A composer generally makes his reputation from large-scale orchestral works - symphonies,
concertos, choral works and opera - but his money from lighter, less significant efforts. In this
respect, Elgar was no exception. While he regularly and vociferously complained of the penurious
financial rewards he received from the works by which he is known today, during his lifetime he
received a steadier income from royalties on short pieces composed for publication and sale in the
form of sheet music to the home market. Whereas today, films and television, advertising jingles
and other forms of recorded music provide serious composers with a means of making a living
from which to indulge their more portentous efforts, in Elgar's day the most common instrument
of home entertainment was the humble upright piano. This is reflected in the numerous small
works he wrote for solo piano, for piano and violin, and songs for solo voice with piano
Some of the works for solo piano - piano versions of the Enigma Variations, Dream
Children and Echo's Dance from The
Sanguine Fan - are clearly by-products of Elgar's compositional method. Although the
violin was his first instrument, he was also a proficient pianist. While he claimed that playing the
piano gave him no pleasure, it was a far more appropriate instrument on which to compose works
intended for subsequent orchestration. This left Elgar with piano scores which, with little
additional effort, could be published to bring in additional royalties from home sales. It is
interesting to note that the piano arrangement of the Enigma
Variations was published before the first performance of the orchestral score, with
Elgar urging Novello's also to publish Dorabella
as a separate item.
But the majority of the works for solo piano were composed specifically with that instrument
in mind. They display a variety of inspirations and motivations. Some, mainly early, pieces Elgar
composed as musical gifts for friends and relatives: Griffinesque for Frank
Griffin, a piano pupil of Elgar; Presto for Isabel Fitton (Ysobel of the Sixth Enigma Variation); Sonatina, a short
work in two movements which he composed for his niece May Grafton; and
Skizze, dedicated to Professor Julian Büths, saviour of The Dream of Gerontius.* He wrote the Concert Allegro in
response to requests from Fanny Davies, a well known concert pianist of the day, for
a piano concerto; although Elgar did toy over many years with writing a piano concerto, the work
never materialised beyond a few sketches. And In Smyrna was inspired by a
Mediterranean cruise Elgar took with his friend Frank Schuster in the Autumn of 1905
aboard a Royal Navy ship HMS Surprise. The ship docked at Smyrna (now
Izmir) in Turkey, allowing the passengers to visit the town and mosque. The latter in
particular made a keen impression on Elgar, leading him to compose this atmospheric piece which
in his sketchbook carried the sub-title In the Mosque.
While the shorter pieces share a certain gaiety and rhapsodic charm, they have no great depth.
Indeed, they are all of a somewhat similar style, suggesting that Adieu and
Serenade, although published considerably later, are reworkings of much earlier
pieces. The Concert Allegro, intended for the concert platform, is a grander work but
not wholly satisfactory, even in the revised performing version made in 1968 by Diana
McVeigh and John Ogdon. Of all the works for solo piano, In
Smyrna is by general consent the best. It alone rises above being merely a pretty tune.
Whether or not it conjures up images of the mosque as Elgar intended, it succeeds in capturing
a sense of mystical drama and shares with Dream
Children the feeling of wistful innocence that is so typically Elgar.
As pieces written for the moment, these works have not survived into the standard repertoire.
The life of some was prolonged by their subsequent publication in arrangements by Elgar for small
orchestra - Minuet in 1898, Rosemary in 1915, May
Song in 1928 - in which form they remain better known, while violinist Josef Szigeri
made his own transcriptions for violin of Adieu and Serenade.
Other pieces disappeared altogether. Elgar had considered making an orchestral arrangement of
Concert Allegro as well but, after further performances on the piano by Fanny
Davies in 1906, the score disappeared until 1968 when it was found among papers in the
estate of the late conductor Anthony Bernard. Sonatina was not
published until 1932, following revision by Elgar, while Skizze, originally
published in Germany, and In Smyrna, first published in the Daily
Mail's Queen's Christmas Carol Book for 1905, were effectively lost until
published by Novello's in 1976.
Thanks to the efforts of the Cobbe Foundation, however, these works can now be
heard as Elgar himself would have heard them. In recent years, the foundation has restored
Elgar's own 1844 Broadwood piano to the condition in which he himself used it. Elgar had the
piano installed in his study at Birchwood
Lodge, the country cottage at Storridge which he rented from March 1898
until October 1903. On it he composed significant sections of Caractacus and the whole of The Dream of Gerontius. No doubt he also tried out parts
of the Enigma Variations which he composed mainly
at Forli, his house in Malvern at the time. A
recording of the Broadwood piano, with Anthony Goldstone playing the Enigma Variations and most of Elgar's other compositions
and arrangements for piano, has been issued by the Cobbe Foundation in association
with the National Trust, the Elgar Society and
Booz, Allen and Hamilton.
* - but, despite the name and subtitle, Rosemary (That's
for Remembrance) is not dedicated to or known to have been composed for any of
Elgar's friends, having originally been entitled Danse Pensée.