Elgar first set about composing a String Quartet in 1907 but put
it aside when he embarked with determination on his long-delayed
It appears that he subsequently used themes intended
for this earlier quartet in other works, including the symphony.
When he eventually returned to the genre, it was to compose an
entirely fresh work.
The String Quartet was the first of three chamber works that he
tackled in 1918 in the peaceful surroundings of Brinkwells, the
country cottage that Lady Elgar had found for them in the depth
of the Sussex countryside. Following the delivery of a piano to
Brinkwells in mid-August of that year, however, Elgar tempted
fate a second time by putting aside the quartet, firstly to compose
the Violin Sonata and then
to make a start on the Piano Quintet
. Fortunately, he resumed work on the quartet in October
1918, taking it forward to completion by the end of the year.
Elgar was himself an accomplished violinist, having played in
various chamber ensembles in his youth. The quartet combines the
skills thus acquired from those days with a high level of
compositional inspiration. The outer movements display a
vigorous dialogue between the four instruments, in contrast to
the dream-like quality of the central piacevole. Lady Elgar
likened this movement to "captured sunshine" and the allegro
molto to the "galloping of stallions". This should not be read
to imply a deeper programme for the work, simply that Elgar had
captured the atmosphere and spirit of the woodlands around
Brinkwells that were his inspiration for the work.