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The fourth of seven children born to a music-dealer and his wife outside Worcester, England, Edward Elgar took to music early in life and by age eight was studying both piano and violin. Soon after, he took up organ and taught himself music theory using his father’s collection of sheet music, books, and instruments.
In addition to music, Elgar was drawn to nature, and became an avid cyclist. He would roam the countryside, and once said: “There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” When he was 22, he took up the post of bandmaster at the County Asylum in Powick. It was a progressive institution that believed in the recuperative powers of music, and Elgar composed some pieces for the asylum orchestra that were rediscovered and performed locally in the 1990s.
The Piano Quintet comes from a later period in Elgar’s creative output, just before the death of his wife, Alice. In 1917, the couple had left London for a house near Brinkwells, in Sussex, where Elgar reinvented himself at age 61. He took frequent walks in the woods and focused almost exclusively on writing chamber music. Though modernism was now thriving, the Piano Quintet shows an unabashed late-Romanticism. It is also the longest of Elgar’s chamber works – the first movement alone is about 14 minutes. It is a big piece, with an orchestral sonority to it at times.
Elgar started work on the Piano Quintet in the summer of 1918. According to Alice’s journals, the work was inspired by an area outside Brinkwells, where a thicket of bare trees had become the stuff of local legend – of a tale of depraved Spanish monks whose evildoings led them to be transformed into the menacing-looking trees. Elgar wrote to critic Ernest Newman (the work’s dedicatee) in 1919, “....it’s ghostly stuff.”
And so it is. Though the first movement follows sonata form, it is framed at beginning and end by a spookily calm string processional on top of a passacaglia-like melody in the piano. The main theme of the movement is agitated and tragic-sounding, and after a dark and enigmatic development section, the ghostly processional returns again above the music and brings the movement to a soft and haunted close.
The Adagio begins and ends serenely yet wistfully, rivaling the stillness of a lake in early morning. Though its eloquence can make the listener think of moments of Elgar’s other great slow and solemn movements, it is nonetheless in a world of its own.
The Finale begins with a melancholy sigh from the first movement, then moves into much lighter and brighter territory than either of the other two movements. In a woodsy mood, the music seems to glance outward for the first time, and springs to a dramatic and rich-sounding close. The Piano Quintet is signed “Brinkwells” and received its public premiere in May 1919 at Wigmore Hall in London.