Other Music for
Solo Piano

Elgar at the piano

    Various short pieces written for solo piano:

    TitleYearApprox. Length
    Adieu 19322 mins 45 secs
    Chantant 18725 mins 10 secs
    Concert Allegro 190110 mins 00 secs
    Griffinesque 18840 mins 30 secs
    In Smyrna 19054 mins 15 secs
    May Song 19013 mins 45 secs
    Minuet 18974 mins 30 secs
    Presto 18892 mins 00 secs
    Rosemary 18822 mins 45 secs
    Serenade 19323 mins 05 secs
    Skizze 19021 min 15 secs
    Sonatina : 1889
    1 - Andantino 1 min 45 secs
    2 - Allegro 1 min 35 secs

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 accompaniment.

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.

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