Length: c. 29 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), organ, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 18, 1925, Henry Wood conducting
A century after becoming Elgar’s breakout success, the “Enigma” Variations still pose riddles, though the most significant ones are “Is there really a riddle?” and “Does it matter?” The answers are, respectively, yes and no.
The story begins with Elgar doodling on the piano. When his wife Alice asked what he was playing, he answered “Nothing – but something might be made of it.” It became a theme with two parts: the first in a melancholy G minor, full of falling thirds, and the second in G major, with rising motifs. He wrote variations by imagining how some of his musician friends might have written the theme, and then added variations characterizing or caricaturing non-musician acquaintances. He wrote to his friend and supporter August Jaeger of the Novello publishing house, “I like to imagine the ‘party’ writing the var: him (or her) self & have written what I think they wd. have written – if they were asses enough to compose.” The score has only initials or nicknames of the persons portrayed, but their identities were eventually disclosed:
I. C.A.E. (Caroline) Alice Elgar married the composer despite differences of class (her father was a major general, his a church organist and music dealer) and religion when he was 32 and she 40. Some of her relatives literally disowned her for marrying a Catholic son of “vulgar tradesmen.” A failed poet and novelist, she came into her own as the supportive wife of a struggling genius.
II. H.D.S-P. Hew David Steuart-Powell played piano in trios with Elgar, who parodies Steuart-Powell’s warmup routine with a motif “chromatic beyond H.D.S-P’s liking.”
III. R.B.T. Richard Baxter Townshend was a classical scholar who had tried cattle ranching and gold prospecting in America. He acted in amateur theatricals, and his portrayal of a comical elderly man, talking in falsetto, is evoked by leaps in the woodwinds.
IV. W.M.B. William M. Baxter, a Liberal, argued politics with Elgar, a Tory. Elgar said the chattering woodwinds are “suggestions of the teasing attitudes of the guests” who heard them. The big finish struck Alice Elgar as “exactly the way W.M.B. goes out of the room.”
V. R.P.A. Richard Penrose Arnold, son of “Dover Beach” poet Matthew Arnold. Elgar said, “His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.” Dora Penny, the subject of Variation X, wrote that the prancing woodwinds imitated Arnold’s laugh. It leads without pause to:
VI. Ysobel Isabel Fitton was an amateur violist, which explains the prominent parts for solo viola and viola section.
VII. Troyte. Elgar wrote, “The uncouth rhythm of the drums and lower strings was really suggested by [Arthur Troyte Griffith’s] maladroit essays to play the piano. Later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor [Elgar] to make something like order out of chaos, and the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain.”
VIII. W.N. Elgar said this variation describes Winifred Norbury’s stately 18th-century house. Others thought it depicted Winifred herself (an energetic woman who occasionally scandalized friends by letting her ankles show), and that the oboe’s trills depict her characteristic laugh.
IX. Nimrod The variation is a tribute to August Jaeger (“Jäger” is “hunter” in German, and Nimrod, the “mighty hunter” of Genesis 10, is synonymous with “hunter” to the biblically versed). It recalls discussions they had about Beethoven’s slow movements. Elgar noted the melody’s resemblance to the “Pathetique” Sonata’s adagio.
X. (Dorabella) Intermezzo Dora Penny, stepdaughter of a friend of Alice Elgar, spent much time with the Elgars. In 1935 she wrote a memoir about them subtitled “Memories of a Variation.” She stammered, as does the music.
XI. G.R.S. George Robertson Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral. The variation depicts not his playing, but his bulldog splashing into a stream to retrieve a stick and climbing out in triumph.
XII. B.G.N. Basil G. Nevinson played cello in the same trio in which Hew David Steuart-Powell played piano.
XIII. (***) Romanza The asterisks probably refer to Lady Mary Lygon, who was traveling to Australia when Elgar wrote this variation. As timpani represent the hum of a ship’s engines, the clarinet plays a bit of Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” overture.
XIV. (E.D.U.) Finale It represents Elgar (Alice called him “Edoo”), in a triumphant mood, “written at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging.” It recalls earlier variations, particularly “C.A.E.” and “Nimrod,” who were never dubious or discouraging.
Elgar left a thornier riddle, writing, “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, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on stage.”
These remarks – doubly enigmatic, since the melody, and its connection to the variations, is obvious – created a continuing guessing game about what the theme “really” is and whether some longer melody can be superimposed on it (though Elgar never said the “larger theme” was a melody as opposed to an idea). All but one of the solutions “identifying” the theme with other melodies it resembles (a theme from Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, for example) have had to ignore Elgar’s statement that the theme never appears, which is the main clue and the very reason for the guessing game. In a 1976 Musical Review article, Theodore van Houten “solved” the problem: the theme itself is never – the “[Britons] never never never[shall be slaves]” part of “Rule, Britannia,” which matches the opening notes of the “Enigma” theme – and the “larger theme” is Britain. The impressive evidence for this solution includes Elgar’s telling Dora Penny, “You of all people should have guessed it.” Penny never guessed it, but a picture of Britannia ruling the waves adorns the back of the Victorian English penny.
We’ll never know, of course, and don’t need to. Knowing that a trotting motif in the basses and bassoons in variation XI represents Sinclair’s bulldog helps us enjoy the music, but knowing for sure that Elgar was quoting “Rule, Britannia” is just a footnote that doesn’t affect the listening experience.
- Howard Posner