Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”)

Composer: 

            The Variations on an Original Theme was Elgar's first significant, acclaimed work.  Given its première in 1899, conducted by the great Hans Richter, it was an immediate success, and garnered performances and praise in Europe—including from Richard Strauss.  Not bad for a composer of modest reputation who had chiefly labored far from the bustle of London.  Although he had been steadily building his reputation in provincial English cities as a well-respected composer of cantatas and the like, an orchestral work on the scale of the so-called “Enigma” Variations seemed to be without precedent.  What is clear, however, is that, at the age of forty-two, he had served his apprenticeship well, and years of experience laid a solid foundation for his most famous work—especially his vaunted mastery of orchestration.

            The importance of the composition and its delightful “enigma” generated an enormous interest and speculation, which has continued unabated to the present.  The genesis of it is well known, for Elgar left ample record of his thoughts.  Apparently, after a long day of teaching, he trudged into the house, and his wife said something to the effect that he looked like he could use a good cigar.  He indulged himself, sat down at the piano and was improvising rather desultorily, when his wife, Alice, said that she liked one of the tunes, and he continued improvising little variations on the tune that reflected some aspect of the personalities of his close friends.   The rest is history.  On the score, over each variation, Elgar wrote either the initials of each friend, or in a few cases, a name or nickname.  Who these folks are and some of their “characteristics” limned by the composer is known, now, but that was not the enigma.   The tune, itself is clear; we hear it straightway, at the beginning.  It’s a simple little affair:  a short motive of four notes, preceded by a rest, heard six times, half of them in reverse rhythm—a wonder of musical concision.  And then follow thirteen variations, one each for thirteen friends, and a last variation about the composer, himself.  So what is the “enigma?” 

            Elgar spoke several times of a “larger theme” that runs throughout the work, but is “not played.”  Furthermore, he referred to its “dark saying,” declaring that it would remain a mystery.  And why even call the work “Enigma,” in the first place?  Generations have tried to solve the mystery, to no avail.  All manner of tunes have been adduced as the mystery tune—including “Pop Goes the Weasel.”  Elgar created a mystery and it remains a mystery, for the composer took it with him to the grave.

            The short theme is heard first, with a brief contrasting section before the theme returns.  The first variation (C.A.E.) follows immediately, dedicated to his beloved wife, Caroline Alice Elgar.   The second variation (H.D.S.-P.) is a tribute to Hew David Steuart-Powell, an amateur musician at whose chromatic warm-ups Elgar gently poked fun.  (R.B.T. ) Richard Baxter Townshend follows, a send up the amateur thespian’s breaking voice, rather like an adolescent boy.  After two more variations we arrive at No. 7 (“Ysolbel”), a viola student of Elgar, depicted by a solo viola playing a passage that sounds a bit like an etude for that instrument.  Variations 8 and 9 refer to Troyte Griffiths, an architect who was a rather poor pianist—you can hear it—and Winifred Norbury, whose calm personality is there in the variation.  A held note in a sole violin unmistakably leads into the next variation—the most beloved of them all.

            “Nimrod” holds a special place in the hearts of Britons, for its magnificent grandiloquence and poignancy, and one hears it played publically in times of great tragedy or circumstance—rather like Barber’s Adagio for Strings in this country.  It is dedicated to Elgar’s best friend, Augustus Jaeger.  Jäger, of course, is German for “hunter,” and Nimrod was the great hunter in the Old Testament.

            “Dorabella” was a good friend, whose stutter is famously depicted in the little flutter in the woodwinds.  Variation 11 hilariously tells the incident wherein Dan, the bulldog of friend, George Sinclair, falls down the bank of a steam, paddles along, and barks happily upon his exit from the water.  “B.G.N.” was a cellist (he inspired the cello concerto), and so he gets a little cello solo, here.  The mysterious “* * *” left on a sea voyage before Elgar could get permission for the dedications, so she is anonymous, here.   A quotation from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” is heard in the solo clarinet, with the timpani contributing some nautical engine noises.

            Finally, the fourteenth and last variation is of Elgar, himself (“E.D.U” from his wife’s pet name for him—the German, Eduard.   It is telling that in this music ostensibly about himself, he uses the material from the two variations dedicated to the persons most important in his life, his wife, “C.A.E,” and his great friend, “Nimrod.”  Elgar was a complex man, but it is a certainty that his enjoyment of friendship and the love of others was central to his being, and the work perfectly illustrates that.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan