ELGAR:  Enigma, Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36

Edward William Elgar was born at Broadheath, Worcestershire, England, on June 2, 1857, and died in Worcester on February 23, 1934. On October 24, 1898, he reported to his friend August Jaeger that he had “sketched a set of Variations”; on February 19, 1899, he completed the score. On June 19, 1899, at Saint James's Hall, London, Hans Richter conducted the first performance. Theodore Thomas introduced the work to the United States with a performance in Chicago on January 4, 1902. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in November 1925 with Alfred Hertz conducting. The most recent performances, in November 2007, were given under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. The score, dedicated "to my friends pictured within," calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, organ ad libitum, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.

On an October evening in 1898, Edward Elgar, tired from a day’s teaching, lit a cigar and began to improvise at the piano. One theme in particular struck his wife’s fancy, and she asked what it was. “Nothing,” he replied, “but something might be made of it. Powell [the future Variation II] would have done this, or Nevinson [Variation XII] would have looked at it like this.” He played some more and asked, “Who is that like?” “I cannot say,” Alice Elgar replied, “but it is exactly the way Billy Baker [Variation IV] goes out of the room. Surely,” she added, “you are doing something that has never been done before.”

“Commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness,” is how Elgar later described the genesis of the work that would make all the difference in his life. He was in his forties and still had to scrape together a living with long hours of teaching and hackwork for his publisher. When he finished the Variations, he sent the score to the great German conductor Hans Richter, who agreed to introduce the work in London. Richter’s advocacy meant a lot. A famed interpreter of both Wagner and Brahms, he had been active and adored in England since the late 1870s. The Variations proved a landmark, not just for Elgar, but for English music.

Elgar presented two mysteries, the identity of the “friends pictured within” and something darker at which he hinted in his program note. The first of these was easy, each friend save one being identified by initials or a nickname. As for the other, Elgar wrote, “The enigma 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 and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played—so the principal Theme never appears. . . .”

Probably only Alice Elgar and Jaeger knew the secret of the unplayed larger theme—if, indeed, there was a secret. Elgar wrote descriptive notes for the variations; unattributed quotations in what follows come from those notes.

Theme—This is a simple three-part design, something you could represent as A-B-A, and, in the words of Elgar’s biographer Diana McVeagh, “as productive as a goldmine.”

Variation I (C.A.E.)—This is Alice Elgar, whose death in 1920 brought the composer’s creative life to a halt for twelve years until he began work on his Third Symphony toward the end of 1932. “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 (H.D.S-P.)—Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist with whom Elgar, a violinist, played chamber music. Their usual cellist was Basil Nevinson (Variation XII).

Variation III (R.B.T.)—“Has reference to [Richard Baxter Townshend’s] presentation of an old man in some amateur theatricals—the low voice flying off occasionally into ‘soprano’ timbre.” Townshend was a classicist at Oxford and rode through that town on his bicycle, the bell constantly ringing. The violins’ plucked strings and their woodwind doublings represent the bicycle bell.

Variation IV (W.M.B.)—William Meath Baker, “a country squire, gentleman and scholar. In the days of horses and carriages it was more difficult than in these days of petrol to arrange the carriages for the day to suit a large number of guests. This Variation was written after the host had, with a slip of paper in his hand, forcibly read out the arrangements for the day and hurriedly left the music-room with an inadvertent bang of the door.”

Variation V (R.P.A.)—Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold, was “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.” Strings, in one of Elgar’s most expansive and inspired melodies, represent Arnold’s nobility of mind and his deeply truthful way of playing music.

Variation VI (Ysobel)—This is Isabel Fitton, a woman, in critic Michael Kennedy’s words, of “grave, statuesque beauty.” She was an amateur violinist who, to make up for a shortage of violists in the neighborhood and to be obliging, switched to the deeper instrument. The music conjoins formality and gravity with discreet romantic allure.

Variation VII (Troyte)—Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect, was one of Elgar’s most intimate friends. “The uncouth rhythm of the drums and lower strings was really suggested by some 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 (W.N.)—This variation, named for Winifred Norbury, is less a portrait of Miss Norbury than of Sherridge, the eighteenth-century house where she lived with her sister Florence. “The gracious personalities of the ladies are sedately shown.” As the variation draws to a close, Elgar offers the most beautiful harmonic stroke in the Enigma Variations. As the final G major chord dies away, only the first violins hold their note—G—until the other strings, re-entering, with magical effect slip a chord of E-flat major under it. And there, in a new world, begins

Variation IX (Nimrod), the most loved of the variations. “Jaeger” is the German for “hunter,” and Nimrod is the “mighty hunter” mentioned in Genesis 10. August Jaeger was a German-born musician of frail health and great soul who worked for the London music publishing house of Novello and who, more than anyone except Alice Elgar, sustained the composer through his frequent and severe periods of depression. “The Variation . . . is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred.” Jaeger, still young, died in 1909, and nearly twenty years later Elgar wrote: “His place has been occupied but never filled.”

Variation X (Dorabella—Intermezzo)—Dora Penny, stepniece of Variation IV (Billy Baker), cheerful and music-loving, was a woman to whom Elgar was very close. We hear a suggestion of the stammer with which she spoke in her youth. We also sense an extraordinarily potent though repressed sexuality, to say nothing of Elgar’s powerful and repressed response to it.

Variation XI (G.R.S.)—The initials belong to George Robertson Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral, but the music belongs to Dr. Sinclair’s dog. In Elgar’s words, “The first few bars were suggested by [the] great bulldog Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank into the River Wye (bar 1); his paddling up stream 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.”

Variation XII (B.G.N.)—“The Variation is a tribute to a very dear friend [Basil Nevinson] whose scientific and artistic attainments, and the wholehearted way they were put at the disposal of his friends, particularly endeared him to the writer.”

Variation XIII (***Romanza)—The asterisks in place of initials suggest further mystery, and the additional title of “Romanza” heightens the effect, as does part of the music itself. The variation starts harmlessly enough, and sweetly, but after only a few bars its course is interrupted by a strange rocking figure in the violas, which, with a soft drumroll, forms the background for a clarinet playing a phrase from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture. Elgar explains that the asterisks take the place of the name of a lady who was, at the time of composition, on a sea voyage. The lady was Lady Mary Lygon of the Worcestershire nobility, in the spring of 1899 on her way to Australia with her brother, who was to be installed as Governor of New South Wales. The music conveys a poignant sense of longing for someone far away.

Variation XIV (Finale: E.D.U.)—These are no one’s initials, but run them together and they give you Alice’s nickname for Edward. This variation/finale shows the composer’s boldly assertive, confident side—less than half of him, in other words. Alice returns, as does Nimrod, and the music ends in a blaze.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca—out of print but available as a CD reissue from arkivmusic.com)  |  Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)  |  Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live)  |  Andrew Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Signum UK) 

Reading: Elgar the Music Maker, by Diana McVeagh (Boydell Press)  |  Edward Elgar: A Creative Life, by Jerrold Northrup Moore (Oxford University Press)  |  Elgar in Photographs, also by Moore (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Life of Elgar, by Michael Kennedy (Cambridge University Press)