Edward Elgar remained a child -- in the best possible sense of the word -- throughout his life. As a result, he was well-suited to compose music that speaks directly and honestly to youngsters. This resulted in scores such as the two Wand of Youth suites, directed less for the amusement and instruction of children than for adults who, like Elgar, feel the need to revisit the bittersweet memories of their own childhood from time to time. Then there are those works for "children of all ages," as Elgar wrote, such as the incidental music for the play Starlight Express (not to be confused with the late twentieth-century Broadway production by the same name). 1915 was an unfortunate year for Elgar's country, and the fanciful Starlight Express was intended as a source of comfort for the exhausted country, and especially for the poor unfortunate children for whom Elgar felt so strongly.
A Prisoner in Fairyland is the title of the original Blackwood novel from which Starlight Express was drawn. In addition to composing a musical underscore for the mock-dramatic dialogue, Elgar is responsible for several songs and more substantial instrumental numbers that capture and augment the magical atmosphere of the play. The story is a simple one: the Campden family children, disappointed in their unsympathetic, "wumbled" parents, form their own secret club of children who believe that they can explore the heavens on their Starlight Express, and gather magical stardust as they sleep; incorporeal but friendly Sprites join them in their pursuit of understanding and sympathy. One can imagine that creating an effective stage-drama from such a novel would indeed be a troublesome task, and, in all honesty, we cannot claim the effort to be wholly successful. But the touching subtlety of Elgar's music and the suave charm of the songs (which, like the Grimm tales or Rocky and Bullwinkle, work on different levels depending on the age of the listener) have, for many listeners, allowed the score to transcend whatever limitations the play itself might have.
An Organ-Grinder, one of the Sprites, speaks directly to the audience and introduces each act. During the very first Organ-Grinder song Elgar works in a quotation from the "Little Bells" portion of his own Wand of Youth; this little theme will serve as connecting tissue between the various portions of the play. A gentle clarinet melody rises along with the curtain, and cowbells are heard softly in the distance as the act draws to a close.
Elgar reworks a little waltz he had already composed into the Organ-Grinder song at the beginning of the Act II. As the act progresses and the children strive to "un-wumblize" the adults with the magic dust, Elgar writes a charming little two-minute number to mark the passage of time between the children falling asleep and the beginning of their dream-travels. The composer also brings back several more tunes from the two Wand of Youth suites, showing how strong the connection between these two works really is.
As the third act commences, we return once more to the family's home in Switzerland; a tender rendition of The First Nowell, during which the magic stars all focus on a single point, draws the play to a close.