Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 84
November 20, 2016: Jonathan Biss, piano; Frank Huang, concertmaster; Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Carter Brey; cello
In 1918, when Elgar was sixty-one, he was suddenly seized with the desire to compose chamber music, which he had not done since 1892. On September 15, the day he finished the Violin Sonata, he began the Piano Quintet, and before that was completed, he started working on the String Quartet. The Sonata, Quartet, and the first movement of the Quintet were ready for a run-through on January 7, 1919, and on March 7 another trial performance was arranged for all three pieces with the Quintet now complete. William Henry Reed (“Willie”), concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra, had become very friendly with Elgar over the composition of the Violin Concerto a decade earlier. He consulted with Elgar frequently over the chamber works and was involved in the trial performances and public premieres of all three.
Reed described a section of the countryside surrounding Brinkwells, where the pieces had been written: “Near the cottage rises a strange plateau, on which there are a number of trees with gnarled and twisted branches, bare of bark and leaves—a ghastly sight in the evening, when the branches seem to be beckoning and holding up gaunt arms in derision.” This partially explains Lady Alice Elgar’s first reference to the Quintet in her diary on September 15: “[Edward] Wrote part of Quintet wonderful weird beginning same atmosphere as ‘Owls’—evidently reminiscent of sinister trees & impression of Flexham Park”; and on September 16: “E. wrote more of the wonderful Quintet—Flexham Park—sad ‘dispossessed’ trees & their dance & unstilled regret for their evil fate—or rather curse—wh. brought it on—Lytton ‘Strange Story’ seemed to sound through it too.”
“Owls” was a part song (choral piece) that Elgar had set to his own terrifying poem of 1907; “Strange Story” was a Bulwer Lytton novel about occult happenings in a village—Elgar, who loved supernatural stories, had woven such an atmosphere into the first movement of his Piano Quintet. He wrote to music critic Ernest Newman, the work’s dedicatee: “the first movement is ready & I want you to hear it—it is strange music I think & I like it—but—it’s ghostly stuff.”
The opening movement is laid out on a grand scale with a Moderato section presenting themes that will be important throughout the work. The first theme’s piano part has often been likened to the beginning of the Latin Christian antiphon Salve Regina, to which chromatic figuration for the strings has been added. George Bernard Shaw, who in addition to his literary accomplishments was a perceptive music critic, attended the complete trial performance and became quite friendly with Elgar thereafter. Shaw wrote the composer a detailed letter, which Elgar greatly appreciated and which is quoted frequently below for its contemporary insight. He praised the opening as “the finest thing of its kind since Coriolan [Beethoven’s Overture].”
The second idea, a kind of chromatic sigh with the cello rising underneath, serves as a motto in the work. The main theme of the Allegro begins in 6/8 in a manner very reminiscent of Brahms. A reference to the motto precedes the quiet second theme, which has sounded vaguely Spanish to several commentators. Shaw objected particularly to the movement’s development section. “You cannot begin a movement in such a magical way as you have begun the Quintet and then suddenly relapse into the expected.” When Elgar forwarded Shaw’s letter to Newman he protested that Shaw had misunderstood the idea: “it was meant to be square at that point & goes wild again—as man does.” The expansive recapitulation brings all the ideas back in modified form. Hints of the “Salva Regina” and motto theme return, closing the movement in reverse order with the last statement of the “chant” in its fullest appearance.
The beautiful Adagio fully met with Shaw’s approval: “A fine slow movement is a matter of course with you: nobody else has really done it since Beethoven: at least the others have never been able to take me in. Intermezzos and romances at best, never a genuine adagio.” Relying again on sonata form, Elgar composed a lovely main theme in which the viola is prominent. The development section rises to a great climax before calming down again for the recapitulation. Harmonic niceties of the movement include the magical slipping into F major for the start of the development from the basic F-sharp minor sonorities and a similar half-step shift from C-sharp minor to C major at the start of the coda.
The motto theme introduces the finale, another sonata form-movement, which like the first, begins with a Moderato section before moving to the main Allegro. Shaw was “exhilarated by the swing of the three-four [meter]” of the main theme. He may have referred to a section of this movement when he wrote: “There are some piano embroideries on a pedal point that didn’t sound like piano or like anything else in the world, but quite beautiful, and I have my doubts whether any regular shop pianist will produce them: they require a touch which is peculiar to yourself, and which struck me the first time I ever heard you larking about with a piano.” The development contains versions of the “Salve Regina” and “Spanish” second theme of the first movement. The recapitulation is artfully varied and the coda presents the two main themes of the movement in a heightened manner that Elgar described as an “apotheosis.”
© Jane Vial Jaffe