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By contrast Elgar's E minor sonata invokes other kinds of response. His three great 'late' chamber works, the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet (both in E minor) and the Piano Quintet all date from 1918/19, a period of intense sadness for the sensitive Elgar. The Great War of 1914-18 embittered and depressed him by its mass slaughter. He had also been horrified by the hijacking of his wonderful melody to fit the jingoistic verses of, and, later pride of the Last Night of the Proms, Land of Hope and Glory. Elgar and much-loved wife had moved from London to the beauty and tranquillity of the wooded Sussex countryside. While there, his wife died. An inconsolable Elgar remained alone in their cottage.

It is no wonder that subsequent commentators interpret the three last chamber works as Elgar's foreboding of his own death. Similar premonitions used to be ascribed to Beethoven's 'late quartets'. However, far from being Beethoven's famous last words, the quartets were eventually recognised for what they really were -- a completely new phase of Beethoven's genius.

Elgar's 1918/19 works underwent a similar reaction from critics and concert-going public alike. They loved a perceived death-wish in composers. In the 1985 Oxford Dictionary of Music, it's compiler, Michael Kennedy, wrote that Elgar's music 'veers from extrovert warmth and geniality into a deep introspective melancholy.'

Throughout his whole career Elgar's music did exactly that sort of veering in his first to his final works. To veer from depression to elation was in the nature of the man, and therefore of his music.

One never failing aspect of Elgar's inspiration lay in his agility at manipulating motifs. He could illuminate the merest fragment of a few notes through subtle orchestration or transform those same notes into a triumphal passage for heavy brass. His two symphonies of the early 1900s exploit these Haydn-like transformations and, on a reduced instrumental scale, so does the late E minor Violin Sonata.

Of particular interest is the Sonata's slow movement [listen -- track 2, 2:37-4:00]. This begins with a slinky tune, for all the world like a tango being played by some long-since-vanished palm court duo. Elgar would have been aware of tangos, because the export of this intimate and slow-walking dance from Argentina had become popular in Britain's ballrooms by 1907.

Here, however, especially after a Brahms-like first movement, the intrusion of the middle movement's tango is as perplexing as it is incongruous. Has Elgar gone mad? Not at all, because the tango's steps are transfigured by sleight of hand into the simple accompaniment of the slow movement's sublime tune. Elgar does indeed veer from the warm and genial and decidedly non-sublime tango into the profundity and melancholy of Elgar's soaring melody. It is a masterly device which only a genius could imagine. Nor does Elgar discard the tango. It reappears in the final movement, where, as Mark Lehman describes in his programme notes, the tango is metamorphosed yet again, this time into 'a hauntingly beautiful section marked teneramente (tenderly), darkening the finale's serenity with touches of wistful sadness and unease.'

This Op 82 is not the work of a composer who has given up, but as rich a flow of music as any he had produced so far. Elgar had another fifteen years of life ahead, and in this period, the opus numbers went from 82 to 90 and the dates of composition went up to 1933, the year before he died.

The similarities in structure between Busoni's and Elgar's E minor sonatas are nothing compared with their fundamental differences. Busoni sought a new Aesthetic of Music. Elgar had by no means exhausted the old aesthetic of his own subtle and highly individual music.

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Copyright © 10 May 2006 George Balcombe, London UK


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