Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Op 20


EDWARD Elgar (1857-1934) had a long climb to the summit of his career, struggling for recognition until he was in his forties. This work was written when he was 35 and is said to be the first with which he was satisfied. Later in life he professed it to be his favourite of his own works.

Elgar was born in the Worcestershire village of Lower Broadheath, the fourth of seven children. His father William had a shop selling sheet music and instruments, and was a violin player of professional standard. By the age of eight Edward was learning the piano and the violin, and was soon composing. His family could not afford to send him abroad for tuition so he largely taught himself from books.

Leaving school at fifteen, he started work as a solicitor’s clerk but soon gave it up to teach violin and piano and to give public performances. At twenty-two he took up the post of conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum in Powick, near Worcester. The band consisted of piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium, seven or eight violins, occasional viola, cello, double bass and piano. Elgar coached the players and wrote and arranged music for the unusual combination of instruments. The Musical Times wrote: ‘This practical experience proved to be of the greatest value to the young musician . . . He acquired a practical knowledge of the capabilities of these different instruments . . . He thereby got to know intimately the tone colour, the ins and outs of these and many other instruments.’ Another post he held in his early days was professor of the violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen.

In 1882 he became a violinist in Birmingham with William Stockley’s Orchestra. On 13 December 1883 the orchestra premiered one of his first works for full orchestra, the Sérénade mauresque (‘Moorish serenade’).

Stockley had invited him to conduct the piece but recalled that Elgar declined, ‘and, further, insisted upon playing in his place in the orchestra. The consequence was that he had to appear, fiddle in hand, to acknowledge the genuine and hearty applause of the audience’.

Elgar often went to London in an attempt to get his works published, but he was despondent and short of money. In April 1884 he wrote to a friend: ‘My prospects are about as hopeless as ever . . . I am not wanting in energy I think, so sometimes I conclude that ’tis want of ability . . . I have no money – not a cent.’

However, his luck was about to change. In 1886, when Elgar was 29, he took on a new pupil, Caroline Alice Roberts, the daughter of a major general and a published author of verse and fiction. She was eight years older than Elgar. His biographer Michael Kennedy writes:  ‘Alice’s family were horrified by her intention to marry an unknown musician who worked in a shop and was a Roman Catholic. She was disinherited.’ The couple were married on 8 May 1889 at Brompton Oratory. They moved to London to be closer to the centre of British musical life, and Elgar started devoting his time to composition while Alice acted as his business manager and social secretary. They had one daughter whom they named Carice, a combination of Mrs Elgar’s names Caroline and Alice. Small opportunities began to arise, though the family were forced to move back to Worcestershire so that Elgar could earn a living teaching.

In March 1892 he composed Serenade for Strings. It is believed to be a reworking of a suite he had written some years earlier, before he had firmly set his sights on a career as a composer. It was first performed in private that year, by the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class, a group Elgar was involved in training with the composer conducting. It had to wait a further three years for a first complete public performance, in Antwerp, 1896. He also arranged it for piano duet, and both works bear inscriptions in honour of his beloved Alice.

Elgar’s reputation continued to grow slowly until, when he was 42, he produced the Enigma Variations, an instant hit and possibly a topic for another article.

Elgar was one of the first composers to grasp the potential of the gramophone and from 1914 onwards he conducted many of his works for recording. Here he is with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1933, the year before his death at the age of 76.

Here is a more recent performance by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra.

This is the piano duet version:

Here is the score with another performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

PS: I wonder if I am the only person to hear echoes of the second movement of Serenade for Strings in the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written in 1902?

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