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At the start of his 'Enigma' Variations, Elgar introduces a theme that serves as the basis of a series of character portraits, culminating in a triumphant musical depiction of the composer."

Ken Meltzer

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36, “Enigma”

29 minutes

Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, triangle, organ (optional), and strings.

In the “Enigma” Variations, Edward Elgar introduces a theme that serves as the basis for a series of variations, each a musical depiction of a person in the composer’s life.  As Elgar commented: “This work, commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends.  It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect upon the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called.”

Andante—In the seventeen-bar introduction, the strings, followed by the winds, present the various elements of the haunting principal theme.

  1. (C.A.E.) L’istesso tempo—The composer’s loving tribute to his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar. The oboes and bassoons play a four-note motif Elgar always whistled upon returning home.
  2. (H.D.S-P.) Allegro—H. D. Steuart-Powell was an amateur pianist who, according to Elgar, would begin each session with “a characteristic diatonic run over the keys.”

III. (R.B.T.) Allegretto—Richard Baxter Townshend was an author and amateur actor who regaled audiences with his ability to instantly shift his vocal range from the deepest basso profondo to the highest soprano.

  1. (W.M.B.) Allegro di molto—The shortest of the Variations depicts William Meath Baker, lord of Hatsfield Court and R.B.T.’s brother-in-law, informing his guests of arrangements he made for their transportation and then quickly leaving the room, “with a bang on the door.”
  2. (R.P.A.) Moderato—Richard Penrose Arnold was the son of poet Matthew Arnold. Elgar delighted in the fact that Arnold’s “serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.”
  3. (Ysobel) Andantino—Isabel Fitton studied viola with Elgar. That instrument is prominently featured in this variation.

VII. (Troyte) Presto—Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and amateur painter.  It seems that this stormy variation, with its thundering timpani, represents only one aspect of his character.

VIII. (W.N.) Allegretto—Winifred Norbury served with Elgar as joint secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society.  Elgar claimed that this genial variation was a portrait of Winifred’s country home, but the playful wind interjections offer “a little suggestion of a characteristic laugh.”

  1. (Nimrod) Adagio—“Nimrod” is Elgar’s depiction of his friend, August Jaeger (“jaeger” in German means “hunter,” thus the reference to Nimrod, the biblical hunter). This glorious Adagio is the composer’s fond recollection of “a long summer evening talk, when my friend grew nobly eloquent (as only he could) on the grandeur of Beethoven, and especially his slow movements.”
  2. (Dorabella) Intermezzo. Allegretto—Dora Penny was W.M.B.’s step-niece whom Elgar nicknamed “Dorabella,” after a character in Mozart’s opera, Così fan tutte. Both Dora Penny’s love of dance and her slight stammer are depicted in this fetching Intermezzo.
  3. (G.R.S.) Allegro di molto—George Robertson Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral. According to Elgar, this section is a portrait not of Sinclair. Rather, the music depicts Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan, falling into the river, vigorously swimming to shore and finally landing with a “rejoicing bark.”

XII. (B.G.N.) Andante—Basil Nevinson was an amateur cellist who often played chamber music with Elgar.  The Variation begins and ends with a plaintive cello solo.

XIII. (***) Romanza. Moderato—The penultimate Variation is inspired by Lady Mary Lygon.  During composition of the “Enigma” Variations, Elgar learned his friend would soon embark upon a voyage to Australia.  Over undulating strings, a solo clarinet plays a descending phrase—a quote from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture.

XIV. (E.D.U.) Finale. Allegro—The Finale is the composer’s self-portrait (“E.D.U.” is derived from “Edoo,” Lady Elgar’s nickname for her husband).  Elgar recalled he created this section “at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging about the composer’s musical future.”  However, there is no lack of self-confidence in the heroic Finale.  Echoes of previous variations return—notably “C.A.E.” and “Nimrod”—leading to the grand final measures.

Notes by Ken Meltzer © 2020