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Elgar Works

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General Style | Large Orchestra | Concertos | Orchestra and Solo Voice | Chamber Orchestra | Chamber Music

General Style

Unfortunately, we tend to know Elgar today only through his “Enigma Variations” or the famous “Pomp and Circumstance” march tune. The Variations were written before 1900, and there is much more orchestral repertoire from the 30 years that followed. Elgar’s temperament could swing from high spirits and wittiness to complete despondency and doom. Elgar’s works are very personal with much more rubato and full-blooded-ness than expected: he speaks to humanity through very personal experience.

Every instrument has well-written and interesting, if not virtuoso, parts. Each is used with thought and effect, even bassoons, viola, trombone, tuba, harp and percussion. Color is often obtained through division and distribution of instruments. Winds may move independently, rather than as pairs.

Elgar’s string writing usually requires a depth of sound. Strings are used in divided groups; sometimes divided front and back, or back desks alone. Violas can be at or above the violin line. Slow sections may call for a strong, precise left hand while using a slow bow in a soft dynamic; a combination not easily and clearly obtained from a string section. Add to this the fleeting chromatic passages, inner-rhythms, etc., and Elgar’s string parts are demanding for any string section.

The brass instruments often add sonority rather than raw strength. Elgar will also use them in cross-accents stabbing through string melody lines, giving an unsettled, ‘forward falling’ impetus to the flow of music. Horn players will be surprised at the quality of their parts, and the demands on the horns should be considered when programming Elgar with other works.

Scherzo movements are often harrowing and fleeting shows of virtuosity from the orchestra – even percussion.

Extra rehearsal time should be given to Elgar’s works – not just for their note-wise difficulty - but because his language is so unknown to American orchestras (knowing the Enigma Variations doesn’t give a very complete picture.) His themes flow along with instrumental color changing, and counter melody – or melodies – moving in and out of instruments. Until the players feel comfortable in the Elgar ensemble and know where they are going and who has the lead voice and color it can be a free-for-all style of ensemble. The conductor needs to help separate, guide and prioritize the many voices. His larger works require unfolding and pacing, as tempos and meter changes often slide into one another using cross accents and two-against-three inner pulses.


Large Orchestra

Symphony # 1, op.55, A-flat Major (1907-1908)
3333-4331- timpani + 3 – 2 harps – strings
Duration: 50’

Symphony No. 1: Coaching Notes

I. Andante. Nobilmente e simplice
II. Allegro Molto
III. Adagio
IV. Lento – Allegro

This is a very personal symphony with much more rubato and romanticism than expected. The opening stately march-theme appears throughout the piece in various forms, reappearing in an exciting conclusion with a sense of triumph and hope. This symphony has one of the most beautiful slow movements: a lush, intertwining flow of beauty and personal anguish; comparable in effect to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Adagietto. Elgar wrote to a colleague: “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with great charity (love) and a massive hope for the future.”

Detailed instrumentation:
3 fl., (3rd doubles picc.) 2 ob., English Horn, 2 clarinets A/B-flat, bass clarinet A/B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba - timpani + 3 [side-drum, bass drum, cymbals] – 2 harps – strings

Symphony # 2, op. 63, E-flat Major (1909-1911)
3343-4331- timp. + 5 – 2 harps – strings
Duration: 55’

I. Allegro vivace e nobilmente
II. Larghetto
III. Rondo: Presto
IV. Moderato e maestoso

“Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight” – Shelley

Elgar wrote for a program note: “The spirit of the whole work is intended to be high and pure joy: there are retrospective passages of sadness but the whole of the sorrow is smoothed out and ennobled in the last movement, which ends in calm and, I hope and intend, elevated mood.”

This Spirit of Delight idea unifies the symphony. It’s a very difficult; not an ideal piece for orchestras unfamiliar with Elgar’s style. The fleeting Scherzo movement has complicated rhythms and head-pounding cross-accents. The slow movement touches both on a personal level and as an expression of universal mourning. It is a symphony in which you can find the drama of humanity, the sense of loss and potential madness as the changes of the 20th century are falling over Europe. It has a muted ending, leaving the audience in a meditative mood.

Detailed Instrumentation:
3 fl., (3rd doubles picc.) 2 ob., English Horn, E-flat soprano clarinet, 2 clar. in B-flat, Bass clarinet B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba - timpani + 4 [side-drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine] – 2 harps – strings

Cockaigne, op. 40 “In London Town” (1900-1901)
2223-4431 – timp. + 5 – optional organ – strings
Duration: 13’

This is a happy and bustling picture of London town with everything from marching bands passing, a whistling paper boy, and a romantic tune for strolling lovers.

