Monday, July 11, 2016

Summermusic 2016, the 2nd Concert - Elgar's Piano Quintet

Elgar in 1919 (by Wm. Rothenstein)
This summer, Market Square Concerts presents Curtis on Tour, performers from Philadelphia's famed Curtis Institute of Music, both faculty and students. It's an exciting "internship" program in which students from Curtis get to tour and perform with faculty members.

Summermusic 2016 begins Friday at 8pm with works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn and in between more recent works by John Novacek and David Ludwig.

The 2nd Concert is Sunday at 4pm and includes Schubert's String Trio D.581 and Mozart's G Minor Piano Quartet, plus the Piano Quintet by Edward Elgar.

The 3rd Concert takes place Tuesday at 6:00 (not a typo) and features three American Quartets - Samuel Barber's Quartet (the home of the original Adagio for Strings), the quartet Dvořák composed while taking a break from New York City, and the first public performance of a quartet inspired by summers at Cape Cod by Jonathan Bailey Holland. 

You can read about these works in various posts on the Market Square Concerts blog.

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The final work on the second program of Summermusic 2016 – Sunday afternoon at 4pm at Market Square Church – is the Piano Quintet in A Minor by Sir Edward Elgar, the composer best known for giving us the "Enigma Variations" and something to march to at graduation. Considering how few piano quintets there are in the repertoire – and the ubiquity of hearing Brahms', Schumann's, Dvořák's, and Shostakovich's and occasionally, a distant fifth, Franck's – you could ask why you don't hear this one more often (if at all)?

Here are three videos – if you don't have time to listen to the complete work (it's 37 minutes long), at least view this performance by members of Curtis on Tour with the Curtis Student Quartet and faculty pianist Meng-Chieh Liu. It's the final minute of the piece and bodes well for an exciting finale to this concert!
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Here's the complete work – all three movements – with Ian Brown and the Sorrel Quartet, complete with score.
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If you have the time, I recommend Bruce Adolphe's lecture about the 1st Movement of Elgar's Quintet with Gilbert Kalish and the Amphion Quartet, courtesy of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:
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It begins with an introduction to Elgar as an English composer at a time when English music was, to most Europeans, little different from our modern perception of British cooking. At c.13:00, he begins talking about the music and then the performers play the first movement, beginning around 58:30.

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Brinkwells in 2010
The summer of 1918 – with the “Great War” (later to be known as the 1st World War) continuing on the Continent into its 4th year, casting its gloom and pall at the death of Britain's young men across the land – was meant to be a respite from the daily war-time life. Elgar, recuperating from an illness, spent the time with his wife and daughter at Brinkwells, a country house in rural Sussex with several acres of grounds, south of what is now the South Downs National Park. It was owned by a painter-friend of the Elgars named Rex Vicat Cole, a landscape artist, who had enlisted in the war. In his absence, the Elgars rented his cottage near Fittleworth and turned his studio into a music room.

They would spend two summers there, and in all Elgar would work on four new compositions. The three he began that first summer were all chamber pieces and he had composed little chamber music during his career, so in that sense this was an auspicious summer.

The Studio at Brinkwells
"Imagine then an old oak-beamed cottage set on a wooded hill, and across an old-world garden another building resembling an artist's studio. From this studio there is a view of a hill sloping down to more thickly wooded country; beyond this the river Arun, and, in the distance, the heights of the South Downs are visible. Near the cottage, rises a strange plateau, on which there are a number of trees with gnarled and twisted branches, bare of bark or leaves - a ghastly sight in the evening, when the branches seem to be beckoning and holding up gaunt arms in derision." (quoted from an Elgar website)

Elgar enjoyed walking in the countryside though at this time, I'm not sure he was bicycling as much as he used to. There was a legend associated with these trees in a nearby park, “sad 'dispossessed' trees,” according to the composer's wife, Alice, said to be the remains of some Spanish monks who, having performed some sacrilegious rituals there centuries earlier, had been struck by lightening and converted into these trees.

Elgar had apparently planned his summer reading before leaving London and ordered several novels by Edward Bulwer-Lytton from the library – the author most famous for the opening line of his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night...” (written when the author was 27). At the time he'd decided to compose this quintet, Alice reported her husband was reading Bulwer-Lytton's A Strange Story.

