Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elgar - Piano Quintet In A Minor, Opus 84

Edward Elgar's father was a piano tuner, organist and professional grade violinist. His mother instilled in her son a love of nature and the arts. All of the Elgar children had musical training from local teachers, with Edgar excelling in violin and organ playing.  But in the social class structure of 19th century Victorian era England, the common social standing of Elgar's family didn't help with his desire to become a composer. This combined with the fact that he received very little formal training outside of lessons from local teachers (and none at all in composition) made him feel like an outsider.

After a short time as a clerk in a law office, Elgar resigned and made a living by giving organ and violin lessons as well as being an accompanist and composing. He also took the job as conductor of an attendant's band at a local insane asylum where he gained practical knowledge about other instruments. He became proficient in other instruments as well, and continued to learn his craft as a practicing musician in many venues and performing groups.

Elgar's reputation as a composer began with works for chorus, a favorite music genre in England. He is most well known for his works for orchestra that include two symphonies, a violin concerto, Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Pomp And Circumstance Marches (including the ubiquitous trio from March No. 1 that is played at high school commencement ceremonies) and many other works. He was highly regarded in his lifetime by the public as well as other composers. In 1931 Richard Strauss called him the "first progressivist in English music".

He composed chamber works from his earliest years until his old age, and while staying in the country over the summer of 1918 he worked on three of his last works for chamber ensemble; The Violin Sonata in E Minor Opus 82, String Quartet in E Minor Opus 83, and the Piano Quintet in A Minor Opus 84. Elgar dedicated the Quintet to the prominent English music critic and writer Ernest Newman, and after completion of the first movement wrote to the dedicatee:
Your Quintet remains to be completed, the first movement is ready and I want you to hear it, it is strange music. I think I like it-but-it’s ghostly stuff.
The Piano Quintet was premiered in May of 1919. It is the longest chamber work that Elgar composed and is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato - Allegro - The first movement is in cyclic/sonata form that begins with a strange introduction. There is an often told story of a possible inspiration for this movement that was brought about by a group of twisted and gnarly trees in a park that was near the cottage that Elgar stayed in on his summer vacation of 1918. These trees were said to give off ghostly shadows at night, and one of Elgar's friends related a tale that the trees actually contained the remains of Spanish monks that held unholy ceremonies in the area years before. A far-fetched tale with no basis of truth, for there is no record whatsoever of any Spanish monks ever being in the area. The introduction leads to a quickening of tempo and the first theme, which is derived from the opening introduction. A fragment of the introduction appears and leads to the second theme that is more introspective and quiet. After this plays through, a third theme comes forth that sounds like Victorian salon music, quite a contrast to what has preceded it.  A short repeat of the introduction leads to the development section, a vigorous fugato on the first theme leads to the recapitulation. Themes are reheard, along with the enigmatic introduction at the end of the movement, and as it quietly ends the careful listener discovers that the themes within the movement all grew from the introduction.

II. Adagio - The middle movement has been called the heart of the quintet, and begins with a mellow theme played by the viola. The entire movement is music of nostalgic late Romanticism, but a sense of tragedy and mystery is heard through the sections of slow piano wanderings that are punctuated by tremolo strings. The climax of the movement arrives close to the midway point, after which the music returns to the viola theme as well as the piano and tremolo strings sections. Fragments of themes from the first movement are heard as the adagio slowly draws to a quiet close.

III. Andante - Allegro -  The first movement introduction returns at the beginning of the finale, and leads to a less serious theme that is still attractive to the ear. The piano then introduces another theme, one that is syncopated. The music builds in intensity until the opening movement introduction and other themes are repeated. The main theme of the finale returns and leads to a coda before the music ends in a rousing finish.

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