Bravo!: the 1998 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD The Music part 2

Quintet in A Minor for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, & Piano, Op. 84 (1918-19)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

In 1918, it seemed to Elgar that the world was crumbling. Four years of war had left him—as it had so many others—weary and numb from the crush of events. Many of his friends of German ancestry were given a bad time in England; others were killed or maimed in action. Socialism was on the rise in Britain, and the 61-year-old Elgar believed his beloved Edwardian world was drawing to a close. Surgery to remove his infected tonsils cured the problem of his unsettled health, but did little to alleviate his depression. His music seemed anachronistic, a remnant of stuffy conservatism in an era of polychords and dodecaphony, and he composed little of importance.

Thinking that a place in the country might offer some relief from London, that April the Elgars rented Brinkwells, a capacious thatch-roofed cottage near the West Sussex village of Fittleworth. The transformations in the composer's physical and emotional conditions were swift and beneficent. The fresh country air, long walks, and freedom from the stress of city life restored him remarkably, and by summer he was planning four new works, his first important compositions since Falstaff was completed in 1913: a violin sonata, a string quartet, a piano quintet, and a concerto for cello.

Elgar began the Piano Quintet that summer and worked on it, along with the String Quartet and the Violin Sonata, for the rest of the year. (They were assigned, respectively, the opus numbers 84, 83, and 82.) He finished the Quintet early on, and a private performance was given in London on April 26, 1919 by the British String Quartet (Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Raymond Jeremy, and Felix Salmond), and pianist William Murdoch. The performance inspired George Bernard Shaw to write a long, admiring letter to Elgar—"the Quintet knocked me over at once," he allowed—and served as the basis of a warm, lifelong friendship between the two.

The Piano Quintet received its public premiere at London's Wigmore Hall on May 21. Alice Elgar commented in her diary about its "wonderful weird beginning...evidently reminiscence of sinister trees & impression of Flexham Park." The first movement follows a fully developed sonata form framed by a ghostly strain that superimposes a processional of thematic fragments in the strings on a slow-moving piano chant melody.

The main theme, given in a newly vitalized tempo by the full ensemble, is marked by troubled sentiments and implied tragedy. The second theme appears in an unsettled major tonality after a tiny but distinctive passage of saccharin harmonies in the strings. The development section, launched by the recall of the chant-introduction, incorporates all of the principal thematic materials; then the ghostly processional hovers once again to bring the strange and haunting movement to a mysterious close.

The Adagio is tranquil and lyrical in its outer sections and more animated and rhythmically intense in its central episode. The finale returns to the woodland mood (and some of the thematic material) of the first movement, though it is more confident in nature and optimistic in outlook. In his fine biography of Elgar, Percy M. Young wrote that "in some ways, the Adagio may be ranked as Elgar's greatest single movement," and it held a special place in the composer's affections as well. When Elgar became mortally ill in 1933, an executive with HMV Records made a special recording of the Quintet for the composer, and musician Billy Reed reported that "[Elgar] could not refrain from weeping whenever the slow movement was reached."—Richard E. Rodda