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Arthur Troyte Griffith, the Malvern architect pictured within the energetic seventh 'Enigma' variation, visited Elgar during the composer's final illness, put a recording of his String Quartet on the gramophone, and said after the slow movement: 'Surely that is as fine as a movement by Beethoven'. 'Yes it is', replied Elgar, 'and there is something in it that has never been done before.' Griffith asked what, and Elgar replied: 'Nothing you would understand, merely an arrangement of notes'.(1)
The conversation was recently recalled by Bayan Northcott, writing in The Independent (1 January 1994). Northcott observed that the Elgar literature was replete with biographical, psychological, topographical, socio-economic and politico-cultural commentary, and lamented that this had not gone hand in hand with genuinely searching analysis of the scores themselves. 'No one could deny the emotional, picturesque or emblematic significance of his music, but a little more attention to the way he put his actual notes together might also reveal a more objective, cogent and, not least, original composer than we have realised.' As to what in the String Quartet 'has never been done before', Northcott finds the Elgar experts silent on the matter.
There is good reason for taking Elgar's remark seriously and exploring its possible implications, and not only to correct the imbalance in writings on Elgar which Northcott bewails. Elgar was a fully mature, accomplished, well-practised composer when he began his String Quartet in E minor in March 1918, his 61st year. Neither age nor illness had impaired his creative powers. He had already produced the 'Enigma' Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, the Cockaigne overture, Falstaff, the Violin Concerto and both the symphonies; but the Cello Concerto, regarded by many as his supreme masterpiece, had yet to come. He had made several attempts to write a string quartet and, an able violinist himself, clearly regarded the medium with some awe. One who had mastered the art of composition for string orchestra from a relatively early age and had produced a concerto for his own instrument (and was working on a sonata for it) was likely to find the string quartet an attractive medium, unless he was shy of the economic texture. But, while it is true that Elgar favours rich orchestral textures in his symphonies, these textures are based essentially on linear clarity and strength; and his surviving sketches for string trio, like his finished works for string orchestra, attest to a skill in finding expressive eloquence in a lean polyphonic medium. Of contrapuntal fibre there is evidence in all manner of works, with fugal procedures brought to bear in such contexts as the Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra, The Dream of Gerontius and the Second Symphony.
The slow movement of the String Quartet in E minor is the middle of its three movements and is a not very slow movement in 3/8 time marked Piacevole (poco andante), quaver = 104. Lady Elgar's diary entry for 8 October 1918 refers particularly to this movement: 'E. possessed with his wonderful music, 2nd Movement of 4tet'. The following day she again mentioned this Piacevole movement: 'so gracious and lovable', she called it. Work on the Piano Quintet ran parallel with work on the quartet, and it was not until 26 November that Elgar could note in his diary: 'Finished & copied Piacevole'.(2)
The biographies have contented themselves with generalized mood-descriptions. Basil Maine remarks on the 'pleasant, idyllic atmosphere' and refers to 'a pastoral scene in the quivering haze of summer'.(3) W. H. Reed notes 'the impression that the composer conveys the sound of bees and insects on a hot summer's afternoon'.(4) Only Robert Anderson …