On Radio 3 Now

In Tune

16:30 - 17:30

Sean Rafferty presents a selection of music and guests from the arts world.

Next On Air

17:30 Opera on 3

View full schedule

Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) (1898–9)


1 C. A. E.
2 H. D. S.-P.
3 R. B. T.
4 W. M. B.
5 R. P. A.
6 Ysobel
7 Troyte
8 W. N.
9 Nimrod
10 Dorabella
11 G. R. S.
12 B. G. N.
13 * * * (Romanza)
14 Finale: E. D. U.

The first performance of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations took place at St James’s Hall London on 19 June 1899, conducted by Hans Richter. It was Elgar’s most ambitious orchestral work to date and a further performance in Düsseldorf in 1901 went on to establish him as a composer of international importance: Richard Strauss declared that ‘here for the first time is an English composer who has something to say’.

Like most overnight successes, it was the result of years of hard work. Elgar was 42 years old when he completed the Variations and, despite bitter disappointments and frustrations, had steadily built up a reputation, first provincially, then at a national level. In particular, a series of cantatas of increasing size had revealed Elgar’s brilliant orchestration and growing mastery of large forms. Now that mastery was demonstrated on a symphonic scale through the time-honoured form of Theme and Variations, inviting comparisons with the greatest classical masters. But it was Elgar’s uniquely personal approach to the form that gave the ‘Enigma’ Variations its initial novelty and lasting appeal.

Elgar himself recalled how the work came to be conceived on the evening of 21 October 1898:

After a long day’s fiddle teaching in Malvern, I came home very tired. Dinner being over, my dear wife said to me, ‘Edward, you look like a good cigar,’ and having lighted it, I sat down at the piano. In a little while, soothed and feeling rested, I began to play, and suddenly my wife interrupted by saying, ‘Edward, that’s a good tune.’ I awoke from the dream: ‘Eh! tune, what tune!’ and she said, ‘Play it again, I like that tune.’ I played and strummed, and played, and then she exclaimed, ‘That’s the tune.’ And that tune is the theme of the Variations.

Many years later Elgar’s daughter Carice recounted the same incident in a BBC broadcast:

My father was at the piano, smoking his pipe, and when I went to bed I heard him playing what I thought were pretty tunes. My mother told me he was inventing music about his friends, and he turned to her and said, ‘Who’s that like?’ My mother replied, ‘I can’t quite say, but it’s exactly the way WMB goes out of the room.’

The grand scheme was established at the outset: 13 variations, 13 musical sketches of ‘my friends pictured within’, as the dedication eventually ran, and a final 14th variation representing the composer himself.
What of the ‘Enigma’ of the title? Before the first performance, Elgar said:

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 – eg Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse and Les sept Princesses – the chief character is never on stage.

More ink has probably been spilt over these sentences than on any other Elgarian topic, each of the dozens of proposed solutions adding yet another layer of mystery to an already ambiguous pronouncement. What is clear is that the name ‘Enigma’ applies only to the theme itself and not to the whole work. Writing in 1911 Elgar revealed that this work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’, but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people.

So there appear to be not one, but two enigmas here: the title itself (why call it ‘Enigma’ in the first place?) and the reference to the ‘larger theme’ that ‘goes, but is not played’. Many commentators have attempted, with varying degrees of ingenuity and success, to show that the Theme is a counterpoint to another tune, usually of popular origin and ranging from ‘Rule! Britannia’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ to ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. They are probably wasting their time, because Elgar clearly stated that ‘through and over the whole set’ a larger theme goes. In other words, the ‘larger theme’ runs across the Variations, not the Theme.

