaliev, Frith, Bisengalieva, West Kazakhstan Philharmonic, Ungrangsee)
English 

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
The Violin Music

 

CD 1

Violin Concerto, Op. 61 • Serenade for Strings, Op. 20

The image of Sir Edward Elgar as an Edwardian gentleman, happier at the race-course or with his dogs than in the concert hall or with musicians is sadly deceptive. Popularly associated with the heyday of British imperialism, through his all too well known Pomp and Circumstance Marches and other occasional celebrations of Empire that have lasted less well, he has seemed the musical epitome of a period in British history that it has become fashionable to decry. The picture is a false one. In Edwardian terms Elgar was a counter-jumper, a man of relatively humble origins, son of a jobbing musician who kept a shop in Worcester, and later the husband of an imprudent if well connected spinster, the daughter of a Major-General in the Indian Army and nine years his senior. As a Catholic in a largely Protestant and strongly prejudiced community, he must seem very much less of an Establishment figure, whatever mask he may have chosen to assume as his fame grew.

Initial recognition was slow in coming. In 1890 the Elgars moved to London, but the following year retreated again to the West Country, taking a house at Malvern, allowing Elgar to return to his earlier activities as a provincial musician, enjoying a merely local reputation. During the last decade of the century he turned his attention largely to the writing of choral works, designed for the flourishing choral societies of his native region and of the North of England. It was the Enigma Variations, completed in 1899, that first established his fame in London and, therefore, nationally. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which followed in 1900, was less successful at its first performance in Birmingham and the publishers, Novello, were not particularly generous in their treatment of him, although he came to rely on the encouragement of the German-born Augustus Johannes Jaeger, a reader for the firm, who found in Elgar’s music something much more akin to the music of his native country.

By 1910, the year of the Violin Concerto, circumstances had changed. Gerontius had become an established part of English choral repertoire: there had been honorary degrees from major universities, a knighthood in 1904, the oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, and in 1908 the first of his two symphonies. Expectation ran high when the Philharmonic Society commissioned a new violin concerto. The work was completed in time for its triumphant first performance at Queen’s Hall in November 1910. It was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, the soloist on this occasion, and inscribed, cryptically, with the words Aqui está encerrada el alma de…(Herein enshrined the soul of…), the inscription found on a poet’s tomb in the picaresque novel Gil Blas by Lesage. This is generally supposed to be a reference to Alice Stuart-Wortley, Elgar’s acknowledged inspiration for the work, his Windflower, an affectionate nick-name that distinguished her from his wife Alice. Although Elgar himself was a violinist, he relied for technical assistance on W.H. Reed, the young leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, who played through the work with the composer at the first private hearing in Gloucester, before Kreisler, a soloist at the Gloucester Festival, offered his own private performance of the work.

The concerto opens with a highly characteristic first theme, in its orchestral exposition, moving forward to themes identified with the Windflower. The soloist enters, introducing a second exposition, a reworking of the first material, developed in the central section of the movement, which relies at first on the first subject, before turning to the Windflower second subject, now played maestoso. The first subject opening figure is played in descending sequence by the soloist in introducing the recapitulation of this sonata-form movement. The slow movement, the part of the concerto that Elgar wrote first, moves from the key of B minor to B flat major. Here the solo violin adds its own element to the ingenuous first theme announced by the orchestra, which also proposes the modal second theme, shifting in key to a mysterious D flat major in music of wonderful lyricism. The final Allegro molto opens with an introduction of ominous excitement, leading, after ornamental brilliance from the soloist, to the announcement of the first theme, echoed and developed by the soloist. The gently romantic second subject, marked cantabile e vibrato, is introduced by the soloist and this thematic material, and that of the introduction to the movement, re-appear, as the music is developed, leading to an initially accompanied cadenza, into which the orchestra softly intrudes in conclusion. The final section of the movement echoes the introduction, culminating in a version of the principal theme, in violin triple stopping and marked nobilmente, a favourite direction in Elgar’s music. This brings to an affirmative end a major addition to the violin repertoire, a concerto that goes far beyond any merely insular tradition.

