PIANO QUINTET IN A MINOR, Op. 84
I. Moderato – Allegro
III. Andante – Allegro
The Elgar is not played as often as the Brahms, Dvorak, and Schumann piano quintets but its British flavor more than holds its own against its continental siblings. Self-taught and from humble origins in a class-conscious society, and Catholic in Protestant Britain, the quintessential English composer always felt himself an outsider. He eschewed local folksong as a source like Vaughan-Williams or Frank Bridge for a more “ineternational” approach, looking to more traditional (foreign) sources such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. As a young man, Elgar’s dream was to attend Leipzig Conservatory and he taught himself German to prepare. Unfortunately, his family could not afford to send him abroad. Ill-suited to an office job, he determined to make it as a musician, taking any job that came his way including conductor of a band consisting of piccolo, flute, clarinet, cornet, euphonium, piano, trombone, and viola at Powick Lunatic Asylum where he wrote polkas and quadrilles as dances for the residents each Friday in an early version of music therapy. He also taught violin at Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen. Around this time he wrote "My prospects are about as hopeless as ever. I am not wanting in energy I think, so sometimes I conclude that 'tis want of ability. I have no money – not a cent." His friend August Jaeger tried to buoy him up: "A day's attack of the blues will not drive away your desire, your necessity, which is to exercise those creative faculties which a kind providence has given you. Your time will come.” And indeed it did. His cantata “The Dream of Gerontius” was the first of many breakout successes - so much so that by WWI Elgar was considered a national treasure with a knighthood to show for it.
I’ve recorded in the area of England where Elgar lived and something about his music could not have sprung from any anywhere else. In the summer of 1918, needing a respite after four long years of war, Elgar retired to a secluded cottage in Sussex to recover from ill health. Nearby, a mysterious copse of trees rumored to be the remains of blaspheming monks struck down by a wrathful god were the inspiration for the ghostly opening of the quintet; Lady Elgar described it as the sound of “sad dispossessed trees and their dance of unstilled regret for their evil fate.” The life-affirming second movement starts with a heartfelt solo in the viola. The third movement hearkens back to the first but soon moves to a melody noted with the very Elgarian markings “with dignity” and “nobly.”
Program notes by David Yang