Beyond the Score®: Enigma Variations

EDWARD ELGAR Enigma Variations, Op. 36
BORN: June 2, 1857, in Lower Broadheath, near Worcester, England
DIED: February 23, 1934, in Worcester
WORK COMPOSED: 1898–99
WORLD PREMIERE: June 19, 1899, in London; conducted by Hans Richter

The first recorded reference to Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations is found in a letter of October 24, 1898, from the composer to his close friend August Jaeger. In it, Elgar writes with his characteristic shorthand and humor:

“I have sketched a set of Variations (orkestra) 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 and have written what I think they wd. have written — if they were asses enough to compose — it’s a quaint idea & the result is amusing to those behind the scenes & won’t affect the hearer who ‘nose nuffin.’”

“Amusing” in a typically English way; and innocent enough, it would seem. But Elgar, intentionally or otherwise, created with this work one of the most tantalizing mysteries in music. For although he freely divulged the identities of the “friends pictured within” each of the 14 variations, he designated the original theme that sets the entire piece in motion as simply Enigma. Elgar’s comments, provided in a program note for the work’s first performance, only deepened the mystery:

“The enigma I will not explain — its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed ... ; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played. ... So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on the stage.”

Thus Elgar posed not one but two riddles: the “dark saying” represented in the single word “enigma,” and the identity of the “larger theme” that “goes” through the set without being played. Elgar hinted that the latter was a well-known melody to which his original theme is a variant or counter-melody. His friends tried to hit upon what this familiar tune might be, offering up “God Save the King” and “Auld Lang Syne.” But the composer dismissed these and other guesses. Later hypotheses have included “Rule Britannia” (proposed by the violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin); a theme from Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony; the “B-A-C-H” motif, used as a musical signature by J. S. Bach and by other composers as a tribute to him; and other melodies. None can be confirmed, however, and the identity of the Enigma theme remains a secret.

The programmatic nature of this theme — its “dark saying,” as Elgar alluded to it — has proved an even more intriguing puzzle. Does it, like the variations that follow, represent a person, a secret lover perhaps? This seems unlikely. Elgar was happily married to a beautiful and adoring wife. Indeed, as “C.A.E.” (Caroline Alice Elgar) of the first variation, she is given pride of place in the set. Nor would it be Elgar himself, for he paints his own portrait in the final variation, “E.D.U.” (a rendition of “Edoo”, his wife’s nickname for him). More general themes have been proposed, among them friendship, religious devotion (Elgar was a practicing Catholic), and the trials and joys of musical creation.

Elgar never revealed the meaning of the “enigma,” and in all likelihood its true nature will never be known with certainty. Fortunately, this in no way diminishes the attractiveness of the Enigma Variations as music, and it is to the music itself, as distinct from its attending controversies, that we should now briefly turn.

The Enigma theme, which opens the set, begins and ends with halting phrases built from brief fragments of melody in the key of G minor. Between them is a more lyrical and continuous section in the brighter major mode. The theme, then, reveals a clear A-B-A form, and this in turn shapes the variations that follow. Each has its own character and its own special charm.

The first variation, as already mentioned, portrays Elgar’s wife. Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist, regularly played chamber music with Elgar, and his warm-up exercises are incorporated into the second variation. Arthur Troyte Griffith was a pianist of rather more modest accomplishment, and the seventh variation describes a music lesson that ends with Elgar slamming the piano closed in frustration. The asterisks of variation 13, Elgar explained, “take the place of the name of a lady who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage.” This was Lady Mary Lygon, who sailed for Australia in 1899. Her music includes the sound of throbbing steamship engines beneath a quotation by the clarinet of Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” Overture.

The crowning piece of the set is the ninth variation,“Nimrod,” portraying August Jaeger. As an editor at the London publishing house of Novello, Jaeger encouraged Elgar and championed his works long before they were fashionable. The deep friendship that grew between the two men finds reflection in the moving strains of this adagio. Elgar recalls music from “Nimrod,” and also from “C.A.E.,” in the final variation, his own.

© Paul Schiavo

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