Elgar wrote his Serenade for Strings in 1892, shortly after his marriage, when he had decided to give up his attempt to gain a foothold in the musical world of London and return to the provinces. Its probable origin lies in an earlier work, Three Pieces for Strings, written in 1888 and first played at the Worcestershire Musical Union. The later Serenade, presumably a revised version of the Three Pieces, was probably first played in Worcester by amateurs, and had its first successful professional performances abroad, before becoming an established and popular element in English repertoire. The first English professional performance took place in New Brighton in 1899 under the composer’s direction, when the Elgars stayed with Granville Bantock and his wife. A work of characteristically sweet melancholy, the Serenade, in the key of E minor, opens with the pulsating rhythm of the viola. The expressive second movement leads to a final Allegretto that explores again the rich possibilities of divided string sections and the briefly contrasted sound of the solo violin.
Keith Anderson

 

CD 2

Romance • Mazurka • Bizarrerie • Serenade Idylle • Chanson de matin • Chanson de nuit La capricieuse • Gavotte • Salut d’amour • Etude-caprice • May Song • Virelai • In Hammersbach Carissima • Adieu • Etudes caractéristiques pour violon seul

Elgar’s relationship with the violin was an ambivalent one. He was finally to leave the world two masterpieces, the Concerto, Op. 61, of 1910 and the Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 82, composed eight years later. These works were the product of a long apprenticeship: he first attempted a violin sonata in 1877, when he was twenty, and started another ten years later; both of these works remained unfinished. In 1890 he spent some time working on a violin concerto but destroyed the manuscript before the year was out. By then he was an experienced player, making his living from the violin for some two decades.

Elgar was born into a musical household. His father, William, ran a music shop in Worcester with Elgar’s uncle. William Elgar was an organist, and tuning pianos, of course, was a normal part of his business; he was also a good enough violinist to play in the orchestra assembled locally for the Three Choirs Festival, and was active in Worcester music-making, both with violin or viola. It was natural, then, that when the young Edward first asked, at the age of seven, to be allowed to learn an instrument, he was put to the violin. He had his first lessons from his father, who soon realised that the boy required more systematic teaching and passed him on to a friend of his, Frederick Spray, leader of the Worcester Glee Club, where William Elgar played in the second violins. Though no prodigy, young Edward made such progress that he was asked by Spray if he wanted to join the orchestra and, at around the age of nine, he found himself sitting by his father in the second violins. Late in life, Elgar would recall Spray’s rôle in his musical education with warmth and affection.

By the age of twelve Elgar was also a proficient violist, adding cello and bassoon to his skills (the presence of all these instruments in his father’s music shop allowed him to try them out to see with which ones he felt at home), and he was also beginning to compose. The list of compositions from his teens is surprisingly long; when nearly forty years later he returned to this music for the two Wand of Youth Suites, he had a huge amount of material to choose from.

Elgar left school at the age of fifteen and, since his parents were not wealthy enough to send him on to higher education (and he was their fifth child), he had to earn his keep. He first spent a year in a lawyer’s office but left when, instead of studying law, as he had expected, he was set to washing the floor. He therefore appealed to his father to allow him to try his luck in music, and at sixteen his professional life began.

To begin with he worked in his father’s shop. His first professional engagement came when he was seventeen, joining his father and uncle in the violins of the Worcester Festival Choral Society; he was proud of this achievement and kept the ticket which admitted him to the Cathedral for the performance. He now became a regular participant in Worcester’s musical life, playing in and conducting the orchestra of the Glee Club, whose rehearsals he also accompanied. Several of his early orchestral pieces, moreover, were performed by the Glee Club—he was garnering experience all the time. The father of the composer Julius Harrison ran a Glee Club in nearby Stourport, and Elgar was invited there to play violin solos; he earned a fee of one guinea.

