It's known as “The Enigma Variations” because there's not one but several mysteries about the piece.
The piece consists of a theme and 14 variations and while it can be enjoyed simply as music without any of the mystery, it makes it a little more interesting than just being another set of variations. How Elgar manipulates the opening theme into these various character sketches is fascinating enough. If a composer can (indirectly) tell a story in music - a symphonic poem - why can't a composer (indirectly) show listeners a portrait gallery of his friends?
And since none of these friends are likely to be on your friend-list, we'll give away that part of the enigma so you can appreciate the composer's musical ingenuity.
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|Elgar & his bike|
Premiered in June, 1899, it was well-received though critics, praising the content of the music, seemed irritated by the layers of mystification – the “secret identity” of the friends' portraits in the variations and the overall mystery of the theme's origins.
You see, Elgar figured, beyond his circle of friends, who would know these friends “pictured within” or even care? Eventually, he added initials or nicknames to all but one of the variations – the “Romance” with its mysterious asterisks (aha!) thereby heightening the mystery (some secret affair?) – to better identify the portraits, but he never did explain the mystery of the theme.
Some believe the theme is based on some musical melody with a special emotional meaning to the composer; others think it's inspired by a poetic theme; others who've given up trying to guess just pass it off as being something Elgar associated with the idea (and substance) of friendship.
“The Enigma,” the composer later wrote, “I will not explain – its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion 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...”
So, since he never did divulge its origin and no one has found any direct proof to explain it, the subsequent title given the piece by the composer – The Enigma Variations – still stands.
This video “suite” of the entire piece (broken into three segments) may not identify the recording (or the typically British paintings attached to them), it allows me to break it down into more manageable portions so you can read about each variation as you listen to them.
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Part 1 (Theme & Var 1-7)
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Original Theme marked Enigma, a hesitant and certainly enigmatic theme (or one broken down into little fragments like a mosaic). It unfolds in the minor key with a secondary rising, even hopeful line in the woodwinds before the opening of the theme is restated.
|Page 1 of Elgar's MS|
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams, –
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:...
Dropping clues if not hints like bread-crumbs here and there, the composer also mentioned (or at least sanctioned a biographer who'd mentioned), given the theme's strange rhythmic phrasing with no strong downbeat, that the “theme is a counterpoint [to] some well-known melody which is never heard.”
One conductor I'd heard decided to play the violin line (what would seem to be the melody) more as an accompaniment to this “unheard theme” – not that anything I'm familiar with ever popped out as a likely solution.
Variation I – C.A.E. (beginning at 1:32 into the clip), Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife (usually known as Alice), who was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. Apparently, one might guess she also liked Brahms (there are shades of the 4th Symphony in the way the theme is treated). One fragment (a four-note accompaniment) was supposedly a bit Elgar would whistle when he returned home, a kind of musical “honey, I'm home” signature.
Variation II. H.D.S-P. (allegro; at 3:15), Hew David Steuart-Powell, one of Elgar's chamber-music friends, a pianist, who was ever-active, what today we might call “a bit hyper.” He's also Dora Penny's uncle (see Var. X).
Variation III. R.B.T. (allegretto, at 4:06), Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor, referencing his representation of an old man in some amateur theatricals ‒ the low voice flying off occasionally into 'soprano' range. He was a "step-uncle" of Dora Penny's, btw.
Variation IV. W.M.B. (allegro di molto; 5:25), William Meath Baker, Townsend's brother-in-law, who “expressed himself somewhat energetically,” would bark out plans for the day, then leave the room with a vigorous door-slam as fast as he had entered it.
Variation V. R.P.A. (moderato; 5:56), Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the writer Matthew Arnold, an amateur pianist who would punctuate serious discourse with a nervous laugh (note the “serious” strings befitting a son of a serious writer, and the intervening woodwind laughter).
