Sir Edward Elgar's early performing experience was in chamber ensembles, where he often arranged music to fit the instrumentation of small ensembles. He had made several compositional excursions into smaller forms, but these were inevitably overwhelmed by the demands for larger works. It may have been the newly found happiness that the composer felt in Brinkwells, the country cottage in Sussex to which he and his family had moved; it seemed as though the sixty-one year old composer had found and reinvented himself in the serenity of his new surroundings. The Piano Quintet, along with the Violin Sonata and String Quartet, was composed in 1918 and premiered on May 21, 1919. The ensemble included Elgar's friend and biographer, violinist W. H. Reed. The work is in three movements.
I: Moderato - Allegro. Even with smaller forces, there is often largeness by implication in Elgar's work. The richness of the sonorities border on orchestral, at times seeming to suggest a full spectrum of instrumentation. As in many of Elgar's works, the mysterious opening conveys the impression of something already in progress. The strings offer repeated rhythmic fragments against a passacaglia-like piano thread. The allegro proper suddenly bursts forth, highly rhythmic and almost martial. This subsides and the second subject emerges, which is reminiscent of much salon music of the time. A recollection of the opening figure leads to the haunting third subject, a sonorous theme with Slavic overtones. The allegro returns as the development commences; the dialog between the piano and the strings is by turns combative, then unified. This animated and vigorous working-out subsides against pizzicato strings, and a "Spanish" theme emerges, at first animated, then in a more relaxed tempo. This segues to the expressive third theme which eventually receives a ghostly visit from the opening motive. Previous material is alluded to but it is the nebulous opening which has the last word as the movement fades to an end.
II: Adagio. The image of Elgar as the lover of the grand gesture is contrasted with the view that he was most eloquent in his slow movements. This glorious one is no exception, as it seems to inhabit a rarified realm different from even the corresponding movements of his symphonies and concertos. A profound serenity, faintly tinged with wistfulness, pervades the glowing movement. The main theme is unmatched, even by Elgar, and provides the basis of a song-form much like Beethoven's movements in that idiom. After this long, heartfelt theme, there is, rather than a second subject, a collection of shorter, more restless motives. This section reaches a high point of tension, then slows to a relaxed tempo of the main theme; then suddenly becomes more impassioned, leading to an agitated motive which subsides for another return of the beautiful main theme against a gentle accompaniment. Then there are suggestions of themes from the first movement intermingling with the main theme, as this most sensitive, soulful movement comes to an end.
III: Moderato-Allegro. The finale opens with a quote from the opening moderato. The Allegro proper commences with a strong and dignified theme, typically Elgarian in nature. The second theme is no less characteristic in its nervous animation; Elgar was as adept at creating passages of almost manic activity as he was at ceremonial stride. This leads to a review of many of the work's themes, some quoted, some alluded to in ghostly fashion, all leading to a fabric of brilliance and optimism. The second subject makes a more dignified appearance and the allegro ends the work on a dignified note.