In 1876, when he was nineteen, he began teaching the violin, adding the money he earned to what he managed to save from his increasingly frequent engagements as a player. The next logical step was the acquisition of better quality instruction than could be acquired locally and in August 1877 he travelled to London for his first lessons with the renowned Hungarian teacher Adolphe Pollitzer who, like Joachim, Ernst and Auer, had studied with Joseph Böhm. Through Pollitzer, indeed, Elgar could trace his teaching in a direct line back to Corelli, in an impressive teacher-pupil genealogy: CorelliSomisPugnaniViottiRodeBöhmPollitzer. Something of the assiduity of the new student was revealed when Pollitzer asked him to play something so that he could organize a course for him and recommended a particular collection of studies; Elgar returned a week later able to play the entire publication from memory.

Elgar now began composing solo studies himself to stretch and improve his technique. An Adagio in C and two Arpeggio Studies in E and A in 1877 were followed the next year by an Etude-caprice in 3/8, marked Allegro con fuoco. He seems to have laid out this piece without putting it in final form, since over sixty years later the violinist W.H. (‘Willie’) Reed, whose expertise Elgar had called upon during the composition of the Op. 61 Concerto, sat down to finish the job. Reed’s manuscript bears the words: ‘From the Sketch given by E. Elgar to W.H. Reed in 1918 transcribed and edited by WH Reed Xmas 1940’. A year later Reed, who was himself a capable composer, added the ad libitum piano part which is heard on this recording.

The five Etudes caractéristiques also date from 1878, and were dedicated to Pollitzer; they were published in 1892 as Op. 24. Although each is only two pages in length, they all contain almost insurmountable technical hurdles. The first, an Allegro in 2/4 reminiscent of the second of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, is an exercise in crossing strings with intervals in sixths, octaves and tenths. The second, a common-time study in double-stopping, often requires the player to hold a note through pyrotechnics above and below it. The third, an Allegro in 3/4, calls to mind both the Bach of the unaccompanied Partitas and the fourteenth of Paganini’s Caprices. The fourth is a 12/16 Presto bristling with double-stops and arpeggios: its two pages are black with notes. Finally, the fifth Etude, an Allegretto in 2/4, tests the player’s ability in chordal playing, posing particular difficulties in voicing when the melody sinks into the chordal accompaniment. Although these Etudes reveal that Elgar’s knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities was deep and detailed, it seems unlikely that he was able to play them himself; even Yehudi Menuhin, whose interest was strong enough to request a copy of the music, balked at the idea of performing them in public.

After his first few lessons with Pollitzer, Elgar was back in Worcester, journeying back to London for further instruction whenever he could afford it, which was not often: Elgar later recalled that during this period he lived ‘on two bags of nuts a day’. Composing was beginning to take precedence in his own mind, and the lessons with Pollitzer were starting to point to the shortcomings in his technique. Over the next decade he doggedly earned his living from playing and teaching, the sheer drudgery of which gradually chipped away at his patience. Teaching did bring one unexpected benefit on 6th October 1886, though, when Caroline Alice Roberts had her first lesson with him; they were married in 1889.

The first year of their married life was spent in London, but Elgar failed to establish himself and returned to Worcester discouraged and with a heavy heart, to take up teaching again. Quite how little pleasure it now brought him is revealed in a memoir by Rosa Burley, who took over the running of a Malvern girls’ school shortly before Elgar began teaching there in 1891 (Edward Elgar: The Record of a Friendship, written with Frank C. Carruthers, Barrie and Jenkins, London, 1972). Burley was a competent pianist and decided to take lessons herself from the new teacher. She was not impressed:

Mr Elgar had little of the gift of inspiring his pupils with enthusiasm […]. What was most disheartening was that he never seemed to take much interest in one’s progress. If asked how a passage should be fingered, he would tell me or, more probably, would rattle it off himself with a rather bad grace and expect me to divine the means with which the effect had been produced. […] At no time did I have the conviction which it is the function of good teaching to encourage, that we were following a carefully planned course which must lead to success. His helplessness was noticed by my mother who used to serve sometimes as dragon [chaperone] while he was teaching. […] ‘That young man,’ she said after a particularly heartbreaking lesson, ‘ought never to be teaching. I feel very sorry for him.’

