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Serenade for strings in E minor, Op. 20 (1892)

Strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra

1 Allegro piacevole
2 Larghetto
3 Allegretto

Elgar was a string-player, a violinist of considerable ability – the concerto and the sonata he wrote for the instrument are some of his most characteristic and personal works. Two works for string orchestra have both become firm repertoire favourites. The Introduction and Allegro, which he composed for string quartet and string orchestra in 1905, is in effect a Romantic enlargement of the concerto grosso principal. But the Serenade for strings which we hear tonight is altogether simpler. It is the earliest work by Elgar to have become well known – it preceded his ‘Enigma’ Variations by six years – but it is utterly characteristic.

The opening movement (piacevole, as marked, means ‘pleasing’) has the same lilting rhythm as Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade (the orchestral version of which dates from the same year), but also a gentler, more dusky atmosphere of its own, in which the desire to please in the rise and fall of its phrases is expressed, at first, with a certain shyness. The melodic shapes of the slow middle movement (in C major) are typical, too, and intensify briefly to a central confession of feeling before sinking back into a threefold reminder of the opening phrase. The final movement returns to the alfresco character of the first, with some discreet reminders of its lilting rhythm.

The slow movement was heard first, on its own, in Hereford in 1893, and all three movements were eventually performed in Antwerp in 1896. Much later in life Elgar singled the Serenade out as his favourite work and described it as ‘really stringy in effect’; he included it as one of his last gramophone recordings the year before he died.

Programme note © Adrian Jack, 2005

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