The piece is dedicated to “my many friends, the members of British Orchestras” and has very satisfying and wonderful writing for all instruments. It uses fun orchestral effects: Glissando in trombone, etc. This would make a good introduction to the music of Elgar. It uses a smaller orchestra and is shorter and easier than “In the South”.

Published by Boosey, it is still only available in the Old Boosey style of print where the quarter-note rests look like backwards 8th-rests, and the markings for up bow and down bow can look similar at quick glance. This makes for very confusing reading for the players. The New Masterworks score from Boosey erroneously gives the duration as 40 minutes; it is closer to 15 minutes.

Detailed instrumentation:
2 fl. (2nd doubles picc.), 2 ob, 2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in F, 2 cornets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba – Timpani + 5 [triangle, sleigh bells, side-drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine] - optional organ – strings

Enigma Variations, op 36 (1898-1899)
2223-4331 - timp. + 3 - optional organ – strings
Duration: 29’

Well known in the basic repertoire.

Detailed Instrumentation:
2 fl. (2nd doubles picc.), 2 ob, 2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones, tuba – Timpani + 3 [triangle, side-drum, bass drum, cymbals] - optional organ – strings

Falstaff – Symphonic Study, op. 68 (1913)
3333-4331- timp. + 3 (4) – 2 harps – strings
Duration: 30’

This is Elgar’s largest orchestral work besides the symphonies. It includes a very difficult violin passage and a virtuoso trombone passage of fast staccato, as well as the usual demanding instrumentation. It was Elgar’s favorite piece and he enjoyed composing this Falstaff story of Shakespeare’s Henry the IV, part 1 & 2, and Henry V. It is built in four sections with two interludes. The first, a dream interlude, the second a scene called “Shallow’s Orchard”. The whole piece is rich in thematic material, and shows Elgar’s ability to paint moods and action through music. This piece was never well received in Elgar’s time even though is it a piece of great musical story-telling, enjoyable by the audience whether or not they are familiar with the Falstaff story.

Detailed instrumentation:
1 Picc., 2 Flutes, 2 ob., English Horn, 2 Clarinets in B-flat, Bass Clarinet in B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg. – 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba – Timpani + 3 [bass drum, cymbals, side-drum, tambourine, triangle, long drum] – 2 harps – strings

Froissart, op. 19 (1890)
2223-4230 - timp. + 1 (one cymbal crash) – strings
Duration: 13’

“Hadst thou liv’d when chivalry Lifted up her lance on high, Tell me what thou wouldst have been?” - Keats

This was Elgar’s first large orchestral piece. As in later Elgar works, it has some demanding string parts and also solo opportunities for horn, oboe, and clarinet. It bubbles with youthful exuberance and well-worked thematic material in a heroic vein. It’s a practical piece that should be in the repertoire.

Detailed Instrumentation: 2 fl (2nd doubles picc.) 2 ob., 2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg. – 2 horns in F, 2 horns in B-flat Basso, 2 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones – timpani + 1 [cymbals] – strings

In the South, op. 50 “Alassio” (1904)
3333-4331 - timp. +3 – harp – strings
Duration: 20’

Its bold opening is comparable to a Strauss tone-poem. It has many cross-rhythms and tempo changes (play of 2 against 3). It contains a wonderful and serene “Canto popular” for solo viola. A colorful and powerful section depicts the strength and impressiveness of ancient Roman ruins now come to life through music as witness to history’s battles and strife. It requires strong horns. For audiences and players knowing Elgar only as ‘Mr. Pomp and Circumstances’ this robust piece is an eye opener and makes for an exciting concert opener.

Detailed Instrumentation:
3 fl., (3rd doubles picc.) 2 ob., English Horn, 2 clar. in B-flat, Bass clarinet B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba - timpani + 3 [side-drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel] – harp – strings



Violin Concerto, op. 61, B Minor (1909-1910)
2223-4231 – timp. – strings
Duration: 48’

I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Allegro molto

“Aqui esta encerrada el alma de …..”

