The First World War was at its height when Elgar was approached in November 1915 to
write the incidental music for a play to be staged in the West End of London at the end of the
year. The play, The Starlight Express, had been adapted by Violet Pearn from
the novel A Prisoner in Fairyland by Algernon Blackwood. As demanded by
the times, the story is a nonsensical piece of escapism. A family of children, trapped in the
oppressive world of adults, forms a secret society whose members collect stardust and live in star
caves. The seek to rescue their parents from an earthly existence and eventually succeed, taking
them also to a star cave.
The story contains strong similarities not only with J M Barrie's Peter Pan
but also with Elgar's own childhood musical fantasies from which he subsequently extracted the
two Wand of Youth suites. Perhaps not surprisingly,
therefore, Elgar initially chose simply to recast this youthful music a second time, setting words
to the tunes to form the incidental music to the play. Once seized with the task, however, Elgar
continued to write much new music and, in a hectic period of little over a month, produced almost
300 pages of score.
The first performance took place on 29 December 1915 but the play was not a success and
ran for only a month. Elgar blamed the stage settings which differed considerably from his
preconceptions - at two days' notice he refused to conduct at the first performance. But, in
reality, much of the blame must be placed on the storyline which lacks the charm of Barrie's work.
Today it appears contrived, trite and dated. It has rarely been performed since, with a BBC radio
reconstruction of the play in the early 1960s a notable exception.
The music survives, however, with several recent recordings currently available. Though
often regarded as lightweight theatre music, like the
Humoreske Broadheath and Wand of Youth
suites before it the music embodies an intricacy and polish that places it on an equal footing
with the best of Elgar. It demonstrates his mastery of the orchestra and ability to turn superficially
harmless little tunes into something quite compelling.