Iain Farrington

Pianist, organist, composer, arranger

Edward Elgar - Five Piano Improvisations

transcribed by Iain Farrington

Although apparently professing a dislike for the instrument, Elgar used the piano extensively when composing, and would expand and elaborate his ideas through improvisation at the keyboard. The most notable instance of this was the genesis of the Enigma Variations, when Elgar improvised several of the variations in one evening to his wife Alice. He was no virtuoso; he played in an idiosyncratic, orchestral manner, quite unlike ‘acceptable’ pianism, but nonetheless effective enough for the thorough exploration of new ideas.

More than any of his contemporaries, Elgar embraced the new possibilities in recorded sound, and from 1914 he enthusiastically conducted many of his own works for record. The nineteen-twenties saw very little compositional activity from Elgar and it may be that the recorded piano improvisations were an attempt to use the recording process to stimulate progress on new work. In a recording session in the Small Queen’s Hall, London, on the 6th November 1929, Elgar improvised five pieces at the piano, each around 4½ minutes in length (restricted by the typical length of one side of a 78 r.p.m. record). These recordings lay unheard for many years, until their first release in 1975; they offer fascinating insights into Elgar’s working process and pianism.

This transcription offers a balance between an ‘accurate’, detailed annotation and an accessible score from which to play. Rather than making any ‘improvements’ to the work, Elgar’s own harmonic and structural solutions have been retained, true to the improvisatory nature of the original. Obvious blemishes have been deliberately polished, all within the Elgarian style, without sacrificing the occasional moment of harmonic spice. The inaccuracies and ambiguities are extensive, and to annotate each would lead to an over-complex score with abundant footnotes. Thus, the score is a personal realisation of Elgar's performance, acting as the basis for a much freer reading than the fixed notation might suggest. With the luxury of foresight that the completed score offers, it is possible to give different interpretations of Elgar’s improvisations, perhaps highlighting neglected themes or varying the pace of the overall structures.

Elgar composed only around a dozen works for piano, mostly miniatures (except the substantial Concert Allegro), and these five transcribed improvisations are therefore a considerable addition to this slender repertoire. They can be performed as a group, individually or in different combinations, and are easy to programme in any piano recital.

Published by Novello and available from music stores.

Listen to a modern performance of No. 2 and No. 5 here:

Recording available. Details here.