Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Elgar's Music for a "Lunatic" Asylum

From SOMM ecordings, who specialize in the more interesting byways of British music, a new recording of Edward Elgar's Music for Powick Asylum.

Elgar was 21 in January 1897, struggling to develop a career. He was offered a part-time job at the Worcester County and City Lunatic Asylum, in then treminiology of the time, where his duties as Bandmaster were to conduct an ensemble of staff.  Psychiatric practice was relatively primitive, therapies  designed to contain and restrain, rather than heal. Perhaps music soothed the inmates and gave them a glimpse of better things. Powick was a warren of maze-like buildings, a factory for the sick and outcast.  Victorian asylums were authoritarian places, where doctors and benefactors were on a different social level to  their patients. Perhaps it was assumed that patients could be "improved"  by finer things like music and parklands.

Elgar's Music for Powick is interesting because he was writing for the specific needs of the Asylum Band, who weren't professional  musicians but staff members with different abilities. These made up a rather eccentric orchestra of piccolo, flute, clarinet, two cornets, euphonium and bombardon, up to eight violins, occasional viola, cello and double bass with piano, a maximum of 19 players.

Over  six years, Elgar composed four sets of Quadrilles, a set of Lancers and five polkas for the Asylum band. Also included on the new SOMM CD are several first recordings. The Minuetto in G, which Elgar wrote as an audition piece through which he obtained the job, and thus connected to the Powick group. There's also a Singing Quadrille where Elgar mainly uses well-known nursery rhymes. The work remains only in sketch score but the performance version was specially prepared for SOMM by Andrew Lyle who edited all the music for Powick, for the Elgar Complete Edition.

Three other short works included here are the Fugue in D minor for oboe and violin, written for his oboe-playing brother Frank and a friend. Duett, another miniature fugue, was a wedding present for a friend who played the double bass and Elgar himself most probably played the trombone part.  The  Andante & Allegro for Oboe & String Trio was composed when Elgar was still in his teens. The disc concludes with the last of the pieces in the Powick music, the wistful, poignant polka Blumine, written in May 1884, one month after Elgar's engagement to Helen Weaver had been broken off.
For more details, please see the SOMM website

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