Nevertheless although his reliance on the violin condemned him to this ceaseless round of teaching, it was also the means by which he made his breakthrough as a published composer. On the advice of Pollitzer he had approached Charles Volkert in the London office of the German publisher B. Schotts Söhne with a Romance in E minor, ‘pour violon avec accompagnement de piano ou d’Orchestre’, composed in 1878, and first played at Worcester Deanery in 1885. The rights were ‘assigned absolutely’ to Schott on 20th January that year for ‘One Shilling & 20 Gratis copies’. The Romance duly appeared as Elgar’s Op. 1, and was dedicated to Oswin Grainger, who played in the Worcester orchestras alongside Elgar—although the honour of being Elgar’s first published composition goes to the Idylle, styled an ‘esquisse façile’ (sic), also for violin and piano, which the London violin dealer John Beare, a friend of the Elgars in Worcester, brought out, also in 1885, as No. 1 of Elgar’s Op. 4. Like the Virelai, which was published as Op. 4, No. 3, and which may show the influence of Brahms’s First Sonata of 1878–79, the Idylle had been composed a year earlier; in 1912, after featuring in the catalogues of a number of publishing houses, both works were assigned to Novello, who had by then become Elgar’s main publisher.

Even in the mid-1880s Elgar must have appreciated that there was a receptive market for such music, and a number of salon pieces for violin and piano emerged over the course of the next few years. A perky Gavotte, composed in 1885, was also bought by Schott; it was dedicated to his good friend Dr Charles Buck, who happened to be John Beare’s brother-in-law. The score describes it as a ‘Morceau de Salon pour le Violon avec accompagnement for Piano’ (sic).

It was in September 1888 that Elgar wrote the work that was to become the biggest popular success of his life. Liebesgrüss was written as exactly that—a love-greeting, to celebrate his engagement to Caroline Alice Roberts, and was dedicated ‘à Carice’, the elided form of her name that was later given to their daughter. Schott preferred the title in French, and a few years later, as Salut d’amour, it caught on in the grand manner: in a letter of 1897 Elgar records that it sold 3,000 copies in that January alone. He regretted having parted with the rights for a nominal two guineas, although Volkert did commission several new arrangements of the piece from him and, honorably, adjusted the contract to make sure Elgar reaped some of the rewards.

Success on such a scale, however, was still years away. In 1889 Simrock, publishers of Brahms and Dvořák, turned down the Bizarrerie of 1888 and its companion-piece Liebesahnung (Intimation of Love); with Liebesahnung retitled Mot d’amour, both then appeared from Osborn and Tuckwood as Op. 13, earning Elgar ten guineas. Unlike the straightforward Mot d’amour, the flying staccato of the G minor Bizarrerie demands an advanced technique of the player. Bizarrely, appropriately enough, it foreshadows a melodic line from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. La capricieuse, a ‘morceau de genre’ from 1891 that became Elgar’s Op. 17, made more of an impact: it was once a fairly popular repertoire piece, counting Heifetz among its champions.

