Conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky, the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest performs Edward Elgar‘s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, popularly known as the Enigma Variations. This performance was recorded on February 26, 2023.

Conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky, the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest performs Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, popularly known as the Enigma Variations. This performance was recorded on February 26, 2023.

Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, the “Enigma Variations”

Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” is a set of 14 variations on an original theme, each dedicated to his friends. The work is noted for its emotional depth and musical characterization. The “Enigma” refers not only to the hidden theme that Elgar claimed is present throughout the variations but also to the personal “enigmas” or characteristics of his friends depicted in each variation.

Those portrayed include Elgar’s wife Alice, his friend and publisher Augustus J. Jaeger, and Elgar himself. In a program note for a performance in 1911, Elgar wrote:

“This work, which commenced in a spirit of humor & continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a ‘piece of music’ apart from any extraneous consideration.”

After its 1899 London premiere, the Variations achieved immediate popularity and established Elgar’s international reputation.

Elgar described how he sat down at the piano on the evening of 21 October 1898 after a tiring day’s teaching. A melody he played caught the attention of his wife and he began to improvise variations on it in styles that reflected the character of some of his friends. These improvisations, expanded and orchestrated, became the Enigma Variations. Elgar considered including variations portraying Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, but was unable to assimilate their musical styles without pastiche and dropped the idea.

The piece was finished on 18 February 1899 and published by Novello & Co. It was first performed at St James’s Hall in London on 19 June 1899, conducted by Hans Richter. Critics were at first irritated by the layer of mystification, but most praised the substance, structure, and orchestration of the work. Elgar later revised the final variation, adding 96 new bars and an organ part. The new version (which is usually played today) was first heard at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival on 13 September 1899, with Elgar conducting.

The European premiere was performed in Düsseldorf, Germany on 7 February 1901, under Julius Buths (who also conducted the European premiere of The Dream of Gerontius in December 1901). The work quickly achieved many international performances, from Saint Petersburg, where it delighted Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1904, to New York, where Gustav Mahler conducted it in 1910.

Structure

The theme is followed by 14 variations. The variations spring from the theme’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements, and the extended fourteenth variation forms a grand finale.

Elgar dedicated the piece to “my friends pictured within” and in the score, each variation is prefaced with the initials, name, or nickname of the friend depicted. As was common with painted portraits of the time, Elgar’s musical portraits depict their subjects at two levels. Each movement conveys a general impression of its subject’s personality. In addition, many of them contain a musical reference to a specific characteristic or event, such as a laugh, a habit of speech, or a memorable conversation. The sections of the work are as follows (with the start times in the video above).

0. Theme (Enigma: Andante) [00:00]

The unusual melodic contours of the G minor opening theme convey a sense of searching introspection. A switch to the major key introduces a flowing motif that briefly lightens the mood before the first theme returns, now accompanied by a sustained bass line and emotionally charged counterpoints.

In a program note for a 1912 performance of his setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s ode The Music Makers, Elgar wrote of this theme (which he quoted in the later work), “it expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of the loneliness of the artist as described in the first six lines of the Ode, and to me, it still embodies that sense.”

Elgar’s personal identification with the theme is evidenced by his use of its opening phrase (which matches the rhythm and inflection of his name) as a signature in letters to friends.

The theme leads into Variation I without a pause.

Variation I (L’istesso tempo) “C.A.E.” [01:27]

Caroline Alice Elgar (9 October 1848 – 7 April 1920), Elgar’s wife. The variation repeats a four-note melodic fragment which Elgar reportedly whistled when arriving home to his wife. After Alice’s death, Elgar wrote, “The variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who knew C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration.”

(In these notes Elgar’s words are quoted from his posthumous publication My Friends Pictured Within which draws on the notes he provided for the Aeolian Company’s 1929 pianola rolls edition of the Variations.)

Variation II (Allegro) “H.D.S-P.” [03:16]

Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist with whom Elgar, a violinist, played chamber music. Elgar wrote, “Hew David Steuart-Powell was a well-known amateur pianist and a great player of chamber music. He was associated with B.G.N. (cello) and the composer (violin) for many years in this playing. His characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play is here humorously travestied in the semiquaver passages; these should suggest a Toccata, but chromatic beyond H.D.S-P.’s liking.”

Variation III (Allegretto) “R.B.T.” [04:03]

Richard Baxter Townshend, Oxford don and author of the Tenderfoot series of books; brother-in-law of the W.M.B. depicted in Variation IV. This variation references R.B.T’s presentation of an old man in some amateur theatricals ‒ the low voice flying off occasionally into “soprano” timbre.

Variation IV (Allegro di molto) “W.M.B.” [05:30]

William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire, and benefactor of several public buildings in Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent, brother-in-law of R.B.T. depicted in Variation III, and (step) uncle of Dora Penny in Variation X. He “expressed himself somewhat energetically”. This is the shortest of the variations.

Variation V (Moderato) “R.P.A.” [06:04]

Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and an amateur pianist. This variation leads into the next without pause.

Variation VI (Andantino) “Ysobel” [08:07]

Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. Elgar explained, “It may be noticed that the opening bar, a phrase made use of throughout the variation, is an ‘exercise’ for crossing the strings – a difficulty for beginners; on this is built a pensive and, for a moment, romantic movement.”

Variation VII (Presto) “Troyte” [09:22]

Arthur Troyte Griffith, a Malvern architect and one of Elgar’s firmest friends. The variation, with a time signature of 1/11, good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano. It may also refer to an occasion when Griffith and Elgar were out walking and got caught in a thunderstorm. The pair took refuge in the house of Winifred and Florence Norbury (Sherridge, Leigh Sinton, near Malvern), to which the next variation refers.

Variation VIII (Allegretto) “W.N.” [10:27]

Winifred Norbury, one of the secretaries of the Worcester Philharmonic Society. “Really suggested by an eighteenth-century house. The gracious personalities of the ladies are sedately shown. W.N. was more connected with the music than others of the family, and her initials head the movement; to justify this position a little suggestion of a characteristic laugh is given.”

This variation is linked to the next by a single note held by the first violins.

Variation IX (Adagio) “Nimrod” [12:18]

The name of the variation refers to Augustus J. Jaeger, who was employed as a music editor by the London publisher Novello & Co. He was a close friend of Elgar’s, giving him useful advice but also severe criticism, something Elgar greatly appreciated. Elgar later related how Jaeger had encouraged him as an artist and had stimulated him to continue composing despite setbacks. Nimrod is described in the Old Testament as “a mighty hunter before the Lord”, Jäger (which can also be spelled Jaeger) being German for hunter.

In 1904 Elgar told Dora Penny (“Dorabella”) that this variation is not really a portrait, but “the story of something that happened”. Once, when Elgar had been very depressed and was about to give it all up and write no more music, Jaeger visited him and encouraged him to continue composing.

He referred to Ludwig van Beethoven, who had a lot of worries, but wrote more and more beautiful music. “And that is what you must do”, Jaeger said, and he sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 Pathétique. Elgar disclosed to Dora that the opening bars of “Nimrod” were made to suggest that theme. “Can’t you hear it at the beginning? Only a hint, not a quotation.”

This variation has become popular in its own right and is sometimes used at British funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions. It is always played at the Cenotaph, Whitehall in London at the National Service of Remembrance.

A version was also played during the Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997, at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and during the 2022 BBC Proms after the season was cut short due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The “Nimrod” variation was the final orchestral composition (before the national anthem) played by the Greek National Orchestra in a televised June 2013 concert, before the 75-year-old Athenian ensemble was dissolved in the wake of severe government cutbacks to televised programming.

An adaptation of the piece appears at the end of the 2017 film Dunkirk in the score by Hans Zimmer.

Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) “Dorabella” [16:37]

Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter is gently parodied by the woodwinds. Dora, later Mrs. Richard Powell, was the daughter of the Revd (later Canon) Alfred Penny. Her stepmother was the sister of William Meath Baker, the subject of Variation IV. She was the recipient of another of Elgar’s enigmas, the so-called Dorabella Cipher. She described the “Friends Pictured Within” and “The Enigma” in two chapters of her book Edward Elgar, Memories of a Variation. This variation features a melody for solo viola.

Variation XI (Allegro di molto) “G.R.S.” [19:29]

George Robertson Sinclair (28 October 1863 – 7 February 1917), the energetic organist of Hereford Cathedral. In the words of Elgar: “The variation, however, has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals, or, except remotely, with G.R.S. The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog, Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank into the River Wye (bar 1); his paddling upstream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3); and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5). G.R.S. said, ‘Set that to music’. I did; here it is.”
Variation XII (Andante) “B.G.N.”

Basil George Nevinson was an accomplished amateur cellist who played chamber music with Elgar. The variation is introduced and concluded by a solo cello. This variation leads into the next without pause.

Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) ” * * * ” [23:11]

Possibly, Lady Mary Lygon of Madresfield Court near Malvern, a sponsor of a local music festival. “The asterisks take the place of the name of a lady[c] who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage. 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.”

If it is Lady Mary, Elgar may have withheld her initials because of superstition surrounding the number 13, or he may have felt uneasy about publicly associating the name of a prominent local figure with music that had taken on a powerful emotional intensity. There is credible evidence to support the view that the variation’s atmosphere of brooding melancholy and its subtitle “Romanza” are tokens of a covert tribute to another woman, the name most frequently mentioned in this connection being that of Helen Weaver, who had broken off her engagement to Elgar in 1884 before sailing out of his life forever aboard a ship bound for New Zealand.

Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) “E.D.U.” [25:51]

Elgar himself, nicknamed Edu by his wife, from the German Eduard. The themes from two variations are echoed: “Nimrod” and “C.A.E.”, referring to Jaeger and Elgar’s wife Alice, “two great influences on the life and art of the composer”, as Elgar wrote in 1927. Elgar called these references “entirely fitting to the intention of the piece”.

The original version of this variation is nearly 100 bars shorter than the one now usually played. In July 1899, one month after the original version was finished Jaeger urged Elgar to make the variation a little longer. After some cajoling Elgar agreed, and also added an organ part. The new version was played for the first time at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival, with Elgar himself conducting, on 13 September 1899.

Final inscription

At the end of the full score he inscribed the words “Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio”. This is a quote from Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Book II, Stanza 16 (1595), albeit slightly altered from third to first person. It means: “I long for much, I hope for little, I ask nothing”. Like Elgar’s own name, this sentence too can be fitted easily into the Enigma theme.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

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