Enigma Variations, op. 36
2 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
notes by James Keays
Theme (Enigma: Andante)
Variation I (L'istesso tempo) C.A.E.
Variation II (Allegro) H.D.S-P.
Variation III (Allegretto) R.B.T.
Variation IV (Allegro di molto) W.M.B.
Variation V (Moderato) R.P.A.
Variation VI (Andantino) Ysobel
Variation VII (Presto) Troyte
Variation VIII (Allegretto) W.N.
Variation IX (Adagio) Nimrod
Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) Dorabella
Variation XI (Allegro di molto) G.R.S.
Variation XII (Andante) B.G.N.
Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) * * *
Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro Presto) E.D.U.
Composed: 1898-1899. First performance: June 19, 1899, London. Hans Richter, conductor.
The English, a nation of people who love to make music, have turned out very few major composers. In searching back through the history of music, only John Dunstable in the 15th century appears to have had a significant influence on the development of Western music. In the late 17th century, Henry Purcell’s works stand out, but at a time when there were few great composers. It is not that the English composers were incompetent, but rather that they preferred to compose using derivative styles instead of inventing their own. In the case of Sir Edward Elgar, there is no argument that he freely borrowed from the styles of Wagner and Brahms. He did, however, possess a high degree of originality that resulted in works making use of the sounds of others but in no way directly imitating them. The genius of Elgar exists in the extraordinary way he was able to adapt form and melody to fit his own personal needs. This was amply demonstrated in his first successful work (and the first great English orchestral work ever written), the Enigma Variations.
The work dates from 1899. Elgar himself described its genesis as follows: “One evening after a long and tiresome day’s teaching, aided by a cigar, I musingly played on the piano the theme as it now stands. [Lady Elgar] asked with a sound of approval, ‘What was that?’ I answered ‘Nothing—but something might be made of it; Powell would have done this (Var. 2) or Nevinson would have looked at it like this (Var. 12),’ Variation 4 was then played and the question asked, ‘Who is that like?’ The answer was, ‘I cannot quite say, but it is exactly the way W.M.B. goes out of the room. You are doing something which I think has never been done before.’ Thus the work grew into the shape it has now.” The “enigma” refers to the fact that Elgar once stated that the theme was actually part of a larger theme that he would keep secret. It has remained so to this day, despite many speculations and arguments.
Each variation is a brief musical portrait of a close friend of the Elgars or of the Elgars themselves. Their identities were not divulged until after the composer’s death. They are as follows:
Enigma: the plaintive theme (or part thereof).
I. C.A.E.: a lyric and eloquent portrait of Lady Elgar
II. H.D.S.P.: Hew David Steuart-Powell, an amateur pianist and chamber music performer who had the habit of practicing rapid arpeggios on the keyboard before beginning to play.
III. R.B.T.: Richard Baxter Townshend, an amateur actor who, for comic affect, could instantly switch his voice from falsetto to low bass and back.
IV. W.M.B.: William M. Baker, a country squire who liked to bluster and slam doors whenever he left a room.
V. R.P.A.: Richard P. Arnold, an amateur pianist who was able to gracefully work his way around technical difficulties. His often serious conversations were frequently interrupted by whimsical remarks.
VI. Ysobel: Isabel Fitton, an amateur viola player of pensive moods. The reccurring theme in the violas in an “exercise” in crossing strings—difficult for beginners.
VII. Troyte: Arthur Troyte Griffith, another blustery friend who tries his hand at the piano and is “corrected” by the composer. The session ends with the piano lid being slammed down.
VIII. W.N.: Winifred Norbury, a gracious elderly lady who is visiting with her equally patrician friends.
IX. Nimrod: August Jaeger, a devoted friend. Elgar called this variation a memory of “a long summer evening talk, when my friend grew nobly eloquent (as only he could) on the grandeur of Beethoven, and especially of his slow movements.”
X. Dorabella: The Elgars’ affectionate nickname for Dora Penny, whose speech was afflicted with a slight stutter.
XI. G.R.S.: Dr. George Robinson Sinclair, the organist at Hereford Cathedral—or rather a portrait of his bulldog “Dan.”
XII. B.G.N.: Basil G. Nevinson, another devoted friend and amateur ‘cello player who often played chamber music with Elgar and Hew David Steuart-Powell.
XIII. * * *: The asterisks hold a place for the name Lady Mary Lygon, who was on an ocean liner bound for Australia at the time of composition. A roll on the timpani with snare drum sticks imitates the quiet purr of the ship’s engines while the clarinet quotes Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
XIV. E.D.U.: The composer himself. (Edu was Lady Elgar’s pet name for Sir Edward.) References to earlier variations seem to portray the composer’s struggles and eventual triumph.