I can't say I would recommend reading it unless you really want to put yourself in the composer's frame-of-mind. Like many novelists of the Victorian Era, Bulwer-Lytton is one that quickly fell out of fashion and is today remembered primarily for that opening phrase which has spawned a contest to create a parody of “bad literature,” a sad legacy for a writer who was in his day not only successful but, for a time, quite popular.

a young Bulwer-Lytton
He did, however, give us other often-quoted lines: “the almighty dollar” is Bulwer-Lytton's as is “the Great Unwashed” not to mention one I always attributed to Shakespeare it was so ubiquitous, “the pen is mightier than the sword”! Two of his novels inspired operas by Wagner and Verdi, though both are overlooked in the operatic repertoire as well: Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes inspired Wagner; and Harold, Last of the Saxons, became Verdi's Aroldo.

Regardless of the supernatural elements of A Strange Story or the legend of the Spanish monks “inspiring” Elgar to write a programmatic work, the Quintet, which Elgar admitted contained some “ghostly stuff,” opens with a direct quotation of the opening of the Gregorian chant, Salve regina (there are at least two that I've found, but this is the one Elgar quotes in the opening and which recurs throughout the first movement).

Whether it's there because of any specific association with the ill-fated monks or just because Elgar, a life-long Catholic, liked it or even used it purely coincidentally, the text associated with it – “Hail, Queen, Mother of Mercy” – might certainly also have been on his mind because of the on-going pall of the war.

And don't keep asking me why there's this unexpected Spanish dance for a second theme (as fans of Monty Python can tell you, "I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition"...). It follows the rather Brahmsian main theme: considering this is 1918, writing like Brahms (which was what most English composers did in the 1870s and '80s) was already old-fashioned and the juxtaposition of serious Brahms with what sounds like cafe music probably struck first-time listeners as a bit incongruous. Then, there's that rhythmic motive heard in the strings at the opening which also pervades the movement, giving the whole a kind of “ghostly” unease.

Elgar's favourite pub near Brinkwells
This first movement struck many of Elgar's friends as being “something new” in his expression, unlike anything he'd composed before, especially the modality of the opening material and its overall episodic nature. The second and third movements were less so, apparently – the slow movement is definitely the expressive core of the piece (bringing back memories of the world of "Nimrod" from the 1899 Enigma Variations); the last movement keeps slipping back nostalgically into the first movement – but there were few works left to be written, after this. Appalled by the war and in ill health, Elgar eventually composed four works those two summers at Brinkwells: there was also the String Quartet (which he hadn't finished when he began the Piano Quintet), the Violin Sonata and, once the war had ended, the Cello Concerto. Curiously, while the Quintet is in A Minor, all three of the other works are in E Minor which seems a bit odd. Is there some association with this key and the mood the composer was in at the time?

By 1920, Elgar's music had already fallen out of fashion – he was now 63 – and perhaps, as often happened with other composers at that point in their lives (not so much the age as the loss of esteem), Elgar ceased to compose. It was his wife's death later that year, however, that brought his creativity to a standstill. Though he'd been appointed “Master of the King's Music” in 1924, he composed little for such royal occasions as the post required: his “Nursery Suite,” written the celebrate the recent birth of the Duke of York's younger daughter and dedicated to the Duchess and both her daughters (the older daughter, by the way, now Queen Elizabeth II, just turned 90), was based entirely on sketches from notebooks dating back to his own youth.

In the early-1930s, as he approached his 75th birthday, his music began to experience something of a renaissance which inspired him to begin a new opera (The Spanish Lady) and a Third Symphony but these were left unfinished when it was discovered in 1933 he had inoperable cancer and died about four months later.

So, one of the questions you might consider while listening to this rarely-heard  Piano Quintet, whether it's new or already familiar to you, is “what new directions might the Old Boy have discovered? And how might he have then realized those possibilities?” (Okay, technically, that's two questions...) Given that this became one of his last works (and thinking especially of the Cello Concerto), you could also wonder, "what have we lost?"

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credits: the three photos of Brinkwells and the nearby pub were taken by a Melbourne-based blogger posting at "Art and Architecture mainly"

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