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Elgar, Enigma and Emanuel Ax
Enigma Variations, Opus 36
(Variations on an Original Theme)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
At a Glance
Elgar composed his Variations on an Original Theme in 1898-99. The work was first performed on June 19, 1899, at St. James’s Hall in London under the direction of Hans Richter. Elgar subsequently revised the orchestration and added a coda; he led the first performance of this version in September 1899 in Worcester. The score, published later that year, is dedicated “to my friends pictured within.” The word “Enigma” appears over the theme in the original manuscript. The Enigma Variations were introduced to the United States in 1902 by Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The Enigma Variations run about 30 minutes in performance. Elgar scored the piece for 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle), organ (optional), and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed the Enigma Variations in January 1934, under the direction of Artur Rodzinski. The most recent performances by the Orchestra were at Severance Hall in February 2014 and at Blossom in July 2015.
About the Music
Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme is the work that — almost overnight — made the 42-year-old into a famous composer. He had, in fact, had some success the year before with his cantata Caractacus, performed at the Leeds Festival. But Elgar did not conquer the musical life of London until one of the great conductors of the time, Hans Richter, presented what later became known as the Enigma Variations at St. James’s Hall on June 19, 1899.
At the premiere, the work was greeted as the greatest composition for large orchestra ever written by an Englishman. And, for more than a century now, audiences have delighted in what Elgar had written. They have been equally intrigued by what he withheld, namely that the work had a secret that he refused to divulge beyond some carefully worded “enigmatic” clues.
The story of the Enigma Variations began one night late in 1898 when Elgar was improvising at the piano at home in Worcestershire. His wife, Alice, was struck by a particular melody and asked her husband what it was. Elgar replied: “Nothing — but something could be made of it.” As he continued to develop his short theme, Elgar started to toy with the idea of how it could be made to reflect the personalities of some of his friends. Out of this private little game grew what is arguably Elgar’s greatest masterpiece.
On October 24, 1898, Elgar announced his new work in a letter to his close friend August Jaeger (who is depicted as “Nimrod” in Variation 9): “Since I’ve been back I have sketched a set of Variations (orkestry) on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled ’em with the nicknames of my particular friends — you are Nimrod. That is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ — I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the var; him (or her)self & have written what I think they wd. have written — if they were asses enough to compose — it’s a quaint idee & the result is amusing to those behind the scenes & won’t affect the hearer who ‘nose nuffin’: What think you?”
With one exception, each of the fourteen variations that follow the theme is preceded by a heading that specifies the person behind the music. Although Elgar only wrote out monograms for each in the score, he quickly enough admitted who was who — and at various times openly commented about each person’s musical portrait. The names of all but one of the movements had been identified publicly soon after the premiere.
At the premiere performance, the “anonymous” exception (Variation 13, or XIII) helped to reinforce the “enigmatic” nature of the overall work. Even more mysterious, however, were the implications of a statement Elgar made at the time of the premiere: “The Enigma itself I will not explain — its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played. . . . So the principal Theme never appears.”
Before considering possible answers to the Enigma itself, let’s walk through the theme and variations themselves — and to Elgar’s “friends pictured within.” All the quoted words that follow here are by Elgar himself (unless indicated otherwise):
The Theme (Andante, G minor, 4/4) consists of two ideas: an expressive string melody that is constantly interrupted by rests on the downbeat (and that fits the words “Edward Elgar” surprisingly well), and a second melody that is more continuous, and is built of parallel thirds played by strings and woodwinds.
Variation 1. “C.A.E.” (L’istesso tempo [“the same tempo”] G minor, 4/4) is a portrait of Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. “The variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who know C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration.” The little motif played by oboes and bassoons that acts as a counterpoint of sorts to the main theme was the signal Elgar used to whistle to let Alice know that he was home.
Variation 2. “H.D.S-P.” (Allegro, G minor, 3/8). Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist and Elgar’s chamber music partner. “His characteristic diatonic run over the keys . . . is here humorously travestied in the semiquaver [sixteenth-note] passages; these should suggest a Toccata, but chromatic beyond H.D.S-P.’s liking.” The violins and woodwind instruments play the humorous sixteenth notes, while the main theme appears in the cellos and basses.
Variation 3. “R.B.T.” (Allegretto, G major, 3/8). Richard Baxter Townshend, a writer and scholar who lived in Oxford, used to ride his tricycle around town with the bell constantly ringing. (He had a hearing problem.) He also participated in amateur theatrical performances, and the oboe solo in the variation is supposed to represent him as his voice occasionally cracked. In her book Memories of a Variation, Dora Penny (see variation 10), who later became Mrs. Richard Powell, wrote: “Elgar has got him with his funny voice and manner — and the tricycle! It is all there and is just a huge joke to anyone who knew him well.”
Variation 4. “W.M.B.” (Allegro di molto, G minor, 3/4). William Meath Baker was “a country squire, gentleman and scholar. In the days of horses and carriages it was more difficult than in these days of petrol to arrange the carriages for the day to suit a large number of guests. This Variation was written after the host had, with a slip of paper in his hand, forcibly read out the arrangements for the day and hurriedly left the music-room with an inadvertent bang of the door.” This boisterous variation, lasting less than half a minute, is the shortest in the set.
Variation 5. “R.P.A.” (Moderato, C minor, 12/8). Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold, was “a great lover of music which he played (on the piano-forte) in a self-taught manner, evading difficulties but suggesting in a mysterious way the real feeling. His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.” According to Mrs. Powell, the staccato (short-note) figure in the woodwinds represents his characteristic laugh. Thus far, this is the longest and most elaborate of the variations.
