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Elgar, Enigma and Emanuel Ax
Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor, Opus 20
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
At a Glance
Elgar wrote his Serenade for Strings in E minor in 1893, probably as a reworking of a now-lost earlier work, Three Pieces for String Orchestra, from 1888. The slow movement was first performed in Hereford, England on April 7, 1893; the first complete performance took place in Antwerp, Belgium, on July 23, 1896.
This work runs just over 10 minutes in performance. Elgar scored it for a string orchestra of first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Elgar’s Serenade in June 1992 at the summertime Blossom Music Festival under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. It has been performed one other time, for a weekend of concerts in January 1996 led by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
About the Music
It was only slowly and gradually that Edward Elgar rose to fame as the foremost British composer. He first attempted to make his way in London’s musical circles in 1889, at the age of 32. The attempt gained him little. A little more than a year after moving to the capital, the composer and his wife Alice retreated to the country, disappointed by what seemed an utter lack of success. Elgar, who in the meantime had become the father of a baby girl, had to resume his old activities, playing violin in local orchestras and conducting amateur groups to give him some income. Fame (and fortune) remained elusive.
Throughout these difficult years, Elgar never stopped composing. But none of his works from this period (mainly choruses and songs) did much to establish a reputation. Recognition would come only in 1897 with the Imperial March for Queen Victoria’s jubilee, followed shortly thereafter, in 1899, by the Enigma Variations, which quickly gave him name recognition throughout the classical music world.
Written in 1892-93, the Serenade in E minor was an important milestone on this long road to success. It was a work of which Elgar thought most highly and remained one of his favorites even late in life. He was confident enough of its worth to offer it to a foreign publisher — Breitkopf & Hartel — for publication. (Central European music publishers were at the time considered the best and most prestigious; we may, of course, wonder why London’s publishers were not more interested in an unknown composer from their own country). The Serenade, which received its premiere in Antwerp, Belgium, was one of the first works to make Elgar’s name known on the continent.
The Serenade is in three movements, of which the central Larghetto is unquestionably the most important. It is framed by an Allegro piacevole (a “pleasant” allegro), and an equally charming Allegretto. The thematic materials of the opening and closing movements are related — the main melody of the Allegro piacevole comes back in the finale. Both outer movements are written in a lilting 6/8 or 12/8 meter. The melodies flow easily in both movements; the idyll is not disrupted by any discordant sounds.
The middle Larghetto stands out as the most profound part of the serenade’s musical overall statement. It acts as a “song without words,” built upon a single beautiful melody, which keeps unfolding for the entire movement before reaching its peaceful conclusion. —Peter Laki © 2017
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