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8.570166 - ELGAR: Piano Music

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Piano Works


Sir Edward Elgar occupies a strange position in his own country. For many he is associated with British, or, more specifically, English Imperialism, epitomized in Land of Hope and Glory, a patriotic anthem now sung with gusto and tongue in cheek on the last night of the London Promenade Concerts each year. The image of an Edwardian country gentleman, with his dogs and horses is misleading. Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper, in the days when to be in trade marked a man for life and escape from this background earned a man the name of counter-jumper. He married the daughter of a retired Indian Army general, a pupil of his, nine years his senior, and it was she who gave him the necessary support, morally and socially, that finally helped him to make his way in Edwardian society. Nevertheless, musically Elgar was far nearer to the German romantic composers of his time than to the developing vein of English music, with its pastoral reliance on newly collected folk-song.

Edward Elgar was born near Worcester, in the West of England, in 1857. His father was a piano-tuner, organist, violinist and eventually a shopkeeper, and it was from him that Elgar acquired much of his musical training. He at first made his living as a free-lance musician, teaching, playing the violin and organ, and conducting local amateur orchestras and choirs. His first success away from his own West Country, after earlier abortive attempts, was in 1897 with his Imperial March, written for the royal jubilee celebrating sixty glorious years of Queen Victoria. His reputation was further enhanced by the so-called Enigma Variations of 1899. The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which followed in 1900, was less successful at its first performance in Birmingham, but later became a staple element in British choral repertoire. His publishers Novello had not always been particularly generous in their treatment of him, but 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.

Public recognition brought Elgar many honours, his position sealed by the composition of music for the coronation of King Edward VII. He was awarded honorary doctorates by universities old and new and in 1904 received the accolade of a knighthood. Later official honours included the Order of Merit in the coronation honours of 1911 and finally, in 1931, a baronetcy. Acceptance, as represented by the musical establishment of the country, was confirmed by the award of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1925, after an earlier award to Delius.

Elgar's work had undergone significant changes in the later years of the 1914-18 war, a development evident in his Cello Concerto of 1919. His wife's death in 1920 removed a support on which he had long relied, and the last fourteen years of his life brought a diminishing inspiration and energy in his work as a composer, although he continued to meet demands for his appearance as a conductor in both the concert-hall and recording studio. He died in 1934.

The charming two-movement Sonatina was written in 1889 for Elgar's niece, Mary Grafton, and revised for publication in 1931. A gentle Andantino is followed by a lively Allegro.

The two movements of Dream Children were written in 1902 for piano or for orchestra. They suggest a certain nostalgia for childhood. The score is headed by a quotation from Charles Lamb's Dream-Children, a Reverie: 'And while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and still receding till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed on me the effects of speech: "We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all. …We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been."' Dream Children seems to have been a re-working of earlier material, written, as Elgar explained, 'long ago and sketched a few years back'.

Une Idylle, written in 1884, forms part of Op. 4. It was dedicated to 'E.E. Inverness', recalling a holiday encounter that had taken him to Inverness and to the Great Glen, where he had heard and noted the bells of Fort Augustus Abbey, now silenced for ever, and travelled as far as Fingal's Cave. It was originally intended for violin and piano.

Carissima was written in 1913, based on earlier sketches, and, in its original version for small orchestra, intended for recording, the beginning of Elgar's practical interest and involvement in this new technology. It is again a piece of immediate appeal, in the composer's unmistakable musical language.

Written in 1901 for piano and for violin and piano, May Song was orchestrated in 1928. It is an occasional piece of romantic charm.

Composed during a visit to Yorkshire in 1882, Rosemary, originally intended for piano, initially had the title Douce Pensée. It was later arranged for piano trio and for chamber orchestra, when it acquired its new title.

The ballet The Sanguine Fan from which Echo's Dance is taken, was written in 1917 for a charity matinée, a revue, Chelsea on Tip-Toe, in aid of Concerts at the Front, an organization on the committee of which a number of Elgar's friends served. The inspiration for the ballet came from Ina Lowther, who had embarked on a career as a dancer in the style of the Canadian-born Maude Allan, the originator of the fashion for Greek dancing, bare-footed, with loosely fitting and flowing dress. The painted fan of the title showed a forest glade, with an open distant prospect in the centre. On one side Pan piped to Echo, while, on the other, young ladies and gentlemen of the period of Louis XV strolled, creating a scene as from Watteau, following a current aesthetic fashion. In the ballet Ina Lowther took the rôle of Echo, who causes considerable mischief, before leaving the mortals to their own devices, as she dances away with the god Pan.

Movements from Elgar's Suite in D were first heard in Worcester in 1882, with the whole suite performed for the first time in Birmingham in 1882. Elgar revised the work in 1899, when it was published by Novello as Three Characteristic Pieces, Op. 10. The second movement, Sérénade mauresque, originally a Moorish intermezzo, seems to wander from Moorish Spain to England at its heart, before the return of the characteristic rhythms and intervals expected.

The puzzle of the title of the Enigma Variations, of which he also provided a piano version, lies in the fact that Elgar claimed that his theme would fit with a very well known melody, but rejected suggestions that this might be God save the Queen or Auld Lang Syne. Others have suggested Rule Britannia, which might fit, if taken in fragments, but in general the enigma remains just that.

Each of the variations that Elgar offers is given the initials of one of his friends, and their identities are well enough known. Variation 1, C.A.E., is Elgar's wife Alice, a gracious woman of some determination; Variation 2, H.D.S.-P., is the amateur pianist Stewart-Powell; Variation 3, R.B.T., is the writer Richard Townsend; Variation 4, W.M.B., is the solid country-landowner W.M. Baker; Variation 5, R.P.A., is the son of the poet and writer Matthew Arnold, Richard; Variation 6, Ysobel, is the viola-player Isabel Fitton; Variation 7, Troyte, is the ebullient architect Troyte Griffith; Variation 8, W.N., is the graceful Winifred Norbury; Variation 9, Nimrod, conceals the identity of Elgar's friend and publisher, Jaeger; Variation 10, Dorabella, is Dora Penny, a country neighbour; Variation 11, G.R.S., is the organist of Hereford Cathedral, Dr Sinclair, or, more exactly, his dog Dan, heard falling into the river and paddling ashore; Variation 12, B.G.N., represents Basil Nevinson, an amateur cellist; Variation 13, ***, is anonymous but probably conceals Lady Mary Lygon, with a reference to Mendelssohn's Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage hinting at her voyage to Australia, and the final Variation 14, E.D.U., is Elgar himself, indicated by letters that spell out his wife's pet name for him, Edu.

Keith Anderson

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