The origins of these two short instrumental pieces are obscure. Published when Elgar was
at the peak of his popularity, it is strange that he should set aside time to write these two
inconsequential uncommissioned works that can have earned him little money. Michael
Kennedy, in his book Portrait of Elgar,
suggests that the two pieces may have been salvaged from the discarded praparatory work for
symphony based on the life of General Gordon that Elgar had been toying with since
1898. Certainly, neither piece would be out of place in a symphony - both pieces are of
considerable musical merit, conveying that typical Elgarian sense of wistful longing for lost
that he also captured in the Wand of Youth suites and,
much later, in the Nursery Suite. And Elgar, who
always considered composing to be a penurious occupation, would have welcomed whatever
money he could make from the pieces providing that preparation for their publication did not
cause him significant extra work.
The origin of the title holds no mystery, for Elgar inscribed on the score an excerpt from the
essay with the same title by Charles Lamb. The excerpt ends :
"We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all..... We are nothing; less than
nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been...."
No doubt the reference to 'Alice' is significant and has encouraged speculation. Rosa
Burley, friend of the Elgar family, has alleged that Elgar associated the passage with
Alice Stuart-Wortley, his Windflower, and that he had intended to
dedicate the work to her. Perhaps, but Elgar did not first meet Windflower
1902 and their friendship remained an essentially formal one for many years. It seems that Elgar
would more likely equate the reference with his own wife Alice. We shall never know, for Elgar
published the work without a dedicatee.
But in 1921, Elgar confided to his friend Sir Sidney Colvin :
"I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by Severn side,
with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great."
Surely this quotation holds the key to the appeal that Lamb's essay must have held for