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In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (before the advent of film) it was not unusual for theatrical productions to be accompanied by elaborate musical scores. Although it accounts for only a small part of Elgar's output, his contribution to the tradition was nevertheless creatively significant. Any study of Elgar's theatre music should focus principally on The Starlight Express, his finest theatre piece, and by far the longest. He said it was the kind of piece he had waited a generation to set. But it must more generally be a study of his musical concerns c.1914–18, the period in which he wrote six of the ten theatre pieces, and the end of his modernist period of composition from In the South to Falstaff. Yet one cannot account for it all along those lines.
Initially, Elgar hoped his theatre music would provide a captive audience on which to try ideas for more serious works, as well as to raise money. His first commission (in 1901) was for incidental music for the play Diarmuid and Grania, a collaboration between George Moore and W. B. Yeats. (Elgar modernised the title to Grania and Diarmid). After the play's run, Moore pestered Elgar with grander projects: ‘The sooner you begin writing the [Grania] opera the better[:] the subject evidently suits you.’ But Elgar did not bite, nor did he care whether the play was revived.
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