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Elgar (1857-1934) - Introduction and Allegro for Strings

Thirteen years separated Elgar's two major string orchestral works. During that period he developed from what we might impolitely term a “hick musician” into an international celebrity with a string of major compositions under his belt. Admittedly, he needed luck, in the form of Richard Strauss singing his praises, but it took hard slog - and dogged persistence in the face of metropolitan apathy - to drive himself into a position where such accolades became possible. 

The Serenade for Strings (1892) has spine-tingling charm, but is nevertheless what we might impolitely term “hick music”: simple and undemanding (and therefore a proper serenade). The origin of the Introduction and Allegro was also simple: according to Elgar, his inspiration was a folk-tune, distantly-heard whilst holidaying in Wales. Apparently though, he may have been spinning a romanticised line, so we're probably safer sticking with Jaeger's documented request for something to showcase the strings of the newly-formed LSO. 

In all respects, the resulting work reflects those thirteen years of ripening. Elgar resurrected the baroque Concerto Grosso style, wherein a group of soloists (the concertino) alternately emerges from and blends back into the orchestral ranks (the ripieno). In this “pure” form, the aural impact is utterly different from the classical Concerto with the soloist(s) right up front: Elgar's embedded string quartet, like that fabled folk-tune, drifts within the musical landscape, a magical intimation of individuality amid corporate nature, so tellingly envisaged in Ken Russell's film about Elgar. 

This style he compounded with some highly original sonorities, evidence both of long years of practical experience and his very “modern” outlook. Alright, it hardly challenges the likes of Bartók and Penderecki, but then Elgar was their forerunner. Perhaps, though, the most startling feature is the formal structure which, belying the deceptively simple title, does seem impenetrable (it took me years to penetrate it!). However, once penetrated, it reveals a dazzling degree of order and balance: 

Introduction: The three main themes - an imperious, oscillating Descent, a fluttery Caprice, and a short-phrased Lyric (that fabled folk-tune, on solo viola) - are worked into a rondo-like tapestry, climaxing on the Descent over a thrumming bass, capped by several emphatic chords. These leave Lyric weaving a nostalgic spell, yielding to a welling then hesitant Caprice - an important structural signpost! 

Allegro: A new theme, a quick, nervous Stutter, builds to a cascading climax. Descent, passionately extended, culminates boldly over a “thrilling” chord. As this subsides, Lyric creeps in, evocatively coloured, to complete a new three-subject exposition! The ensuing development is a virtuosic fugue which, to my ears at least, is based on Lyric (with a dash of Descent), festooned with ornaments. Gradually, what sounds like an augmented retrograde of Lyric emerges, effectively doubling the fugue. As the slower lines dampen the propulsive energy the fugue dissipates, leaving Stutter fretting out a coda. Caprice, the signpost, now flags the recapitulation, which starts with Stutter but curtails Descent to promote Lyric into the dominant, climactic role, finally achieving a true nobilmente. But it is Caprice that skips off like the clappers, into a clear and definite coda whose final, resonant chord gives way to a cheeky, throwaway pizzicato.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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