The violin concerto was written for Fritz Kreisler, who gave its first performance. Although the solo violin part is very virtuoso, the concerto is not about the display of this virtuosity, but rather Elgar uses the solo voice as an expression of something personal and intimate. Elgar was a good violinist himself and had considered a career as a professional violinist. This concerto is as demanding for the orchestra as it is for the soloist and requires more rehearsal time for the orchestra (and the conductor) than most concertos. It opens with a long exposition from the orchestra which presents at least three thematic ideas.. The lengthy cadenza, near the end of the last movement, calls for the strings to pizz. “alla chittara” with instruments in their lap and to “thrum” across the strings with 3 or 4 fingers. Elgar wrote of this part: as “the sound of a distant Aeolian harp flutters under and over the solo.” This accompaniment passage requires more co-ordination than conductors expect and is too often rushed through in rehearsals and in performances. It is reported that Elgar wanted the Nobilmente theme from the Andante inscribed on his tomb.

Detailed Instrumentation:
2 fl. 2 ob, 2 clarinets in A/B-flat, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in A/B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba – Timpani – strings

Cello Concerto, op. 85, E Minor (1919)
2222-4221 – timp. – strings
Duration: 30’

Not the most difficult orchestra part, but needs precise playing from a smaller, sparsely used orchestra. This was Elgar’s last major work, and in quite a contrast to the violin concerto, it is in a four-movement form but almost all played segue and within just under 30 minutes. It opens with a cello recitative. The finale has a moment of reminiscences when he brings back the first Adagio melody and the opening recitative before bringing the piece to a concise close.

Detailed Instrumentation:
2 fl. (2nd flute doubles picc.), 2 ob., 2 clarinets in A, 2 fg. – 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, tuba – Timpani – strings


Orchestra and Solo Voice

Sea Pictures, op. 37 (1897-99)
Alto solo -2223- 4231- timp. +2 – harp - (optional organ) – strings
Duration: 24’

Sea Pictures: Coaching Notes
Sea Pictures: Poetry Text

Five songs on various texts:
I: Sea Slumber Song (words by Roden Noel)
II: In Haven (Capri) (words by Alice Elgar)
III: Sabbath Morning at Sea (words by Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
IV: Where Corals Lie (words by Richard Garnett)
V: The Swimmer (words by Adam Lindsay Gordon)

It is written for contralto, although the endings of songs no.3 and no.5 are high (G and A).

Beautiful orchestral coloring requires sonority from the low brass and tuba, and a gentle touch from the whole orchestra. There are sudden key changes, and much rubato, colla voce and quasi recitative markings. The texts require thoughtful interpretation from the singer, and co-operation and agreement between conductor and singer to produce a convincing performance. The smaller size and relative easiness of this piece makes it a good concert piece. I’d like to see it programmed more often. The publisher Boosey issued a new computer-set edition in 1998 that is easy to read. Score available through the New Masterworks Series, parts are rental from Boosey.

Detailed Instrumentation:
2 fl., 2 ob., 2 clarinets in A, 2 fg, contrafg – 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in A, 3 trombones, tuba – Timpani + 2 [bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam] – harp – optional organ – strings


Chamber Orchestra

Chanson de Nuit, op. 15, no. 1 (1897)
1121-2000 – optional harp – strings
Duration: 4’

This piece, originally a violin and piano piece, is a wonderful, dark and rich sample of the Elgar to come later in the larger orchestral pieces. It is perfect for a chamber, community or youth group that would like to experience a highly romantic idiom, but without requiring large forces or overly demanding parts. It does require a strong viola section, as this instrument is in divis for most of the piece. The violins make use of Sul G melodic passages. The piece moves through a lyric melody, adding counter-melodies and building to an eerie middle section. As an example of romantic music at the turn of the century, Chanson de Nuit introduces stylistic ideas such as portamento, accents within piano, and expressive rubato with numerous accelerando and rallentando. The explosive fortes and gentle pianissimo will require lyric gentleness of the bow-arm and controlled attacks from the wind. A rewarding and delightful little piece. Available from Kalmus: unfortunately the dynamics and articulation in the parts sometimes disagree with the score.

Chanson de Matin, op 15, no. 2 (1899)
1121-2000 – optional harp – strings
Duration: 4’

This is the “cheerful” companion piece to the earlier and darker Chanson de Nuit, however, the pieces can stand alone. This piece has less divi for viola; the cellos play into the tenor clef, sometimes in unison with the Second Violins. As with the Chanson de Nuit, this piece uses the full romantic language as Elgar speaks it: counter-melodies and inner-voices, blending and color; rubato, portamento, trills, mordents, and grace-notes, as well as extreme dynamic variations and independently moving lines. Another recommended piece for chamber, community, or youth orchestras and a pleasant surprise for players to hear themselves producing such full-blooded music. Also from Kalmus, with discrepancies in score and parts.


