By 1918 and the end of the Great War, Elgar was in poor health and deeply disturbed by the tragic events that had befallen Europe. He and his wife rented a beautiful cottage near Fittleworth in Sussex called Brinkwells where Elgar enjoyed what was to become his last major creative period. In these wonderful surroundings he wrote the String Quartet, the Violin Sonata, the Piano Quintet and started sketches for the Cello Concerto.
Elgar was himself a gifted violinist and the sonata was completed very quickly within a month. He dedicated the work to a dear family friend, Marie Joshua and wrote in a letter to her during its composition “I fear it does not carry us any further but it is full of golden sounds and I like it, but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist”. Tragically, Marie Joshua died just days after receiving the letter and Elgar quoted the melancholic theme from the slow movement at the end of the piece as a tribute to her memory.
The first movement begins in a whirlwind of anger and frustration; the music surges from one extreme of register to the other, and does not firmly establish the home key of E minor until the first grand piano statement. This violent outpouring of emotion is set against a beautifully simple contrasting theme in the related key of G major which first appears in meandering arpeggios in the violin part. Each statement of this tranquil theme is echoed by pianissimo chords in the piano before the storm clouds regather in another outpouring of grief. The movement clearly portrays moments of anger, resignation, sadness, frustration and desperation.
The slow movement Romance offers some respite from such turmoil. It is full of Edwardian gestures with the two instruments flirting and teasing each other in a coquettish dance with constant manipulation of tempo. An abrupt shift from the bright key of A major to the more reflective tonality of F major breaks away from this scene, perhaps suggesting it was a wonderful memory of life before the war changed the course of society for good. The central section is crafted around a poignant, forlorn melody first stated in the violin which becomes ever more overcome with grief, sorrow and regret. After a huge outpouring of devastating, dissonant chords the theme ascends ethereally, paving the way for a muted restatement of the opening dance – this time more clearly defined as a bitter-sweet memory.
Elgar refuses to wallow in such dark colours and the last movement offers warmth and hope for the future. The bright key of E major and meandering, pastoral melodies predominate. As before, Elgar uses extremes of register with both instruments often moving in contrary motion to give the music space and grandeur. Reflective and playful themes alternate with the occasional pause for further reflection. After one last outburst during the development the music gives the impression of settling down for a peaceful end. It is here that Elgar breaks off from the themes of the movement to quote a more impassioned version of the central theme from the Romance, in memory of his friend Marie. The coda emerges peacefully before gathering both strength and warmth for one last outburst of emotion with the firm affirmation of the E major tonality ending things on a more hopeful note.
© Nicholas Burns 2012