During the 1890s, the Elgars spent a succession of holidays in Southern Bavaria, staying in
Oberstdorf in 1892 and in Garmisch in four of the following five years. The
holidays were arranged by Mary Frances ('Minnie') Baker, sister of William Meath Baker, who is pictured in the fourth
Enigma Variation, and subsquently to become
stepmother of Dora Penny, Dorabella of the
tenth variation. In those days, Garmisch had not developed into the bustling resort it is today and
evening entertainment was sparse and unsophisticated. The Elgars spent a number of evenings
in local hostelries where they drank while watching displays of folk dances of the region. During
the day they walked and admired the Alpine scenery.
Both activities fired their imagination. On returning from their 1894 holiday, and despite
having already embarked on the composition of King Olaf,
Elgar began work setting to music six poems Alice had written in the style of Bavarian folksongs.
It should be stressed that words and music were original parodies of the Bavarian style, not
translations or transliterations of genuine folksongs. The influence of the Elgars' recent holidays
is, however, clear.
Slightly less obvious is the relevance of the subtitles Elgar gave each song : each subtitle is
the name of a location in the region but has no apparent thematic relevance to the song to which
it is attached. Their significance seems to be no more than that of places the Elgars visited and
admired, placing their admiration on record in much the same way as in the dedication of a work
to a favoured individual. This is reflected in the title by which the work has come to be known
- not Songs but Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands. Incidentally,
the dedicatees of this work, the Slingsby Bethells, were the expatriot
owners of the guesthouse the Elgars stayed at in Garmisch.
Elgar completed the songs in their original form with piano accompaniment in April 1895.
He then set about writing an orchestral accompaniment, completed the following year. Finally,
he took three of the songs (The Dance, Lullaby and
The Marksman) and provided arrangements for orchestra alone, publishing these
as Three Bavarian Dances in 1907 (although they had been completed and first
performed some ten years earlier). The multiplicity of versions may have been Elgar's way of
extracting maximum financial benefit from the tunes. But it may equally reflect his deep personal
affinity with the music and the area it represents. Each version has its own perticular merits and,
while this is definitely the lighter side of Elgar - there is no significant development or elaborate
intrinsic structure to each piece - as simple melodies the pieces are unsurpassed, containing an
undeniable warmth and spirited happiness.