Chamber Music

The chamber music compositions of Edward Elgar are bookends to his compositional life. Elgar’s early chamber works provided training for his future masterpieces. This genre was then untouched for forty years until Elgar suddenly wrote his Violin Sonata, Piano Quintet and String Quartet. His only remaining major composition would be his Cello Concerto.

Edward’s early endeavors began around 1878 when he formed a wind quintet made up of his brother Frank on oboe, the Leicester brothers on flute and clarinet, Frank Exton as an additional flute, and Edward on bassoon, which he had taught himself. The friends would get together to rehearse in a shed behind the Elgar music shop. They played works that Elgar had written during the sermons at St. George where Elgar often sat in for his father as organist. Elgar explored and taught himself wind instrumentation, color, and musical form in this “Shed Music.” These short vignettes, often named after individuals, reflect Elgar’s ability to capture people’s character in music that later came to full bloom in the Enigma Variations. The Shed Music was unfortunately never published.

Elgar’s return to chamber music in 1918 was under very different circumstances. By this time Elgar had seen great success as a composer and national figure. He was exhausted and depressed from the War, and suffered what he referred to as “giddiness in the ear,” probably the symptoms of Meniere’s disease. During the four years prior, Elgar’s compositions were written mostly for the national arena: The Spirit of England, The Fringes of the Fleet, Polonia, Death on the Hills, Carillion, Le Drapeau Belge. From this despondent mood came Elgar’s three personal chamber music works.

Violin Sonata, op.82
Duration: 24’

Violin Sonata: Coaching Notes

I. Allegro
II. Romance – Andante
III. Allegro, non troppo

Edward began work on his violin sonata during a visit by a close friend, Alice Stuart Wortley. “Windflower,” as he called her, played an important inspirational and supportive part in Elgar’s life and gave vital encouragement for the completion of his Violin Concerto and influenced his Violin Sonata.

In August 1918 Elgar’s wife remarked in her diary, “E. writing wonderful new music, different from anything of his. A. [Windflower] called it wood music. So elusive & delicate.”

The first movement of the sonata opens with a robust theme introduced in the violin and then piano. Percy Young noted the “heroic properties in the violin part” as it quickly slides from the opening in A minor into the tonal center of E minor. The robust theme settles into an espressivo melody in the violin against a palate of chromatic movement pushing the listener out of a definite tonal center. The arrival into the tranquillo prepares the listener to hear harmonies as color rather than harmonies of directional or tonal pull. The tranquillo then creates moments of “non-time” through the violin’s meditative reiterations and the piano’s color-chords, both demanding no forward motion or resolution. By removing the forward pull of time, each event is heard not as a next and consecutive event, but rather the next now.

The piano gradually adds anticipatory rhythms to renew a sense of forward motion. The contrasts between the robust theme and timeless idea are played out in this first movement.

Elgar’s concept of time in the tranquillo passage reflects a philosophy found throughout his compositions: We can hope for a better future, but without the promise of a better future or an after-life, humans should have a hearty satisfaction in the now.

The slow inner movement departs in a very different direction. The opening is fantasie-like, showcasing arppeggiated pizzicato chords in the violin and dark colors in the piano. The spectral mood is enhanced by scuttling figures, sudden dynamic changes, and tempos that fluctuate from accelerando to molto largamente. This bizarre first section is suddenly suspended on a bright A major chord. A darker and gentler world subsequently unfolds in B-flat, a ½-step higher, and dolcissimo. This contrasting section is Elgar’s musical response to the sad news that Windflower had badly broken her leg. The movement closes with a return to opening fantasie material with a muted violin and the A major chord returns to close the movement.

The extroverted finale movement takes off with refreshing downward step-wise motion in the piano. The qualities of the piano writing resemble the finale movement in his Piano Quintet, featuring characteristic “straddlebug passages” and low-register notes. Elgar was close enough to completing the work in September of 1918 that he wrote to a long-time friend Marie Joshua offering the Sonata’s dedication: “I fear it does not carry us any further but it is full of golden sounds and I like it, but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist.” Unfortunately Mrs. Joshua died before she could offer an answer. In response to this loss, Elgar took the existing dolcissimo melody of the slow movement and incorporated it as a nostalgic homage near the end of the finale.