Many of these early pieces were published in a number of different arrangements, the publishers making sure they extracted maximum profit from their purchases. The Idylle, for example, later appeared in versions for piano, cello and piano, organ and full and chamber orchestra; and at one point Salut d’amour was available in a staggering 38 different incarnations, including one for the unlikely combination of two mandolins and guitar. Thus the Mazurka, now best known in its orchestral guise as the first of the Three Characteristic Pieces, Op. 10, of 1899, also circulated in Elgar’s own arrangement for violin and piano. The process went in the other direction, too: the Chanson de nuit (initially called Vesper, a title Elgar preferred) and its companion-piece Chanson de matin, Op. 15, Nos. 1 and 2, composed in 1897 and 1899 for violin and piano, were orchestrated in 1901, one of a number of subsequent embodiments. Likewise In Hammersbach originated as a dance in the choral-orchestral Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands of 1895 and passed into the orchestral Three Bavarian Dances before Elgar produced an arrangement for violin and piano.

By 1901 Elgar’s standing was such that the publisher W.H. Broome paid no less than fifty guineas for the copyright of a new salon piece, May Song, and despite his fame Elgar was happy to produce arrangements for his publishers throughout his composing career: Carissima, written for small orchestra in 1913, soon appeared in his own arrangement for violin and piano—and the next year signalled another source of income for him when it became the first piece he conducted in a recording studio.

But that composing career came to an abrupt halt. Elgar’s creativity had always benefited from the support and encouragement of his wife, and her death in 1920 stopped him in his tracks; for many years he wrote almost nothing, although he would occasionally turn his hand to further arrangements. It seems, though, that by 1932, when he submitted the Serenade and Adieu to the publishers Keith Prowse in sketch form (which suggests he had pulled them from his bottom drawer), he was beyond such hackwork—and by now, of course, he was the most widely respected composer in the country. But, ever practical, he was not opposed to the work being done for him and asked his contact at the publishers to let him know ‘if your experts can manage to decipher them & make anything of them: they can be adapted to any “arrgt.” you think fit’. Prowse commissioned ‘arrgts.’ for violin and piano from no less a figure than Joseph Szigeti, who prefaced Adieu with an ad lib. motto figure from the Violin Concerto (whether with Elgar’s permission or not is not recorded); Szigeti later works the quotation into the fabric of Adieu, which was published the following year, shortly before its composer’s death.
Martin Anderson

 

CD 3

Elévation • Pastourelle • Bavarian Dances Nos. 1 and 3 • Sospiri • Petite Reine - Berceuse • Polonaise Dreaming • Mot d’amour • Valse • Reminiscences Interlude • Allegretto • Violin Sonata • Fugue for Violin and Oboe

In 1876, when he was nineteen, Elgar began teaching the violin, adding the money he earned to what he managed to save from his increasingly frequent engagements as a player. He taught at his own old school, Littleton House, where his former teacher, Francis Reeve, observed him ‘during meal time take out a card out of his pocket and write down some musical idea that had struck him’. Not long afterwards, on 16th March 1877, he signed and dated the manuscript of Reminiscences. It both incorporates material written earlier in his apprenticeship (hence, perhaps, the title) and looks forward to his mature style: the falling figure in the violin line can be heard throughout his later music.

The C major Allegretto also had its origins in Elgar’s early days as a peripatetic teacher. Once a week, he gave violin lessons to two of the seven daughters of the Rev. William Wilberforce Gedge, headmaster of Wells House School at Malvern Wells, and to several of his pupils; he taught another Gedge daughter, Ethyl, piano accompaniment. Eight years later, in 1885, he followed Schumann’s example by using the letters of the family name, GEDGE, presented immediately in both piano and violin, to fashion a sweet Allegretto for the girls to play together.

The Polonaise in D minor likewise has its origins in the outset of Elgar’s career, although we owe its existence in completed form to Christopher Polyblank (b. 1946), formerly a composition student of Edmund Rubbra. When he heard that Marat Bisengaliev, appointed Musician-in-Residence for Worcestershire in 2000, was interested in Elgar’s music, it seemed the ideal occasion to rescue two early fragments, as Mr Polyblank explains:

