Serenade for strings Op. 20 / Introduction and Allegro Op. 47 / Elegy Op. 58 / Sospiri Op. 70
(b. Broadheath nr. Worcester, 2 June 1857; d. Worcester, 23 February 1934)
Serenade for Strings in E minor, op. 20 (1888-92)
Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra, op. 47 (1904-5)
Elegy for strings, op. 58 (1909)
Sospiri for strings, harp and organ, op. 70 (1914)
Besides such immortal large-scale works as the Enigma Variations (1898-9), the Cello Concerto (1918-19), and The Dream of Gerontius (1899-1900), Edward Elgar also produced pieces for small orchestral forces that have passed the test of time and found a permanent place in the repertoire. Whether the youthfully buoyant Serenade (op. 20), the exhilarating Introduction and Allegro (op. 47), the moving Elegy (op. 58), or the exquisitely dolorous Sospiri (op. 70), these pieces cover most of his creative career and contain some of his most personal statements.
The Serenade for string orchestra began life in 1888 when the 30-year-old Elgar, then still pondering whether to become a professional composer, produced three pieces for strings entitled Spring Song, Elegy and Finale. The pieces received a private hearing in Worcester on 7 May of that year, conducted by the Reverend Edward Vine Hall. Elgar went on record as stating, with typical forthrightness, «I like ‘em (the first thing I ever did).» Four years later he reworked the pieces into the present three-movement Serenade and conducted a private performance with the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class. The response was such that he offered the work to Novello, who however turned it down as «practically unsaleable.» The German publishing house of Breitkopf & Härtel proved more receptive to the young composer and issued the Serenade in full score in 1893. The first public performance took place in Antwerp in 1896, and the English première, conducted by the composer, in New Brighton on 16 July 1899. Since then the Serenade has become one of Elgar’s most frequently performed works. The Breitkopf & Härtel score was reissued in 1915; a miniature score appeared in 1941 (reissued in 1984); and a full score was even published in Moscow in 1957. Elgar himself recorded the piece in 1933.
Introduction and Allegro, op. 47, owes its existence to Elgar’s good friend August Jaeger (the «Nimrod» of the Enigma Variations), who proposed that he write a rousing piece to be performed in March 1905 at an all-Elgar concert by the recently founded London Symphony Orchestra. Elgar took to the idea immediately and turned to some themes he had jotted down during a Welsh holiday in 1901, when he had heard distant singing on the island of Ynys Lochtyn in Cardiganshire. Soon he could jocularly report to Jaeger, «I’m doing that string thing … Intro. & Allegro – no working out part but a devil of a fugue instead. G major & the sd. divvel in G minor … with all sort of japes and counterpoint.» The score was composed on 13 February 1905 and punctually premièred at Queen’s Hall by the London SO on 8 March under the composer’s baton. Unfortunately the performance was under-rehearsed and the reception decidedly cool. It was only decades later, after the Second World War, that the Introduction and Allegro received the recognition that its greatness so richly deserves. The work bears a dedication to Professor S. S. Sanford of Yale University, who was instrumental in having the university confer an honorary doctorate on the composer in 1905. The piece was published in full score and an arrangement for piano was issued in miniature score by the same publisher in 1935 and by Eulenburg in 1944 (reissued in 1985). Elgar himself conducted the piece alongside the Enigma Variations in Turin in 1911.
In 1909 Elgar’s editor and friend August Jaeger, who had tirelessly championed the composer from early in his career, died of consumption at the early age of forty-nine. The Elegy op. 58 that Elgar composed in Plas Gwyn in 1909 may well be the composer’s farewell to his stalwart friend. It was first performed at Mansion House, London, on 13 July 1909 and bears a dedication to the recently deceased Rev. R. J. Haddon of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, who were responsible for the première. The following year it was published in full score, parts, and organ arrangement by Novello. Elgar himself recorded the work on 29 August 1933 together with the Serenade.
Sospiri, op. 70, owes its existence to a suggestion from the publisher Elkin to write two short pieces for small orchestra, which were to be recorded first and published shortly thereafter. Elgar agreed and quickly turned out a first piece, Carissima, which was duly recorded and published by Elkin in 1914. The second piece was much longer in the making and obviously found the composer emotionally involved. Initially it bore the name Soupir d’amour (thus the title in the contract) and was meant to be a companion piece to the ever-popular Salut d’amour of 1889. By the time of the sketches the title had changed to Absence, and in the first edition, published By Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, the work was called Sospiri – Seufzer, these being respectively the Italian and German terms for «sighs.» The scoring on the Breitkopf print – «string orchestra, harp (or pianoforte) and harmonium (or organ)» – gives a good indication of the widespread distribution expected for this five-minute piece, which appeared simultaneously in arrangements for violin and piano and for viola/cello and piano (1914). The first performance was given at Queen’s Hall, London, on 15 August 1914, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. Although Sospiri never achieved the world-wide popularity of Salut d’amour, Elgar later distanced himself from the heartfelt sadness of the piece, perhaps sensing an emotional closeness too deep to bear. In 1925 he testily exclaimed to his amazed friend Ivor Atkin «I have not the remotest notion of what Sospiri is, was, or will be» and refused to conduct the piece.
Bradford Robinson, 2006
For performance material please contact the publisher Chester Novello, London (op.47& 58) and Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden (op.20 & 70). Reprint of a copy from the collection Philipp Brookes, Market Drayton. Performance materials of Sospiri for strings, harp and organ, op. 70 (1914) s available at Musikproduktion Höflich München.