Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op.47

Program Note

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op.47 (1905)

What makes Elgar’s orchestral music sound like Elgar? What makes an orchestral song with an accompaniment by Elgar, and another orchestrated by someone else, sound so different? One of the most characteristic aspects of Elgar’s orchestral style is the way he writes for the string orchestra, both on its own or in a larger texture, emphasizing tone and polyphony. This may particularly be seen in the Introduction and Allegro, which for its virtuosity and sonority is a supreme achievement for the string orchestra, fully reflecting Elgar’s first-hand knowledge as a former violinist himself.

By 1905 Elgar, knighted the previous year, was at the height of his powers and of his reputation. With the advantage of hindsight, we know that over the next few years he would produce The Kingdom, the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto; yet at the time, of course, he could have no such foresight or confidence in his muse. He was in one of those depressions that came on him after completing major works and before the next had been started. He was also suffering from poor health and under continuing financial pressures.

The idea for the Introduction and Allegro was first put to Elgar by August Jaeger—Nimrod of the Enigma Variations—who suggested that he write a piece for the recently founded London Symphony Orchestra. Jaeger's proposal was for "a brilliant, quick scherzo," an apt description for this exhilarating work. Elgar's normal method of composition included the use of themes which he had jotted down in his sketchbooks as they occurred to him, often years earlier, waiting for the right work in which to use them. The Introduction and Allegro contains one such theme in particular, what Elgar himself referred to as the “Welsh tune.” It had come to him in August 1901 when the Elgars had been on holiday in Cardiganshire, West Wales, supposedly inspired by the distant singing of Welsh folk tunes. Elgar believed it to capture a Welsh musical idiom and had planned to use it in a projected Welsh Overture. That work never materialized, however, so Elgar used the theme in this work instead.

—Adapted from writings by Lewis Foreman