Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra, Op. 20
Sir Edward Elgar
Born June 2, 1857, in Broadheath, near Worcester, England
Died February 23, 1934, in Worcester, England
This work was first performed in March of 1892, in a private reading by the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class, with the composer conducting. It is scored for strings.
Sir Edward Elgar is considered by many to have been the quintessential English composer. His music is filled with the stirring themes that bring to mind the pomp and circumstance of coronation, the beauty of the English countryside, and the reserved sophistication that represents all things British in the minds of many. However, his own countrymen were slow to accept his music, largely because he was not born into the nobility that his music often depicts. Elgar’s background as the son of a piano tuner haunted him his entire life, making him feel unworthy of the many honors bestowed upon him. This self-doubt and the prejudice of the English musical establishment took its toll. He was nearly fifty years of age before the premiere of his Enigma Variations brought the fame he deserved. From that point on, he was recognized as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695). During the time when Elgar was struggling for acceptance in his homeland, German audiences were much quicker to accept his music. Among the important German musicians who praised Elgar early on were the composer Richard Strauss, violinist Fritz Kreisler, and the conductor Hans Richter.
Elgar represents the first peak of the English Musical Renaissance, a period of concentrated musical excellence in Britain that began in the last decade of the nineteenth century and flourished until World War II. Composers such as Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Gustav Holst were among the first to champion the cause of British music with works based on native topics. Texts drawn from English folk tunes and poets, especially William Blake, served as the inspiration for these works.
Elgar’s Serenade for Strings traces its origins to the Three Pieces for Strings that he wrote in Worcester in 1888. With the exception of his Wand of Youth Suite, this is the earliest of Elgar’s works performed with regularity today. Elgar had settled in Malvern, Worcestershire, early in the decade and had been quite active as a conductor of amateur musical societies throughout the county, even serving as composer for the County Lunatic Asylum for a few years. Another of his duties was as conductor of the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class, an amateur society that engaged in social music making. In 1892, when this ensemble needed material for a new string work, Elgar returned to the largely unknown Three Pieces and reworked some of its ideas into what would become his Serenade. One of his students, Rosa Burley, described the first reading:
“One afternoon at the orchestral class … [we] found ourselves playing in a work that was unfamiliar at any rate to me. I think I must have arrived late and commenced hurriedly, for I do not remember looking at the title. But I do remember the profound impression its rather Mendelssohnian slow movement made on me. ‘What is this?’ I asked. ‘Oh, it’s something he wrote himself,’ she said. ‘Serenade for Strings.’ She spoke casually and quite without enthusiasm. ‘Wrote it himself?’ I could scarcely believe it. ‘Oh yes. He’s always writing these things and trying them out on us.’”
The Serenade for Strings is in three short movements in the usual fast, slow, fast structure. Elgar’s opening movement, allegro piacevole, opens with just a pulse in the peaceful key of E minor. The first theme is similar to the famous Mannheim Rocket of a century before in that it traverses an octave in a series of small leaps, but then descends as rapidly. This imparts a beautifully sentimental character to this music. After the material is developed, a second theme appears in B major, lending added warmth to the music. The opening returns to round out the movement.
Elgar’s second movement, larghetto, is the emotional core of this work. Ms. Burley’s observation of a Mendelssohnian approach is an accurate assessment, as this pensive and poignant movement is loaded with musical suspensions – fleeting dissonances that add tension, but resolve afterward. However, this type of writing is not grating in the least. It is nothing short of heartrending. Strangely, the entire movement is based on one key – C major – and Elgar’s penchant for wide melodic leaps finds full voice.
The finale, marked simply allegretto, is a reworking of the first movement, but in a major key. The opening theme is derived from the first movement’s first theme, but the second melody shifts to E major, the parallel major of the E minor of the opening. This second theme is essentially the same as that from the first movement and adds a cyclic element to the work that gives the listener a sense of closure as this magnificent early masterpiece ends quietly.
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia
This work was first performed on February 22, 1878, in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein. It is scored for piccolo, woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, and strings.
An overwhelming belief in the power of fate has influenced some of the most profound works of music. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana celebrates and laments the fickleness of the Wheel of Fortune. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opens with a theme that is often said to represent fate knocking at the door. Tchaikovsky, in his many bouts of depression, certainly felt as if fate was a driving force in his life. Suffering from what was likely Bipolar Disorder with its characteristically elevated ‘highs’ and profound ‘lows,’ Tchaikovsky walked a very thin emotional line. When Tchaikovsky married a former student, Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, who had become obsessed with the composer while in his class, he hoped fate would shine upon him in the guise of domestic bliss. He proposed to Antonina, although he was secretly homosexual and feared professional rejection if he was found out. Instead of bringing happiness, the disastrous marriage lasted all of nine weeks.
The Fourth Symphony, one of his most soul-searching scores, is perhaps most accurately described in a letter Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck shortly after the premiere. This description was never meant to serve as a program for the work, but the insight it provides to his mindset at the time is unparalleled. Tchaikovsky wrote:
“The introduction is the kernel, the chief thought of the whole Symphony. This is Fate, the fatal power that hinders one in the pursuit of happiness from gaining the goal, which jealously provides that peace and comfort do not prevail, that the sky is not free from clouds — a might that swings, like the sword of Damocles, constantly over the head, which poisons continuously the soul. This might is overpowering and invincible. There is nothing to do but to submit and vainly complain. The feeling of desperation and loneliness grows stronger and stronger. Would it not be better to turn away from reality and lull one’s self in dreams. Deeper and deeper the soul is sunk in dreams. All that was dark and joyless is forgotten . . .
“No — these are but dreams: roughly we are awakened by Fate. Thus we see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness. Something like this is the program of the first movement.
“The second movement shows another phase of sadness. How sad it is that so much has already been and gone! And yet it is a pleasure to think of the early years. One mourns the past and has neither the courage nor the will to begin a new life. One is rather tired of life. One would fain rest awhile, recalling happy hours when young blood pulsed warm through our veins and life brought satisfaction. We remember irreparable loss. But these things are far away. It is sad, yet sweet, to lose one’s self in the past.
“There is no determined feeling, no exact expression in the third movement. Here are capricious arabesques, vague figures which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated. Suddenly there rushes into the imagination the picture of a drunken peasant and a gutter song. Military music is heard passing in the distance. There are disconnected pictures that come and go in the brain of the sleeper. They have nothing to do with reality; they are unintelligible, bizarre.
“As to the finale, if you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity. The picture of a folk holiday. Hardly have we had time to forget ourselves in the happiness of others when indefatigable Fate reminds us once more of its presence. The other children of men are not concerned with us. How merry and glad they all are. All their feelings are so inconsequential, so simple. And do you still say that all the world is immersed in sorrow? There still is happiness, simple, naive happiness. Rejoice in the happiness of others — and you can still live.
“There is not a single line in this Symphony that I have not felt in my whole being and that has not been a true echo of the soul.”
© 2015 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin