Edward Elgar: Serenade for Strings
Composed in March 1892 and premiered later on in the same year, Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings is a short work for string orchestra. The premiere saw Elgar conducting the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class in a private concert. The first public premiere took place in Antwerp in July 1896. Serenade for Strings is dedicated to organ builder Edward W. Whinfield.
It is thought that Serenade for Strings was actually a reworked version of a previous suite that Elgar had composed some years earlier. The suite is a great example of Elgar’s youthful talents, but also what mature style was to come. Split into three short movements, Serenade for Strings highlights Elgar’s maturity as a composer. It’s also said that this work was the first that Elgar was satisfied with.
Movement I – Allegro piacevole
Opening with a rhythmic figure in 6/8, the first movement shows the upper strings swell into the melodic figure in unison. The lightness of the music is accentuated by the cellos and violas, who keep the beat pulsating throughout. The melody is memorable and swirls above the ensemble in the most magical way.
Although simple and youthful in its presentation, this makes this opening movement all the more charming for the listener. The soaring violins are often working in unison, really seeking the colours in the E minor tonality throughout. As the ensemble grows in dynamic, the intensity also starts to build. This soon reverts back to the opening material, before finishing quietly.
Movement II – Larghetto
Certainly the most famous of all three movements, the slow middle movement is often performed as a stand alone work. Out of all the movements, this movement shows the most foresight into what Elgar’s mature style would look like. The richly scored tutti sections and the germination of the small kernel of melody from the beginning is an absolute joy to listen to.
Similarly to the opening movement, the upper strings are often moving in unison, showing pride in the melodies that Elgar has composed. The emotional integrity of this movement seeps through all of it, with the middle upper string section really pulling at your heartstrings. There are no gimmicks, no explosions of sound or rhythm, just honest music that is scored so richly and cleverly by Elgar, no wonder it is such a popular movement of music.
Movement III – Allegretto
The final movement begins in 12/8, and pays homage to the two movements before it. There bounce in the main theme of this movement, making it playful in character. After a quick change into 6/8 time, there is a reappearance of the chief theme from the opening movement. Similar to the first movement, the way Elgar has composed this reverts back to his youth. The score is not as richly orchestrated, and the way the melody is developed is straightforward.
The movement ends with the melody slowly coming to a halt before a series of delicate chords are played by the whole ensemble. The ending of this movement is poignant and perfectly wraps up this short work.
Edward Elgar’s popular Serenade for Strings shows different aspects of the composer’s style. There are indicators, mostly in the second movement, of where Elgar’s style was going to go. His rich textures and effective melodic writing pop out of the score in Serenade for Strings and remains one of his most poignant works.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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