Edward Elgar
(b. Broadheath nr. Worcester, 2 June 1857; d. Worcester, 23 February 1934)

Three Bavarian Dances for Orchestra, op. 27 (1894-5)


In 1892 Edward Elgar, then an obscure provincial composer who earned his living from teaching and occasionally playing in orchestras, set out on his first trip to Bayreuth with his wife of three years, Alice. The marriage had been regarded as a disaster by the members of Alice's family, some of whom promptly disinherited her: Alice was nine years older than her unimpressive husband, had published a novel and dabbled in verse, and came from a higher level in England's rigidly hierarchical society. But she knew music and German and bore an unflinching faith in Edgar's abilities. The Bayreuth visit was to set a Germanophile stamp upon their activities for years. (When Elgar received a vocal score of Tristan in 1893 he wrote in it "This Book contains the Height, - the Depth, - the Breadth,- the Sweetness, - the Sorrow, - the Best and the whole of the Best of This world and the Next.") It only seemed natural, given their interests, that the couple would spend their vacations in Germany. Their choice fell on Upper Bavaria, then a rural and impoverished region barely touched by the Industrial Revolution. After staying in the town of Oberstdorf in 1892, they spent four of their next five annual holidays in Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, living in the home of an expatriate English family named Slingsby-Bethell. They also paid visits to the local inns, where they reveled in the colorful folk customs, especially the slap-dances known as Schuhplattler and the improvised four-line "chatter ditties" known as Schnadahüpfl.
Returning from their 1894 holiday filled with new impressions, the Elgars decided to create a sort of musical photo-album of their visit to Garmisch. Alice wrote six poems imitative of Bavarian folk verse, which Edward then set as From the Bavarian Highlands: Six Choral Songs with Accompaniment for Piano (or Orchestra), the Words Imitated from Bavarian Volkslieder and Schnadahüpfer by C. Alice Elgar. This unassuming but delightful work was completed in April 1895, premièred at the Worcester Festival on 21 April 1896 under the composer's baton, and published in that same year as op. 27 by Joseph Williams, London. Its success was instantaneous; before long it had appeared in arrangements for piano (1897), violin and piano (1902), piano four-hands (1905), cello and piano (1910), organ (1910), and tonic sol-fa notation (1904); later one of the numbers was even translated into Welsh (1977). Perhaps the most remarkable testament to its popularity was a German edition, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig (1906), in which Alice's unassuming folk verses were translated into German by one W. Kastner.
Elgar was sufficiently impressed by the success of these pieces to extract the three most popular numbers - The Dance: Sonnenbichl (No. 1), Lullaby: In Hammersbach (No. 3), and The Marksman: Bei Murnau (No. 6) - and rework them into an orchestral suite. The new piece, now entitled Three Bavarian Dances, was completed in 1897 and premièred at London's Crystal Palace on 23 October 1897 under the baton of August Manns - an indication of the nationwide prominence that the forty-year-old composer had meanwhile achieved. They were published in orchestral score, again by Joseph Williams, in 1902 and reissued by Hawkes in 1928. Although the many arrangements of these dances may have been primarily motivated by commercial considerations at a time when Elgar was struggling to escape the burden of having to teach, there can be little doubt that they also reflect a deep fondness for Upper Bavaria and a very happy moment in his life, a moment uniquely captured in Peter Greaves's book In the Bavarian Highlands: Edward Elgar's German Holidays in the 1890s (Rickmansworth, 2000).


Bradford Robinson, 2005
For performance material please contact the publisher Edition Booosey and Hawkes, Berlin. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchener Stadtbibliothek, Munich.