String Ensemble Program Notes

Serenade for Strings, op. 20 (1892)

EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)

Edward Elgar loved words; and he chose them with care – even when writing purely instrumental music. On 7 May 1888, in Worcester, he conducted an amateur string orchestra in Three Pieces of his own composition: Spring Song, Elegy and Finale. The manuscript has vanished, but in the summer of 1893 he published a work for strings in three movements with a first movement that breathes the freshness of spring, and a Larghetto that has all the qualities of an elegy.

This time, he called it a Serenade for Strings, and it fits that title to perfection. It’s a suite-like instrumental composition; and if it’s too exquisitely written to be played outdoors, the open-air spirit of Severn-side blows through every bar. And as for expressing love; well, twelve months and one day after the Three Pieces had received their first hearing, Elgar had married Caroline Alice Roberts at Brompton Oratory. Throughout their married life, Elgar’s ‘Braut’ (bride) guided and advised him in his creative work, and if the Serenade is indeed the Three Pieces, honed and re-written, there seems little doubt that she had a hand in the process. “Braut helped a great deal to make these little tunes”, scribbled Elgar on the manuscript.

The result sounds as fresh, as natural and as sweetly sonorous as if it had flowed straight from his pen; from the brisk viola rhythm that launches the work and the lilting melody that follows (marked piacevole: “pleasingly”), through the passionate melancholy and twilit quiet of the wonderful Larghetto, to the deceptively simple finale, with its glints of sunlight, its gentle reminiscences of the first movement, and the tender glow of its E major finish. And Elgar knew it. To the end of his life, he’d cite the Serenade as his favourite of all his works.

(Adapted from notes by Richard Bratby)

Rumanian Folk Dances (1915)

BELA BARTOK (1881-1945)

The folk music of Hungary and its adjoining neighbors was the soul of Béla Bartók’s creative voice throughout his career. Beginning in 1906 and usually in the com- pany of his fellow composer Zoltán Kodály, he annually roamed the countryside, painstakingly noting down or recording on a primitive Edison recording machine the melodies he heard the peasants sing. Like other Nationalist composers in other lands, Bartók believed that the future of a distinctive Hungarian music lay in recov- ering its authentic past before the modern world swept it away forever.

The town where Bartók was born lay on the border of Rumania, and in fact today it falls within Rumanian territory. And so the collection of Rumanian folk melodies became an early passion; eventually Bartók was to transcribe some 3500 authentic Rumanian folk tunes. In 1915 he took seven Rumanian fiddle tunes and arranged them as Rumanian Folk Dances for piano solo, then in 1917 transformed them into the version we hear tonight for small orchestra.

The suite comprises seven very brief dances: “Stick Dance,” “Sash Dance,” “In One Spot,” “Horn Dance,” “Rumanian Polka,” and two concluding Fast Dances. Played one after another without pause, they last just six minutes. Most are vivacious quick- tempo dances in duple or two-beat rhythm. But the fourth, “Horn Dance,” is in slow 3/4 time and features a haunting violin solo.

(Adapted from notes by Janet Bedell)