Elgar's Nursery Suite (1930) represents the composer's last trip to the tune quarry of his youth in search of musical inspiration. As was always the case in such instances, Elgar makes clever use of such "borrowings," here forging his musical materials into a delightful set of children's pieces. Elgar, who after a fallow decade had resumed his previous level of activity, asked (and received) permission to dedicate the suite to the Duchess of York (the future Queen Mother), Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen), and Princess Margaret. The premiere of the work was actually a May 1931 recording session at which the Duke and Duchess of York were present.
In approaching the world of the young, some artists, like Peter Pan scribe J.M. Barrie, tend to look back longingly from an adult vantage point. Others, like Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne, are able to plunge right into the child's world and assimilate with delight. Elgar straddles both of these approaches, always possessed of a sense of what is whimsical, even cheeky; at the same time, a sense of tender, wistful nostalgia is never far away.
The Nursery Suite is the music of a grandparent, aunt, or uncle among children, on the floor or at the playground. The first of the seven movements, "Aubade," recalls memories of serene awakening in the composer's most characteristic pastoral idiom. The following "Serious Doll," surely one for looking at but not playing with, is dominated by an active yet fragile flute solo. The frenetic "Busy-ness" (an example of Elgar's beloved wordplay) will strike a chord with anyone who has had charge of a two-year-old. A glum waltz entrusted to solo violin characterizes "The Sad Doll," but the merriment of the outdoors returns with "The Wagon Passes," in which the approach, passing, and vanishing of a horse-drawn cart is depicted through the movement's dynamic curve. The happy mood continues with "The Merry Doll," in which the instruments' higher registers evoke unbridled young laughter. The final movement, "Dreams-envoy," begins with a resigned winding-down, followed by a transitional violin cadenza, which in turns leads to flashes of previous themes, much as the day's thoughts swirl about in the twilight area before slumber and in dreaming. The last music heard is the "Aubade," signaling the start of a new day.