Variation 6. “Ysobel” (Andantino, C major, 3/2). Isabel Fitton was a viola player — hence the special treatment of the viola in this variation, both as a section and as a solo instrument. “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.” Isabel was quite tall, a circumstance suggested by the wide leaps in the melody.
Variation 7. “Troyte” (Presto, C major, 1/1 [i.e. a single beat per bar]). Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and a close friend of Elgar’s. “The uncouth rhythm of the drums and lower strings was really suggested by some maladroit essays to play the pianoforte; later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor (E.E.) to make something like order out of chaos, and the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain.” The “uncouth rhythm” is, in fact, a combination of triple meter in the bass with duple in the upper voices.
Variation 8. “W.N.” (Allegretto, G major, 6/8). The initials stand for Winifred Norbury, but the variation was inspired more by the 18th-century house where this lady (co-secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society) lived — in the words of musicologist Julian Rushton, the “epitome of an ideal civilisation in a rural environment.” The theme is played by the clarinets in gentle parallel sixths.
Variation 9. “Nimrod” (Adagio, E-flat major, 3/4). This is the most famous variation in the set, often performed separately in England as a memorial to deceased celebrities. “Nimrod” was August Jaeger, a German-born musician and Elgar’s closest friend. He worked for Novello, the publisher of Elgar’s music, and was the recipient of the composer’s above-quoted letter announcing the Variations as a work in progress. (Jäger or Jaeger means “hunter” in German, and Nimrod is the “mighty hunter” mentioned in Genesis 10:9.) Here, Elgar took the rests out of the original theme and created a hymn-like, soaring melody with a certain Beethovenian quality. Elgar and Jaeger shared a special love for Beethoven’s slow movements.
Variation 10. “Dorabella” (Intermezzo: Allegretto, G major, 3/4). Dora Penny was a young woman in her early twenties, to whom Elgar gave an affectionate nickname taken from Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. She later recollected the day he played through the entire work for her: “My mind was in such a whirl of pleasure, pride and almost shame that he should have written anything so lovely about me.” This movement is less a “variation” strictly speaking than a lyrical intermezzo; its melody is only very distantly related to the original theme.
Variation 11. “G.R.S.” (Allegro di molto, G minor, 2/2). George Robertson Sinclair was organist of Hereford Cathedral. “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 up stream 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 12. “B.G.N.” (Andante, G minor, 4/4). Basil Nevinson was a cellist who, with Steuart-Powell (variation 2), often played trios with Elgar, a violinist. This is why in this variation the melody is entrusted to a solo cello, in “tribute to a very dear friend whose scientific and artistic attainments, and the wholehearted way they were put at the disposal of his friends, particularly endeared him to the writer.”
Variation 13. “***” (Romanza: Moderato, G major, 4/4). The identity of the person behind the asterisks is the first, and smaller, enigma in Elgar’s work. Elgar himself only said that the “asterisks take the place of the name of a lady who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage. The drums suggest the distant throb of the engines of a liner . . .” Because some early manuscript sketches include the initials L.M.L., it is often assumed to refer to Lady Mary Lygon, an acquaintance of Elgar’s who was a member of the aristocracy, but several people who knew Elgar intimated that the variation had to do instead with a youthful “romanza” of the composer’s. The music is lyrical and gentle and, like variation 10, another female portrait, is only tenuously related to the theme, if at all. It contains a quote from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, played by the first clarinet.
Variation 14. “E.D.U.” (Finale: Allegro Presto, G major, 4/4). “Edu” was the nickname Alice Elgar had given to her husband, who disguised it as a set of initials to camouflage the fact that the last variation was a self-portrait. The theme is turned here into a march with a sharp rhythmic profile. There are two slower, lyrical episodes, after which the work ends with a grandiose climax.
In the century and more since its first performance, many attempts have been made to elucidate Elgar’s words about what “large theme” may lie behind (or underneath or within) his Enigma Variations.
Musical sleuths have tried to match the melodic outlines of different tunes with Elgar’s theme. Among those that have been proposed are “Auld Lang Syne” (a suggestion Elgar himself rejected), the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata, various earlier works by Elgar himself, and, more recently, the slow movement of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony.
Others, knowing of Elgar’s interest in games and puzzles in general, have searched for answers in ciphers, equating letters with musical notes after the model of Bach’s use of his own name spelled in notes.
Others have thought that the “larger theme” is not a musical one but some larger religious or philosophical issue.
Finally, there are those who opine that the whole thing is a joke or a “leg-pull,” to quote an expression used by the famous musicologist and critic Ernest Newman. William Reed, who was probably as close to Elgar as anyone, wrote: “He was himself the enigma.” Julian Rushton, author of the Cambridge Music Handbook about Elgar’s Enigma Variations, has elaborated on this by saying that “the theme . . . may represent Elgar as he saw himself.”
In any case, it is certain that the enigma will never be solved, as no suggested solution is likely to be proven conclusively now, so many years after the composer’s death. And this is probably a good thing, for any definitive answer would mean the end of a great mystery — which can too often be a letdown.
One almost wishes Elgar hadn’t said anything about a “larger theme,” especially if he wasn’t ever going to reveal what it was. But this very ambivalence was central to his personality — he was at the same time an extroverted Romantic, eager to express his innermost feelings, and a reserved, very private man who would not allow anyone to know him completely. (The Enigma Variations were not the only time he made personal allusions whose full meaning he kept to himself — a similar mystery lies embedded in the music for his Violin Concerto.) For Elgar, communication and secrecy, confession and reticence are inseparable, and it is in part this unique co-existence of opposites that makes the Enigma Variations unusual and uniquely pleasurable.—Peter Laki © 2017
Copyright © Musical Arts Association
Peter Laki is a visiting associate professor at Bard College and a frequent lecturer and writer on music.