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Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra, Op. 20

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edward Elgar
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Salute to Slatkin/Yo-Yo Ma, cello Sun., Jun. 29, 2008, 7:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Another of Mr. Slatkin's conspicuous fields of interest is British music. He has been active in London for more than thirty years (including tenures as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia, and at present principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic), but had actually responded much earlier to the music of Delius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Walton. He has recorded all the symphonies of Vaughan Williams and many works of Elgar's, including the seldom heard oratorio The Kingdom and the Serenade for string orchestra. The Serenade was also one of the works performed in the concerts celebrating the opening of the acoustically redesigned Kennedy Center Concert Hall in October 1997.

Few of Elgar's concert works stand in sharper contrast than this one to those by which we know him best. We think of this composer as a creator of big works and big sounds. The modest Serenade, in three brief movements, was composed in 1892 and is sometimes regarded as being more closely related to the salon pieces Elgar composed early in his career than to the masterly Introduction and Allegro of 1905, also for string orchestra. The Serenade, in fact, may have been derived from a still earlier work, a set of Three Pieces for strings composed in 1888 which, like several of Elgar's other compositions of the 1880s, was either lost or destroyed without being performed or published; but this Op. 20, whatever its background, is one of the earliest compositions in which the characteristics we regard as representative of the mature Elgar are clearly discernable.

The opening movement is at once bright and reflective, its lilting phrases touched by nostalgia, the coloring in burnished tones lending a bittersweet character. This deepens into gentle melancholy in the succeeding Larghetto, evocative of a pastoral twilight in its long-breathed phrases. This gentle mood prevails also in the subdued animation of the concluding movement, which might be regarded as a sort of idealized country dance; the end brings a return of the work's opening material.

The Serenade waited four years for its first complete performance, which took place in Antwerp on July 23, 1896. At that time Elgar, aged 39, was yet to produce any of his great orchestral or choral works, and his compositions were by no means assured a hearing as soon as they were written—even at home, let alone abroad. All that was to change dramatically by the end of the decade, when his Enigma Variations for orchestra and his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius would confirm his stature as the most admired British composer since Henry Purcell.