Elgar’s Enigma Variations is one of the greatest pieces of the 19th century – and today (October 21st 2023) we celebrate the 125th anniversary of its conception.
Elgar was 42 years of age, when on 21 October 1898, he returned to his wife and their home in Malvern after a long day teaching (which he described as “like turning a grinding-stone with a dislocated shoulder”). His cantata Caractacus had just been premiered to great acclaim at the Leeds Festival, but he was feeling a little deflated on this particular evening. He finished dinner, lit a cigar and sat down at the piano to doodle. Elgar later recalled what happened next.
“In a little while, soothed and feeling rested, I began to play, and suddenly my wife interrupted by saying: ‘Edward, that’s a good tune.’ I awoke from the dream. ‘Eh! Tune, what tune!’ And she said, ‘Play it again, I like that tune.’ I played and strummed, and played, then she exclaimed: ‘That’s the tune.’ The voice of [my wife] asked with a sound of approval, ‘What is that?’ I answered, ‘Nothing – but something might be made of it.’”Were it not for Alice Elgar’s interruption, we might never have had one of the greatest of all English orchestral works. Elgar called the tune, which he had not recognised as anything worthwhile, “Enigma”, not in the sense of a riddle to be solved, but, he said, a “dark saying [that] must be left unguessed”, expressing the “nothingness” from which it came. Elgar later said that through this music ‘another and larger theme “goes” but is not played.’ It was widely assumed that this hidden ‘theme’ must be a deliberately concealed melody. And so began the “mystery.”
In fact, the theme, which dips between G minor and G major, is loosely derived from two figures in the slow movement of Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony, which Elgar had recently heard in Leeds.
Simply for fun, Elgar began toying with the tune, adapting it to make musical caricatures of some of his friends. He’d try the different treatments on Alice, asking her to guess the subject, and within no time, the serious idea of a set of orchestral variations had taken shape.
The Variations were scored between 5 and 19 February 1899, dedicated “...to my friends pictured within” and given the title ‘Variations on an original theme, Op.36’ – no mention of “Enigma”, though the word appears in pencil on Elgar’s autograph score.
Dr. Percy Young was allowed access to the whole of the Elgar papers and assisted in many particulars by the composer’s daughter, Carice Irene, draws a fascinating and detailed portrait of ‘Variations on an original theme, Op.36.’ Dr. Young wrote in his 1955 book ‘ELGAR O.M. A Study of a Musician’ that Elgar considered the Variations with lasting pride, but insisted that “they ought to be considered as absolute music and that any personal allusionsonly concerned his subjects and himself.” Dr.Young continues ‘…it is commonly suppose that the “enigma”concerns a theme to which the variations are based was a counter-subject. Elgar himself suggested that this was the case, even going so far as to say that “it (the counter-subject) was so well known that it was strange no-one had discovered it.”
‘Fast-forward’ twenty-seven years and we read, in a Sunday Times article dated 21st February 1982, the American musicologist Dr. Jerrold Northrop Moore suggests that “one of the great mysteries of English music…has been solved.” That, at least, is his claim! This writer is not sure…
With regard to the subjects of the Enigma Variations, Elgar described these as “My Friends Pictured Within.”
The work opens with the theme, mentioned above, and there is no break between the theme and the first variation, C.A.E., the composer’s wife. This variation is really an extension of the theme.
The second variation, H.D.S.-P., is in respect to Hew David Stuart-Powell, a well-known amateur pianist and played in chamber ensembles with the composer.
R.B.T., Richard Baxter Townshend, is variation number three. This variation portrays Townshend as an old man in some amateur theatricals. The oboe gives a rather vague version of the theme, and the bassoons suggest the “grumpy old man!”
Variations four depicts a country squire, W. M. Baker (W.M.B.), a gentleman and a scholar.
Variation five, R.P.A., in recognition of Richard P. Arnold, the son of Matthew Arnold. A self-taught pianist and a great lover of music. The theme is given by the basses.
YSOBEL, Isabel Fitton, is here depicted in variation six. A Malvern lady and amateur viola player who had studied viola with the composer. Malvern is located in the home county of Elgar, Worcestershire. In the opening bar, Elgar writes a phrase that he made use of throughout the variation that is an ‘exercise’ that Elgar had devised for her to develop the technique for crossing the strings, a difficulty for beginners; and a testimony that Elgar featured his friends, not virtuosos, and some basic ideas in the writing of ‘Enigma.’ Of course, the resulting orchestration is truly a work of art.
TROYTE, variation seven, where the boisterous mood reflects some ineffective essays on pianoforte playing is suggested through the clumsy rhythm of the percussion and lower strings. The later stronger rhythmic style encourages the orchestration to make something out of the earlier ‘chaos’, and the final despairing “slam” is the composers’ attempt to say “enough!”
Variation eight depicts an eighteenth-century house. Gracious and elegant are the occupants and, here. the composer recognises that Winifred Norbury (W.N., her initials head this variation) was more connected with music than others.
NIMROD, the ninth variation, portrays the character and temperament of A. J. Jaeger. In his programme notes written for the Jaeger memorial Concert on 24th January, 1910, Elgar wrote “…the variation bearing this name is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred…” Jaeger was for many years a dear friend and valued adviser to Elgar. The opening of this variation suggest to slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata number eight, his Pathétique.
The tenth variation, DORABELLA, is an Intermezzo and suggests a dance-like lightness. The pseudonym is a nod to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutti.”
Variation eleven, G.R.S. is dedicated to Dr. George Robertson Sinclair, past organist of Hereford Cathedral. This variation, however, has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals. The opening bar illustrate, through the composer’s unique creativity, Dr. Sinclair’s great bulldog Dan falling down the steep bank into the River Wye; Dan paddling upstream to find a landing place (bars two and three); and his rejoicing bark on finally landing (second half of bar five.) Dr. Sinclair said “set that to music.” Elgar did!
Basil G. Nevinson (B.G.N.) was an amateur cellist of distinction and was involved with the composer and the subject of variation two (H.D.S.-P.) in the performance of many trios. Basil Nevinson was also a very dear, serious and devoted friend of the composer.
Variation thirteen, * * * was supposedly a dedication to Lady Mary Lygon, the asterisks taking the place of the name of this lady who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage. This variation was headed Romanza. The drums suggest the distant throb of the engines of a liner, over which the clarinet quotes a phrase from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.” However, in his book ‘The Life of Elgar’, Michael Kennedy offers the idea that the asterisks are a disguise for Helen Weaver, who Elgar was supposedly engaged to but decided to break her relationship with the composer to move abroad.
E.D.U, the Finale, is a bold and vigourous movement in a general style. This variation waas written at a time when friends of the composer were dubious and generally discouraging as to Elgar’s musical future, so reflects what the composer intended to do. References, in this variation, made to variance I and IX, two great influenced on the life and art of the composer, are entirely fitting to the overall intention of the piece. It was not until 13th September 1899 in Worcester, (nearly three months after the works’ first performance) however, that the Variations were heard in their final form after Elgar had added a further 100 bars to the end of “E.D.U.” to make a more powerful conclusion.
The first performance was conducted in London by Hans Richter, and took place on 19th June 1899.
(The text particular to each variation is, in part, based upon the Novello publication “My Friends Pictured Within.”