The Violin Sonata contains the feelings, stories and friends of Edward Elgar. It was completed on September 15th after which Elgar immediately started work on the Piano Quintet.

String Quartet, op.83
Duration: 25’

String Quartet: Coaching Notes

I. Allegro Moderato
II. Piacevole (poco andante)
III. Allegro molto

The Armistice, November 1918, marked a return to work on a string quartet. By now Elgar had completed the Violin Sonata and was simultaneously working on a piano quintet. Compositional work at this time was often interrupted and Elgar spoke of ‘broken threads.’ He preferred to work in the countryside, but necessary trips to the city, as well as health concerns for both Edward and Lady Elgar disrupted Elgar’s work. Ideas for this string quartet had already been formed in March, as Lady Elgar notes in her diary, “E. began a delightful quartet. A remote & lovely 1st subject. May he soon finish it.” The second movement Piacevole was first to be finished and Lady Elgar described it as “captured sunshine.” Elgar himself later said that this movement had “something in it that has never been done before.”

As the piece finally neared completion in December, Lady Elgar notes, “E writing last movement of quartet – very impassioned & carrying one long at a terrific rate.” And on 11 December 1918, “E finished composing the last mvt. of the quartet. Most fiery & sweeps along like a galloping of squadrons.”

When preparing this piece for performance the most important issue is that of voice leading, a combination of stacking and blending of voices. When do players blend and when do they bring out their instrument’s special qualities? Deciding ‘who is on top’ will be an ongoing process throughout rehearsals and will shape the color, flow and character of the piece.

Piano Quintet, op. 84
Duration: 35-40’

Piano Quintet: Coaching Notes

I. Moderato
II. Adagio
III. Andante - Allegro

The Piano Quintet, Op. 84 (1918-19) comes from a time flanked by two events that affected Elgar quite strongly. Earlier, were the insanities of WWI and the incomprehensible madness of society. Later, there was the death of Lady Elgar, after which Elgar wrote little, if no, original compositions. Between these events Elgar suddenly composed three chamber works, the Violin Sonata, String Quartet and the Piano Quintet.

As the first sketches of the quintet were played, Mrs. Elgar wrote in her diary “ghostly stuff,” and of the fugato section “goes wild again – as man does,” a possible reflection of the war-time mood. Also involved in the composition, however, is a legend of Spanish monks and a cluster of twisted trees near Elgar’s cottage in Sussex. This odd story told of a settlement of Spanish monks who were struck dead –frozen into trees – for performing some impious rite. That, at least, was the explanation for a group of gnarled trees with their branches out-stretched and sinister. Elgar had both a love of nature and the occult, and this surely gave his imagination ideas.

The music itself is in three movements. The first movement opens with a plain-chant idea in the piano while the strings add serioso knockings in unison. This is contrasted by suggestive rhythms and exotic guitar-like strumming. Of this first movement Elgar wrote: “It is strange music I think & I like it - but – it’s ghostly stuff.” The middle movement leads with the viola, an instrument for which Elgar wrote particularly well. He brings out the instrument’s full range of expression and color. Here the viola is played in its high range, above the violins, giving the melody special poignancy. The piano interrupts with a four-chord gesture as if to wave a magic wand, bringing in pleas from the cello voice. After development, the music begins to let go of tension, drifting downward in release. This brings us back to the viola idea, now played on a lower, darker string. Each voice joins in and the movement builds to a climax.

The last movement begins dramatically with a gesture of throwing off the previous gentleness. The plain-chant idea returns in unison strings. The piano adds low-register punctuation and scurrying flourishes, which Elgar referred to as “straddlebug” passages. The pianist launches into almost raunchy rhythms. The plain-chant idea appears trying to bring a return to order and seriousness, but the music music “goes wild.” As the slow movement highlighted the viola and cello, this last movement brings the piano to the fore. Of the piano part Elgar commented: “I am not sure if I should publish it as pianists seem to require so much padding – passage work which is so common place & I have given none.” Even Bernard Shaw reflected: “I have my doubts whether any regular shop pianist will produce [certain keyboard effects]: they require a touch which is peculiar to yourself [Elgar].” The Quintet uses a lot of low-register notes, block chords, and of course those “straddlebugs.”

Elgar summed up the piece: “It runs gigantically in a large mood.”


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