The Polonaise in D minor is an amalgamation of two incomplete Polonaises for violin and piano, the original manuscripts of which are to be found in the British Library (B.L. Add. MS.49973A). The music for both pieces was composed on 7th March 1879, the one in F minor being dedicated to ‘J H with esteem’. ‘J H’ was Miss J. H. Holloway, pianist of the Worcester City and County Lunatic Asylum at Powick, where Elgar was appointed ‘composer in ordinary’ in January 1879. Elgar later used music from the F minor Polonaise in his music for the opera The Spanish Lady. I decided to amalgamate the music of the two Polonaises to provide a complete ABA structure. The outer sections are taken from the D minor work, with material from the F minor supplying the necessary contrast. The music is superbly imagined for the violin, possibly showing the influence of Wieniawski, and reminds us that Elgar really knew the instrument ‘from the inside’.

Elgar’s arrangement of the berceuse Petite Reine, by ‘Victor Béraud’, illustrates the generosity that was typical of him. ‘Béraud’ was in fact G. Frank Blackbourne, a Worcester composer, and Petite Reine was originally written for piano; Elgar arranged it for violin and piano for performance by his brother Frank at an instrumental evening at the Worcester Glee Club. In March 1886 he wrote to Blackbourne: ‘Please consider the arrangement of your Berceuse entirely your own property; I, of course, always intended that’—and Blackbourne was indeed able to sell the piece to Willcocks & Company, for the handsome sum of two guineas.

The Valse on Themes by Elgar also began life during this period. For its completed form we again have to thank Christopher Polyblank:

My recomposition of the Valse is based on a main theme by Edward Elgar, originally composed on Easter Sunday 1886. Apart from this theme, Elgar wrote the beginning of a bass line, and a further idea in quavers, which I have used as codetta. The sketches on which this Valse is based are to be found on manuscript pages bound into the back of a set of violin studies Elgar owned and used. These are now in the Elgar Birthplace Collection at Lower Broadheath near Worcester (E. B. MS.120, ref.1364).

The Pastourelle, dedicated ‘to Miss Hilda Fitton, Malvern’ (sister of the Isabel Fitton commemorated in the ‘Enigma’ Variations), was among Elgar’s early miniatures. It was first published, together with the Virelai, by the London violin-dealer John Beare, a friend of the Elgar family, as the composer’s Op. 4. The Mot d’amour initially carried the German title Liebesahnung (Intimation of Love), perhaps as a sop to Schotts Söhne, but the label proved ineffective when in 1889 Schotts rejected the piece; nothing daunted, Elgar paired it with the Bizarrerie turned down by Simrock the same year, and in 1890 the two pieces were published by the London publisher Osborn and Tuckwood, earning Elgar ten guineas.

Elévation, which also bears the German title Andacht (Devotion) was an arrangement made for Schotts by F. Louis Schneider and published in 1901—which thus returned it to its origins, for the material began life in 1887, in a sketch for a violin sonata. In the autumn of 1893 Elgar began to reshape the slow movement of the sonata into an Andante religioso (the tempo indication of which is retained in Elévation), which likewise remained unfinished. When it became known that the Duke of York, later King George V, was to visit Worcester in April, a special service was arranged to mark the event and Elgar hastily scored the Andante religioso for strings, brass, organ and timpani; it took its place in his catalogue as Sursum Corda, Op. 11.

The Bavarian Dances went through a similar process of recasting. The piano and violin In Hammersbach originated as a dance in the choral-orchestral Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands of 1895 and passed into the orchestral repertoire as the second of the Three Bavarian Dances, prepared for a Crystal Palace Promenade Concert Elgar conducted in October 1897, before Elgar produced an arrangement for violin and piano. In 1902 William Henley arranged the first and third of the Bavarian Dances for violin and piano, for the publisher Joseph Williams.

