“A man is known by the company he keeps,” said the ancient Greek fabulist, Aesop.
For Sir Edward Elgar, it was associations with a circle of friends, each with their distinct personalities and quirks, that inspired the orchestral masterwork, Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36, popularly known as the Enigma Variations.
According to the story, it began on an October evening in 1898 at Elgar’s home in the Worcestershire countryside. Puffing on a cigar and exhausted from the day’s work, the composer sat down at the piano and began improvising. A melody emerged that caught the ear of his wife, Alice. “What is that?” she asked. Elgar replied, “Nothing – but something might be made of it.” With a spirit of playfulness, he proceeded to develop the melody into a series of musical caricatures of their friends, daring Alice to guess the subject. In a way similar to Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9, a wide-ranging cast of “characters” came to life as Elgar’s clever improvisations developed into a serious piece. Each variation is inscribed with a series of initials or a cryptic word relating to the subject’s identity, betraying the composer’s love of word games and anagrams. In a 1911 program note, Elgar wrote,
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 on the original theme and 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.
With the opening theme, we enter a solitary, mysterious and melancholy world. The theme develops in halting steps, embodying a quiet dignity reminiscent of a baroque aria by Handel or Purcell. It takes a wistful turn towards major, and then slides back into the veiled darkness of G minor. For Elgar, the theme’s opening phrase became a kind of musical signature, matching the rhythm and inflection of his name, and evoking a “sense of the loneliness of the artist.”
Without pause, we enter the first variation (L’istesso tempo), C. A. D, which can be heard as an extension of the theme. It is a sensuous sketch of Elgar’s wife and muse (Caroline Alice Elgar), set with a repeating four-note motive that the composer is said to have whistled when he entered the house.
Variation II (Allegro), H.D.S-P., depicts Hew David Steuart-Powell, an amateur pianist with whom Elgar frequently played chamber music. The jumpy, toccata lines are a humorous caricature of Powell’s habit of warming up at the keyboard before playing. Here, they become strange and edgy chromatic figures which spread around the orchestra like buzzing insects.
Variation III (Allegretto), R.B.T., offers a lighthearted depiction of Richard Baxter Townshend, a writer whose portrayal of an old man in an amateur theater production amused Elgar. At the beginning of the variation, the theme’s opening motive is heard in the clownish woodwinds, setting the stage for a display of buffoonish humor.
Variation IV (Allegro di molto), W.M.B., is a brief but exhilarating whirlwind. William Meath Baker was a Gloucestershire squire and patron of Elgar who “expressed himself somewhat energetically,” and inadvertently allowed the door to slam shut when he left the room.
In Variation V (Moderato), R.P.A., haunting mystery alternates with moments of playfulness. This is a musical sketch of Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and an amateur pianist. Elgar described him as “a great lover of music which he played (on the pianoforte) 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.”
Variation VI (Andantino), Ysobel, is a sketch of Isabel Fitton, a viola student of Elgar’s who had difficulty with the technique of string crossings. The variation grows out of a string crossing exercise, heard in the violas in the opening bars. As the variation unfolds, this “exercise” motif is echoed throughout the orchestra. The final bars bring the ultimate sense of serenity and contentment, perhaps the domestic tranquility of a green, rolling landscape of hedgerows.
Variation VII (Presto), Troyte, is a wild, virtuosic romp. For Elgar, this variation was a humorous commentary on his unsuccessful attempt to teach the architect, Arthur Troyte Griffith, to play the piano. The final chord amounts to a virtual frustrated slamming of the keyboard’s lid.
In Variation VIII (Allegretto), W.N., the theme is transformed into a gently meandering dialogue between the woodwinds and the strings. We get a sense of the gracious, eighteenth century country house of Winifred Norbury and of her distinctive laugh.
The eighth variation fades away into a single, dreamy “G,” opening the door to Variation IX (Adagio), Nimrod, a solemn and majestic monument to Elgar’s publisher, August Jaeger. (Jäger is the German word for “hunter,” and Nimrod is the “mighty hunter” named in Genesis 10). Jaeger was a close friend who stood by Elgar, offering him unending support as well as constructive criticism. Amid echoes of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Nimrod grows from a hushed whisper into a soaring statement. Listen carefully to all of the inner voices that make up this glorious chorale.
The atmosphere changes with the frilly ebullience of Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto), Dorabella. Dorabella was Elgar’s nickname (inspired by the character in Mozart’s Così fan tutte) for Dora Penny. We hear a loving allusion to her stutter in the woodwinds.
Variation XI (Allegro di molto), G.R.S., is not as much a depiction of George Robertson Sinclair, the organist of Hereford Cathedral, as of his beloved bulldog, Dan. One day, Dan fell down a steep bank into the River Wye, furiously paddled downriver, and climbed to safety with a declarative “bark!”
The lamenting voice of the solo cello opens Variation XII (Andante), B.G.N. The variation’s subject, Basil G. Nevinson, was an amateur cellist with whom Elgar played chamber music. The composer described him as “a serious and devoted friend.”
Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) comes with the most enigmatic inscription of all: (* * *). There is still speculation about the identity of the friend concealed behind the three asterisks. We hear a quote from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and the quiet, distant throb of a ship’s engines.
The Enigma Variations reaches a triumphant conclusion with Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro), E.D.U. This music, filled with glimpses of the previous variations, represents Edward Elgar, himself. It’s launched with a sly homage to the open fifths which begin Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Punctuated with a bold, leaping statement, this music is an exhilarating celebration of life. The theme, which forms a common thread through so many variations, now rises to the ultimate climax. One of my favorite passages comes in the final moments, when the music’s euphoric fireworks seem to go briefly out of control before falling back into the comfort of a majestic hymn.
An Unsolved Enigma
While the identities of Elgar’s friends were quickly apparent, a deeper enigma remains. Elgar suggested that a larger, “unplayed” theme runs throughout the piece that “is so well known that it is extraordinary that no one has spotted it.” The conductor Sir Mark Elder shares his own hypothesis in this clip. Others believe that Elgar was engaging in a clever subterfuge to keep listeners guessing. Regardless, the true power of this music goes beyond the sketches of its subjects and its clever puzzles. I recommend that you listen to this amazing piece as pure music. Pay attention to the way the voices of the orchestra converse, to the incredible drama from moment to moment, and to the way the theme evolves.
Here is Sir Mark Elder’s 2010 recording with the Hallé Orchestra. (Subscribers reading the e-mail version of this post may need to access this playlist from the post, directly).
Five Great Recordings
- Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), Sir Mark Elder, Hallé Orchestra halle.co.uk
- Adrian Boult and the London Symphony Orchestra (1970 recording)
- Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1953 recording) arkivmusic.com
- Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra (1958 recording)
- BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins (2016) hyperion-records.co.uk