The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.
By the late nineteenth century, British piano music had only stealthily begun to move from the parlor to the concert-hall podium.The piano had long been an essential part of the education of elegant Victorian girls, and a host of minor British composers were adept at supplying graceful if vacuous music for that domestic market. But once out of the ladies' seminary and "free from its genius tutelary" (as W. S. Gilbert put it), newly liberated debutantes would have heard distressingly little British music played in professional piano recitals. Although some of the intermittently winsome, if ultimately bland keyboard pieces of William Sterndale Bennett were championed by none other than the redoubtable Clara Schumann, they failed to gain a secure place in the repertoire of subsequent players. Moreover, their wan echoes of Mendelssohn helped to reinforce the idea that British piano music remained hopelessly indebted to the composer of the Songs Without Words, a situation that was likely to continue so long as the most promising English students were regularly shipped off to the ultraconservative Leipzig Conservatory to sit at the feet of the master's statue. Not for nothing did one wag comment that the notoriously stifling Leipzig Gewandhaus concert hall had no windows in order to preserve the same air that Mendelssohn had breathed.
General acknowledgement of the outstanding genius of Edward Elgar forced a change in the received opinion of British Romantic music, but did little to encourage native piano composition until the early decades of the twentiethth century, when all the pieces in this program were written. Elgar himself was more of an uplifting example than a specific model to younger keyboard composers, for his own output placed little emphasis on the piano, despite the fact that he often composed at the instrument. What emerged from Elgar's antiquated square piano tended to be the outline of gloriously sonorous works for large instrumental ensembles or massed choral forces rather than piano music pure and simple. His most ambitious solo piano piece — the Concert Allegro — is typically full of wonderful ideas that frankly seem much more suited to the extended resources of the Romantic symphony orchestra than the pianist's 10 fingers, and ultimately fail to cohere into a satisfying whole. On the other hand, many of Elgar's piano miniatures are, by common consent, much more successful, and none more so than In Smyrna, a memorable exercise in musical exoticism.
In the piano music of Elgar's younger contemporaries John Ireland and Percy Grainger we hear a genuine engagement with the unique characteristics of the piano as an instrument that is often absent from even the best of Elgar's keyboard works. Ireland, English born and bred, had been a pupil of the ineluctably influential Irishman Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. He himself subsequently became one of the teachers of the young Benjamin Britten. The two movements presented today — Elegy and Minuet — from the Downland Suite of 1932 (not inappropriately misprinted as "Dowland Suite" on the cover of at least one score) were arranged for piano from the original setting for brass band, and are another attempt to find musical inspiration in the bracing characteristics of the British countryside. In Amberley Wild Brooks — a shimmering depiction of the streams and flooded plains of Ireland's beloved Sussex landscape — the musical inspiration is surprisingly French rather than English, with several passages directly recalling both the keyboard writing and harmonic language of Ravel's delicately sparkling Jeu d'eaux.
The rest of this program comprises original works and arrangements by Percy Grainger, including music by the Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland (this time definitely not attributable to a misprint). Despite his emphatic insistence on his own English ancestry, Grainger had been born in Australia, trained principally in Frankfurt, and eventually settled in America; yet his intense engagement with British music, from the transcription of folk melodies to his vivid settings of Kipling, gave him a pivotal role in enriching the British tradition. Grainger's nostalgically yearning transcription of "Now, Oh Now I Needs Must Part" from the First Booke of Songs or Aires (1597) by Dowland shows a subtle restraint notably absent from much of his original music. The first verse adopts Dowland's own harmonies; the second adapts them to a chromatically elaborate, yet always subtle texture that intensifies rather than spoils the mood of the song's touchingly valedictory lyrics.
The names of the original composers of the English folk-music transcriptions "The Hunter in His Career" and "Country Gardens" and the hauntingly beautiful "Irish Tune from County Derry" have not been bequeathed to posterity. Grainger came across the melody of the first of these in William Chappell's collection of Old English Popular Music. By 1928 he had turned it into one of his most taxing transcriptions, resounding at the climax with a hedonistic thunder through five octaves of the keyboard. The rather less complex "Country Gardens," a morris-dance tune collected by the indefatigable Cecil Sharp, is equally rambunctious. Grainger wrote the piano arrangement while briefly serving in the U.S.Army (he had originally set it for "a few instruments and two whistlers"). It became so popular that the sorely tried transcriber was soon heartily sick of requests to play it as an encore. Acceding ever more reluctantly, he would tell his audiences:"English country gardens are usually used for growing vegetables, so think of turnips when you hear this piece."
Grainger's Colonial Song is an original piece in which he "wished to express feelings aroused by the thoughts of the scenery and people of his native land." Both the melody (at first called "Up-Country Song") and its initial setting are reminiscent not just of the "Irish Tune," but even in places of the homely style of Stephen Foster's American songs. Grainger was a great admirer of Foster, and hoped with Colonial Song to create an antipodean counterpart to American and British popular music — his own Australian folk-song, as it were. There is, however, no text to Colonial Song. In the version for voices and instruments, the singers are simply instructed to vocalize on whatever syllables they find convenient — rather like Frank Sinatra's "doobeedoobee-do" strategy for Strangers in the Night.
The clattering rhythms of Charles Villiers Stanford's Maguire's Kick also come from the Petrie Collection of Irish Music, a later printing of which he himself edited. The principal tune is a boisterous march associated with Irish rebels in 1798, the secondary theme a jig from County Leitrim. Stanford had originally written the piece for piano, only later expanding and orchestrating it.The orchestral version was then transcribed by Grainger for piano in 1908, returning the piece to its keyboard roots in a setting far more suited to concert performance — and far more gratifying to the concert performers — than Stanford's more modest original.
Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007.
Last modified 20 August 2007