In 1912 Elgar received a commission from Oswald Stoll, the impresario who ran the Coliseum Theatre, to write the music for The Crown of India, a pageant (an ‘Imperial Masque’, it was termed) to celebrate the Indian coronation of the man whose visit to Worcester had occasioned the writing of Sursum Corda. And there was another Worcester connection: the ‘Interlude’ from The Crown of India was arranged for violin and piano by Elgar’s old friend Hugh Blair, who as assistant organist at Worcester Cathedral had encouraged him to finish Sursum Corda in time for that royal visit in 1894. The decorative twists in the violin line, and later the piano part, of Blair’s arrangement are symptomatic of the exotic touches with which Elgar enlivened the music to bring it oriental colour.

Sospiri, Op. 70, written in 1913, was intended to recapture the atmosphere of those early miniatures: it was commissioned, by the publisher W.W. Elkin, as one of a pair to be joined with Salut d’amour in Op. 12 – with the further, then radical, proviso in the contract that ‘Two thirds of net royalties received in respect of mechanical instrument reproduction [were] to be paid to the composer’: the intention was to have recordings of the music available for sale upon publication of the music. It went through a good number of instrumental permutations, its broad chordal textures making it a particular favourite of organists; the present violin-and-piano arrangement is by Eirian Griffiths.

The violinist W.H. (‘Billy’) Reed, the dedicatee of Sospiri and midwife of the Violin Concerto, was also responsible for the arrangement of Dreaming, the penultimate movement of the Nursery Suite, which Elgar composed in 1930 to mark the birth of Princess Margaret Rose, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York. As with the Wand of Youth Suite, Elgar returned to the material he had written in his childhood; Dreaming, he said in his programme note, was ‘Intended to represent the soft and tender childish slumbers’.

Elgar’s Fugue in D minor for Violin and Oboe was written in 1883 for his brother Frank and the latter’s friend Karl Bammert, who shared rooms at the back of William Elgar’s premises, left there by the composer as a present, after half an hour’s leisure spent there, with his pipe.

The crown and glory of all of Elgar’s music for violin and piano is the Sonata in E minor, Op. 82, one of the crop of late chamber-music masterpieces which emerged from his autumnal silence: when in August 1918 he sat down to work on the sonata, he had composed nothing of any substance for over two years; and his last ventures into absolute music had been the Violin Concerto of 1910 and the Second Symphony from 1910–11. But the Violin Sonata came swiftly—far more easily that the violin sonata he had attempted and abandoned 31 years earlier: it was begun on 20th August and completed by 15th September. ‘The first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin’, he wrote to Lady Stuart of Wortley; ‘the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the Second Symphony.’

The opening four bars present two basic ideas, the first risoluto, the second a typically Elgarian falling figure, which then immediately undergo vigorous development before the lyrical second subject, inverting the first, is introduced and in turn gives ground to a rocking shape in the violin. The music ruminates in this little island of calm before a more assertive passage pushes it into the kind of thematic give-and-take familiar from the violin sonatas of Brahms—though with considerably more chromatic side-slipping than anything in Brahms. The second-movement Romance, marked Andante, begins like one of Elgar’s early miniatures, though elusively, initially avoiding both key and any decisive thematic statement, edging its way hesitantly forward before an aching, long-limbed melody of the sort familiar from the Violin Concerto and Second Symphony unrolls before the listener; the material that opened the movement then returns to close it. The finale begins, Allegro, non troppo, with a violin reminiscence of the first movement over undulating figures in the piano before an emphatic downward-leaping gesture insists on action, which cedes as a more lyrical passage evokes the mood of the slow movement. The material now undergoes vigorous sonata-style examination. Elgar had intended to dedicate the work to Marie Joshua, a German-born supporter of his from the moment she had heard the First Symphony, and on 6th September he wrote to offer her the dedication of the Sonata. She responded that she was ‘overwhelmed by the honour’—but on the 14th Elgar learned of her sudden death. In homage he now reintroduced the aching tune from the middle section of the Romance. Though the coda now brings the Sonata to a decisive close, the simple epitaph on the score—‘M.J. - 1918’—provides a terse reminder of the sorrow that visited the penultimate day of its creation.
Martin Anderson


Close the window