Donald Fraser on the challenges of re-imagining the Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures
Yehudi Menuhin asked me to arrange four short pieces of Elgar for strings to be featured on a tour of the United States with the English Chamber Orchestra. His aim was to further promote the name of Elgar and his music in America. Shortly after that my American publisher asked me to arrange four of Elgar’s songs for choir, again to promote the music of Elgar, in this instance to a wider choral audience. I was also asked to transcribe sections of the Violin Sonata for orchestra as part of the soundtrack to the TV Film Elgar’s Tenth Muse. These were recorded by the BBC Symphony under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis. Thus began my interest in orchestrating Elgar.
There are several reasons I wanted to orchestrate the two works featured on this new recording – the Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures, but the main reason is that they are relatively seldom played. The orchestration of the Quintet was inspired by a recording with Peter Donohoe and the Maggiano String Quartet (on Naxos). It simply had a sense of the orchestra in the way it was performed.
I thought long and hard before starting the project, questioning the reasons for doing so, deciding to proceed only after reading the following entry in Lady Elgar’s diary: 'September 17, 1918: Bright sunny day but keen wind. E. writing wonderful new music - real wood sounds & another lament wh. shd. be in a War Symphony'.
If it were to have been a symphony then the forces would be the same as his own symphonies. No issue there, but ‘how’ to orchestrate this Elgar work?
In the symphonies of Elgar the strings are silent for only a couple of bars. It is an orchestra structurally based on that section with all else adding colour, highlights and emotional emphases. The question arose that if the strings in the quintet were this ‘bedrock’, then what was the piano part?
My approach, bearing in mind that it was going to remain in the ‘Elgarian’ sound world was to look first at his own piano reductions of orchestral works and by others that had been approved by him. I then correlated his piano writing from the reductions to much of the piano writing in the Quintet and from there, back to the orchestral works.
It is well known that Elgar was not a traditional pianist. This from George Bernard Shaw in a letter to Elgar after a performance of the Quintet with the composer at the piano: 'There are some piano embroideries on a pedal point that didn’t sound like a piano or anything else in the world, but quite beautiful, and I have my doubts whether any regular shop pianist will produce them: they require a touch which is peculiar to yourself and which struck me the first time I ever heard you larking about with a piano.'
Then there is Elgar’s own quote regarding his Bach orchestration: 'I decided to orchestrate...in a modern way - largest orchestra...so many arrangements have been made of Bach on the “pretty” scale and I wanted to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant he would have made himself sound if he had our means. You will see that I have kept it all quite solid (diapasony) at first; later you hear the sesquialteras and other trimming stops reverberating and the resultant vibrating shimmering sort of organ sound.'
That gave me another clue to his approach – that of an organist, adding a stop here, changing a registration at other moments, moving from Great to Swell and all the other wonderful things that only organists know. Perhaps that is a clue to much of his orchestration? There is also one other direct reference to the piano being an orchestra – the ‘quasi pizzicato’ instruction 4 bars after R55 in the third movement.
There appear to be many quotations or perhaps ‘references’ in this work. The ‘plainsong’ of the opening seems to point toward the past, maybe the early influence of his father playing organ in the church in Worcester. The First Symphony has a similar legato line over a slow pulse in the bass. It also points toward the opening of Gerontius and the Salve Regina of the early years. The contrasting ‘broken’ figure can be found, but in a more positive guise in the Cockaigne overture, perhaps, in the quintet signifying the loss of that part of life. The figure has similarities to the Dorabella variation, again is this pointing toward something from the past? There appear to be many more such ‘references’. Like looking through an old photo album - memories of the past relived in one’s mind.
Then the question: is this entire work a kind of diary of the past? If so, and the relevant links could be found, then many clues to the orchestration might be unearthed and paralleled in the ‘new piece’. I felt comfortable to then go to the orchestral works themselves and find the new orchestration among them.
A clear example of this was the very short passage in the last movement at R55. The minor third notes in the low strings reminded me so much of the passage in the Enigma Variations at variation 20, which I understand alludes to the sound of the ship’s engine that sailed to New Zealand carrying away Elgar’s first love, Helen Weaver. I therefore utilised the orchestral sound that he had used in the variation (timps with side drum sticks and high tremolandi in the strings). Again, a fleeting passage of remembrance?
I have no idea how Elgar would have orchestrated the Quintet nor would I presume to claim any insight as to what might have been. I have simply delighted in the process, loved listening to the original and immensely enjoyed studying orchestration with ‘him’!
Elgar was a religious and spiritual man, both personally and in his music. Sea Pictures was a work written between his famed Enigma Variations and the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. The Variations draws musical pictures of very much alive family and friends; the oratorio traces the journey of the soul as it leaves this world and transitions to the life hereafter.
Sea Pictures, through it’s combination of music and poetry, contains images or portraits of the sea, which in this work are an allegory for the journey of a soul from this world to the next. The work itself being a transition between a piece about the living and a composition dealing with the after life. The poet, in 'Where Corals Lie', tells those that remain on earth ‘Yes, press my eyelids closed, ‘tis well”, not unlike Gerontius.
I know there has been much academic comment on the musical value of this work, some of it belittling it’s place in the Elgar canon. I, however, see it as a major point in Elgar’s artistic and intellectual development. The deeper I get into the poetry and in particular the chosen passages from the longer works, the more I see extraordinary emotional and musical power at work. It puts me in mind of Beethoven's Mass in C, without which there may never have been the Missa Solemnis.
On a creative level the foremost element of the orchestration and choral realisation was related to the title. They are Pictures. Not songs, not a quotation from the lyrics, not a suite nor a cycle! Simply Pictures. The original orchestration so clearly adheres to this concept, it was important to keep this in any further arrangement of this work. I thought often of the pictures of JMW Turner when working on this piece – the Storm at Sea, the picture of Aldeborough Harbour, the Shipwreck and so many others of his 'sea pictures'. How clever is Elgar’s original in this regard. The use of tam-tam and low strings ‘under tow’ in the 'Sea Slumber Song' when we hear the voice of the 'mother' ocean calming her children, the splashing waves of the white horses, the shifting underwater fronds of the corals... there are so many impressions. The lines of the chorus as well as those of the quartet follow this line of thinking, colouring in their own way the images derived from the poems.
On a practical level I chose to make three versions. The first is for full orchestra and SATB chorus for large choruses of 80 and more, a version for the strings and SATB to utilize the same forces that Elgar had employed in his Introduction and Allegro, and for medium-sized choirs of between 40 and 80 voices, and a version for piano and chorus for smaller choirs. I especially wanted to make available these arrangements for those younger voices and choirs that may not be aware of the music of Elgar.
The premiere recording of Donald Fraser's orchestrations of Elgar's Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures is out now on Avie Records. For more information, visit: avie-records.com