More than a decade after the Enigma Variations were composed, Elgar reflectively stated in 1911 that the variations started “in a spirit of humour, and continued in deep seriousness.” The story goes that after a long, grueling day of teaching, Elgar returned home and sat at his piano and began improvising a melody. His wife Alice was struck by the tune and as the evening continued he began improvising variations to go with the melody. In his exhaustion and playfulness with Alice he began including characteristics of several of his friends and colleagues in the variations. He sent what he had written to his publisher August Jaeger, himself an inspiration for one of the variations, with the following note: “I have sketched a set of Variations … on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labeled ‘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 … if they were asses enough to compose.”
To whom each variation refers, and why, is clearly outlined in Elgar’s words; the “enigma” however, is a mystery for the ages. Elgar succeeded at the very definition of the word, made most clear by this note that accompanied the work to its first annotator: “The Variations should stand simply as a piece of music. 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 larger theme “goes,” but it is not played … So the principal theme never appears, even as in some late dramas … the chief character is never on the stage.” Enigmatic indeed.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations premiered on June 19, 1899 at St. James’s Hall in London with the esteemed Hans Richter conducting. After its premiere Elgar was almost immediately hailed as the greatest English composer to date and his music gained worldwide recognition. The year after Enigma’s premiere, Elgar was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University, and was subsequently knighted in 1904. Elgar’s Variations were his first major success and his first (and some would argue only) truly successful full-scale orchestral work. Perhaps on a suggestion of Richter or August Jaeger (see Variation IX), Elgar reworked the last variation by adding 100 measures and an organ part. This revised version premiered at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in September of 1899 with the composer conducting.
Elgar dedicated his Enigma Variations “to my friends pictured within,” and begins with the theme, followed by fourteen variations. The theme is broken into two parts; the first, a reflective theme in g minor which features the interval of the seventh, a particular favorite of Elgar’s; and the second, in G Major providing a more hopeful and uplifting sensibility.
Variation I (L’istesso tempo) “C.A.E.”
Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. 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.”
Variation II (Allegro) “H.D.S.-P.”
Hew D. Steuart-Powell. Steuart- Powell played piano in Elgar’s trio. Elgar mimics the pianist’s trademark way in which he warmed-up on the piano.
Variation III (Allegretto) “R.B.T.”
Richard Baxter Townshend, the popular author of A Tenderfoot in Colorado. Elgar imitates his tendency to raise the pitch of his voice when excited.
Variation IV (Allegro di molto) “W.M.B.”
William Meath Baker. Baker was a country squire with a gruff disposition and a propensity for making hasty exits, often slamming the door when doing so. Elgar says that he would “forcibly read out the arrangements for the day” to his guests.
Variation V (Moderato) “R.P.A.”
Richard P. Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold. He was a young philosopher who according to Elgar, “His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.”
Variation VI (Andantino) “Ysobel”
Isabel Fitton, a friend of Elgar who tried to learn the viola under the composer’s tutelage. It seems likely she was not a very good student and ended her lessons stating, “I value our friendship much too much.” The viola is the featured instrument of this variation and contains many string crossings, an homage to Isabel’s struggle with this parti-cular aspect of playing a stringed instrument.
Variation VII (Presto) “Troyte”
Arthur Troyte Griffith, another of Elgar’s less than successful students. According to Elgar, the variation depicts Troyte’s “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.”
Variation VIII (Allegretto) “W.N.”
Winifred Norbury. This variation is less about Miss Norbury and more about her charming house that Elgar enjoyed so much. It was the site of many musical performances and musician gatherings.
Variation IX (Moderato) “Nimrod”
August Jaeger, Elgar’s publisher and close friend. “Jaeger” is German for “hunter,” and Nimrod is one of the Old Testament’s fiercest hunters. According to Dora Penny (see Variation X), Elgar confided in her that this variation is not about Jaeger as much as a conversation with him. One day Elgar was very frustrated and considered giving up composing. Jaeger stepped in and compared Elgar’s struggles to those of Beethoven. He asked the composer how he thought Beethoven must have felt, having to compose while going deaf. Jaeger then told Elgar that as Beethoven’s hearing got worse, his music became more beautiful, and encouraged Elgar to take that lesson to heart. Jaeger then sang the slow movement to Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata for his depressed friend. Elgar told Dora Penny that the opening of “Nimrod” suggests the “Pathetique.” He said, “Can’t you hear it at the beginning? Only a hint, not a quotation.”
“Nimrod” is the most famous of the variations and is often programmed without the rest of the work. It is most notably used in England for events such as funerals and memorial services, and is always played on Remembrance Sunday, a ceremony acknowledging the sacrifices of British servicemen and women in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. In the United States, it has often been used for 9/11 tributes.
Variation X (Intermezzo) “Dorabella”
Dora Penny. Ms. Penny was a young and vivacious friend of the Elgars who had a slight stutter that Elgar depicts in this variation. Dora was William Meath Baker’s (Variation IV) sister’s stepdaughter and Richard Baxter Townshend’s (Variation III) sister-in-law.
Variation XI (Allegro di molto) “G.R.S.”
Dr. G.R. Sinclair. Dr. Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral who owned a dog for which the variation is based. Elgar writes, “The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog Dan (a well-known character) falling down a steep bank into the River Wye; his paddling up stream to find a landing place; and rejoicing bark on landing.”
Variation XII (Andante) “B.G.N.”
Basil G. Nevinson, the cellist in Elgar’s trio. This variation features the cello section in honor of Nevinson, Elgar’s “serious and devoted friend.”
Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) “***”
Lady Mary Lygon. Elgar could not secure permission to use the initials “L.M.L” for this variation so instead he used three asterisks in their place. His good friend Lady Lygon was in the midst of a sea voyage to Australia when the variations were being prepared for publication so she was unavailable to give her permission. To evoke the mood of her journey, Elgar quotes Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in the clarinet solo.
Another theory is that this variation is actually about Helen Weaver, a woman to whom Elgar was engaged for more than a year. She left him, also by boat, in 1885. This theory does not explain the use of three, rather than two, asterisks to represent the dedicatee’s initials, however. Although, it is plausible that Elgar wrote about Helen Weaver but was able to disguise this effortlessly by the voyage of his friend Lady Mary Lygon.
Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) “E.D.U.”
This stands for Edu or Edoo, Alice Elgar’s nickname for her husband. This variation is a portrait of Elgar himself. He brings together the themes from Variations I and IX (Alice Elgar and August Jaeger) to represent his two greatest supporters. He writes, “Written at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging as to the composer’s musical future, this variation is merely intended to show what E.D.U. intended to do. References are made to two great influences upon the life of the composer: C.A.E. and Nimrod. The whole work is summed up in the triumphant broad presentation of the theme in the major.”
Sir Edward Elgar did such a masterful job of hiding the “enigma” part of his variations that it is still to this day unknown. Theories abound, but no one has been able to definitively or concretely state with complete certainty what the “enigma” is to which Elgar referred. In the early years after its composition, Elgar seemed to enjoy the endless speculation on the “enigma;” he began to grow weary of this however, and in his later years would merely refer to the work as “my Variations.” ●
Program Notes, Lori Newman