Sir Edward Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83

performed by the Coull Quartet, or below by the Maggini String Quartet (do note that the video below is both the quartet and the quintet; the quartet itself is only about a half hour in performance)

It is full of golden sounds and I like it. But you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist.

the composer, from here

Edward Elgar (later to become Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet) was born on 2 June 1857 near Worcester, England. His father William “had been apprenticed to a London music publisher” and worked selling sheet music and musical instruments, and was also apparently a “violinist of professional standard and held the post of organist of St. George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, from 1846 to 1885.”

Little Edward was the fourth of his children, and started taking piano and violin lessons from a young age. He’d go with his father to tune pianos, which Wikipedia says gave him “the chance to display his skill to important local figures.” I guess this refers to his piano playing on freshly-tuned keys. He taught lessons at his dad’s shop, gave performances as violinist and organist, and was even able to play Dvorak’s 6th symphony and Stabat Mater under the composer’s baton. He apparently also played bassoon in a wind quintet, and started composing for some bands here and there, but overall, it’d be safe to say he was overall a self-taught musician. He didn’t come from some royal musical pedigree or grow up like Mendelssohn or Mozart. He did, however, have a family who was willing to support and cultivate his endeavors. His father was a musician, and his mother was supportive of her son’s musical endeavors. I’m oversimplifying here, but it seems the most valuable training the composer got aside from reading everything he could get his hands on was the kind of on-the-job training that resulted from performing in or composing for ensembles, becoming very aware of the timbres, colors, and qualities of each instrument.

He also didn’t really become a famous composer until later in his career. We’re skipping ahead of all of that for now, though, to get to one the latest works in his oeuvre, but it’s worth mentioning that at times Elgar was extremely discouraged, figuring that, since he lacked no enthusiasm for music, his inability to find success must have been a deficiency in talent. He was also a rather shy fellow, but apparently well-liked. In any case, (spoiler alert), we’re getting to his first symphony (and obviously his hugely famous cello concerto) next week, but here we have one of his very few chamber works.

And it was actually not his only effort in the form. A much earlier quartet was even assigned an opus number (8), but was later destroyed. There were other attempts, including one that fell by the wayside as the composer worked on his first symphony, also a work to come rather late in the composer’s career for a first symphony. This singular (completed) quartet in the composer’s career was a request from Carl Fuchs of the Brodsky quartet, whom Elgar met at a performance of his own Enigma Variations.

The work’s relative ‘shock’ comes when you put it in contrast with what else was going on in the early 20th century, with Schoenberg and “he was writing as though Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Holst did not exist,” says Diana McVeagh at Hyperion. So the innovation, or rebellion or whatever, came not from blazing new trails, but in some ways, clearing out, or sticking to, largely abandoned ones.

So my initial impression is that the quartet, overall, is neither ‘happy’ nor ‘sad’, but a very down-the-middle kind of subdued, rather mellow, somewhat aged sound. And that doesn’t seem terribly exciting or engaging until you realize the slight tinge of daring to be so conservative, publishing this quartet in 1918, as a bastion of straightforward, old school Romanticism.

And when I say ‘aged’ above, I mean not as in outdated, but perhaps mature, weathered. Wikipedia tells us that the composer was “depressed by war-time London” and was recovering from having his tonsils removed, a serious procedure at the time, especially for a man of his age, and that for the composition of the second and third movements, he’d relocated to a home in Sussex, “in which he could work in seclusion away from the cares of the world.” And I think you can hear these elements in the work.

The first movement is in 12/8 (mostly), and marked allegro moderato. It seems silly to say that the first movement sets the mood for the entire work, but that will become more important in the second movement. There’s a pleasantness, a straightforwardness to this music that I won’t call simplicity, because it gets very dense in places and does rise to poignant climaxes. The opening figure is a strong one, something easily identifiable, more angular that sticks with us through the movement, as the second subject reveals a relation to it. In fact, everything here is really pretty passionate, but in what I’d call, for lack of a better description, an English way. I’ll talk about that later. A more complimentary description might be to call it Brahmsian. There’s a sense of maturity, a nostalgic  melancholy, to this work, and for whatever reason, it took me some time to begin to appreciate. The music is never aggressive, never overtly melodic or sweet-tune memorable, but it’s rich and somehow also subtle. More on this later.

As for the second movement, Lady Elgar referred to it as ‘captured sunshine’, and while it’s pleasant, I think this could only sound like English sunshine. It has a certain cloudiness, a subdued quality that isn’t what personally would think of as sunshine. Maybe a cool breeze in the shade of a tree, or rustling leaves and a nap under said tree, but it has the slightest hint of melancholy, a sigh, perhaps of relief, nostalgia; maybe it’s not even melancholy, just a mature, realistic reminiscence of what real life is and/or was. It’s charming, don’t get me wrong, but it lacks the energy and buoyancy I’d expect from something described as ‘captured sunshine’. But then again, English weather, am I right? On a more serious note, Lady Elgar loved the movement so much, it was arranged to be played at her funeral in 1920, with Lionel Tertis in the ensemble. It’s certainly very sunny for a funeral, but I suppose everyone’s emotional cues and impressions are different. I think it’s a common quote, though. If I had to liken it to something (that isn’t the above), I’d probably say it’s a mild breeze on a still day.

And then we have the finale, marked allegro molto. McVeagh says that “Lady Elgar wrote that the finale is ‘most fiery & sweeps along like Galloping of Squadrons’.” While it’s clearly the most driven, propulsive movement of the three, which in some ways isn’t saying much, I don’t think I hear the galloping of any squadrons. Maybe it’s more like an exciting gallop through the countryside, a good, exhilarating ride through beautiful scenery. Rather than fire, I’d say it has resolve or determination. It certainly also has more subdued moments; it doesn’t burn from end to end, but there’s a greater degree of hardness or passion to it.

As for what I described as English in this work… that island isn’t a place for balmy sunshine and tropical beachy weather, usually. So be it the mention of sunshine, or describing a movement as ‘fiery’, or the clear passion that underlines this work, it’s not overt or overwhelming, hence the opening quote from the composer. It’s not like  being out in the beautiful scenes and smells and sounds of a landscape, rather more like someone in the privacy and quiet of their own room observing, thinking about that landscape from behind a window, in a rocking chair.

It might be that, for me, there’s such delicacy, such subtleness in what this work presents, that it took some time for me to warm up to. It’s clearly an inspired piece, but I got almost nothing out of it the first few listens. Only with a quieter environment and a little more focused listening was I able to ‘hear’ the piece as I think it’s meant to be heard, which is more a comment on myself than the piece.

In any case, we’re jumping backward to an earlier work than this next week, and then forward to one of the most famous things Elgar ever wrote, and based on this series so far, I’m sure you can guess what those works are. See you then.



One thought on “Sir Edward Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s