Variation VI. Ysobel (andantino; 7:59), Isobel Fitton, a violist who was a viola student of Elgar's, and so the viola section is featured prominently. “It may be noticed,” the composer explained, “that the opening bar, a phrase made use of throughout the variation, is an ‘exercise’ for crossing the strings – a difficulty for beginners.
Variation VII. Troyte (presto; 9:17), Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect and "raucous pianist." The variation good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano. And it may also refer to the time Griffith and Elgar were out walking and got caught in a thunderstorm, seeking refuge at the house of Winifred and Florence Norbury (see next variation).
Part 2 (Var 8-11)
Variation VIII. W.N. (allegretto; 0:00), Winifred Norbury, a gracious and gentle friend, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. The gentle chirping of the flutes, wonderfully contrasted by the plucking of the strings, paints someone who would be a most gracious hostess. At the end of this variation, a single note in the violins is held over into the next variation, the most celebrated of the set.
Variation X. Dorabella (allegretto; 5:57), Dora Penny, already mentioned above in the context of other friends, whose infectious laugh is depicted in a repeated line for the the woodwinds.
Variation XI. G.R.S. (allegro di molto; 8:33), George Robertson Sinclair, an organist. 'The variation, however, has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals,” Elgar later wrote, “or, except remotely, with G.R.S. 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 upstream 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.”
Part 3 (Var 12-14)
|***? (Lady Mary Lygon)|
Variation XIII. Romanza *** (moderato; 2:35). This would be the most enigmatic of the Enigma Variations – no nickname or initials, only three asterisks and the word “Romance” – and is that used in the sense of a musical composition (as in Schumann's “Romance in F-sharp Major”?) or in the sense of a loving relationship - possibly even a secret affair? There are two possible candidates since apparently Elgar never specifically identified the subject of this, the “unlucky 13th” variation.
|***? (Helen Weaver)|
Several sources suggest a more likely possibility is Helen Weaver (left) who had been Elgar's fiancée in 1884 (Elgar married Alice in 1889). She broke off the engagement, then sailed out of his life forever, emigrating to New Zealand.
This pensive portrait leads to the final variation, a self-portrait:
|CAE & Edu in 1897|
Whatever that was, of course...
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After the world premiere in London, conducted by the great German conductor Hans Richter, it was Jaeger (“Nimrod”) who suggested Elgar should expand the finale and add an organ part – this version was given its first performance at the Three Choirs Festival, this time with Edu himself conducting.
He had initially included some of his composer-colleagues on this musical friend-list – like Arthur Sullivan (without Gilbert) and Hubert Parry – but felt, “for musical considerations,” his imitating their styles was an unsatisfactory tribute. At least, not including them allowed him to say I “have written what I think [my friends] would have written – if they were asses enough to compose."
One wonders how many of his friends were upset they hadn't been included. Navigating the social network can be so full of risks...
By the way, the composer became Sir Edward Elgar on July 5th, 1904.
While it's one of Elgar's best-known works – aside from the ubiquitous graduation march, “Land of Hope & Glory” from his “Pomp & Circumstance” March (No. 1) – the “Enigma Variations” would go on to become one of the first major works by any English composer (since the days of Henry Purcell in the 17th Century) to gain fame on the Continent. In 1904, a German critic famously called England “the Land without Music,” but when Elgar's “Enigma” was performed in St. Petersburg that same year, both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov thought highly of the work – and Gustav Mahler conducted it in New York City with what eventually became the New York Philharmonic in 1910.
Oh, and Elgar suggested once if the Variations should ever be turned into a ballet, the "enigma" should be danced by a "veiled dancer," which has prompted others to assume the "enigma" is really another actual friend - and a lady-friend, at that (presumably, men in those days didn't go about "veiled"). Hmmm...
While I wonder what it would've been like if Elgar had Facebook or for that matter, 899 friends, I can't help but think any composer would be lucky to have friends like those Elgar “pictured within.”
P.S. Don't forget, you can like the Harrisburg Symphony on Facebook!