String Quartet

Edward Elgar

String Quartet in E minor

Op. 83

About this work

The String Quartet in E minor was the second of Elgar's three chamber works to come from the autumnal idyll at the cottage in Sussex in 1918. In it he seemed to come nearest to the ideal of Brahms, whom he greatly admired. Although highly expressive, the mood is comparatively restrained, and thus design becomes paramount. This is in contrast with the subsequent Piano Quintet in which novelty of structure and intensity of emotion are conspicuous features. Also, Elgar seems quite content within the restrictions of the chamber idiom, whereas in the Quintet one senses a frequent desire to bust loose into an orchestral one.

In 12/8, the first movement (Allegro moderato) possesses a searching nature, not so much in a questing, Romantic sense, but more on the nature of a puzzle to be solved. The opening chordal sonorities sound much like Renaissance music, but this quickly expands into a typical Elgarian melody; notable is a sequence of falling fourths rather than Elgar's fingerprint interval of a seventh. The second subject is serene yet devoid of excessive sentiment. The development very energetically works these two ideas with an amazing range of color for this comparatively limited medium; this reaches a climax and there is a sudden brief shift into duple meter, then a diminuendo which leads back to the recapitulation. A false close suddenly wells up into the high register of the instruments, and the work closes with an allusion to the opening figure.

The second movement, a lovely poco andante in 3/8, was a favorite of the composer's wife. It possesses warmth yet avoids pathos. The main theme combines a characteristic Elgarian melody with English folk song and is somewhat reminiscent of the "Angel's Farewell" from Gerontius. Rather than a second subject, a fragment of the opening theme is taken and worked over; plucked strings and a chromatic fortissimo herald a return of the main theme. There follows a second episode which is worked over in much the same way. The opening theme returns and the movement ends on a note of serenity.

"Vivacity" would seem more appropriate than "energy" to describe the allegro molto Finale in 4/4. The first subject immediately "plunges in" with a joie de vivre. The melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic texture of the music constantly changes, as though being spun out; the term "kaleidoscopic," once used to describe the processes in Elgar's symphonies before they were better understood, is more apt an adjective here. There is a less deliberate slowing to the second dolce subject which, despite the indication, is likewise too varied to allow any sentimental mulling-over; a few curiously Brucknerian sequence modulations appear. This subsides and the development commences. Elgar seems to return to the Classical concept of the finale as a "wrapping up" rather than a summit to be scaled. Thus the recapitulation is along conventional lines until a wild flurry of sixteenth notes brings the work to an almost abrupt stop, and then a terse yet vigorous and positive fortissimo conclusion.