It seems likely therefore that the larger theme is not musical, but conceptual: a bond that links the 14 individuals. Perhaps the bond is simply friendship – or love. Given Elgar’s enjoyment of crosswords, perhaps his ‘dark saying’ is a cryptic reference to St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, with its famous words ‘we see through a glass darkly’ (or, perhaps, ‘through a mirror, in a riddle’), its next verse proclaiming (in the King James Version) ‘faith, hope, charity; these three; but the greatest of these is charity’. That Elgar preferred a more modern interpretation of the 17th-century English, where the word ‘charity’ is replaced by ‘love’ is implied by a remark made in 1908 concerning his own First Symphony: ‘there is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) & a massive hope in the future.’
If this is the correct interpretation, the bond of love that links the Variations makes a telling contrast with its Theme and the one un-enigmatic statement Elgar is known to have made about it, when, in a letter of 1912, he claimed that the Theme ‘expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of the loneliness of the artist … and to me, it still embodies that sense’.

1 Theme (‘Enigma’)
The theme is in G minor with a central contrasting passage in the major, before the opening returns. Elgar himself pointed out that the rhythm of the Theme’s first bar – two short notes followed by two long ones – is immediately reversed and that ‘references to this grouping are almost continuous.’

1 C. A. E. (Caroline Alice Elgar): a loving and dignified tribute to the composer’s wife.

2 H. D. S.-P. (Hew David Steuart-Powell): an amateur pianist, who often played piano trios with Elgar and Basil Nevison. His characteristic warm-up routines are gently parodied in a manner Elgar described as ‘chromatic beyond H. D. S.-P.’s liking.’

3 R. B. T. (Richard Baxter Townshend): a writer and amateur actor, whose theatrical presentations of an old man amused Elgar, ‘the low voice flying off occasionally into ‘soprano’ timbre.’
4 W. M. B. (William Meath Baker): a country squire with an abrupt manner and a tendency to bang doors behind him when leaving a room.

5 R. P. A. (Richard P. Arnold): a music-lover and pianist (son of the poet Matthew Arnold) whose playing had, according to Elgar, a way of ‘evading difficulties but suggesting in a mysterious way the real feeling. His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.’

6 Ysobel (Isabel Fitton): an amateur viola player from Malvern. This variation contains one of Elgar’s private jokes, the leading viola melody involving a tricky little exercise in crossing from the fourth to the second string without accidentally catching the third.

7 Troyte (Arthur Troyte Griffith): a Malvern architect and close friend of the Elgars. This energetic, rhythmically disrupted variation recounts Elgar’s desperate, and ultimately abortive, attempt to teach him to play the piano.

8 W. N. (Winifred Norbury): this variation is more a portrait of a graceful 18th-century house than the lady who inhabited it. Her characteristic laugh is, however, suggested in the central section.

9 Nimrod (August Jaeger): in the Book of Genesis Nimrod is ‘the mighty hunter’; the name Jaeger means ‘hunter’ in German. Jaeger was Elgar’s closest musical friend, the man who edited his music and whose judgement he trusted more than anyone else’s. Their shared love of Beethoven is enshrined in this profound Adagio, the most celebrated of all the Variations.

10 Dorabella (Dora Penny): Elgar’s nickname for her was taken from Mozart’s Così fan tutte and his flirtatious relationship with this attractive young woman is reflected in this whimsical variation, whose gently halting rhythm alludes to her slight stutter.

11 G. R. S. (George Robertson Sinclair): organist of Hereford Cathedral. Sinclair had a bulldog called Dan, of whom Elgar was immensely fond, often writing a musical ‘Mood of Dan’ in the visitors’ book at Sinclair’s home. The opening bars recall Dan falling into the river Wye, swimming upstream and scrambling to the bank with a triumphant bark.

12 B. G. N. (Basil G. Nevinson): a fine amateur cellist whom Elgar described as ‘a serious and devoted friend’.

13 * * * (Romanza) The identity of the friend concealed beehind the three asterisks remains the subject of speculation. Some think she was Lady Mary Lygon, a society lady who was on a voyage to Australia around the time the Variations were composed. Others identify her as Helen Jessie Weaver, Elgar’s first love, to whom he was engaged as a young man. She later emigrated to New Zealand, where she died. In either case the elegiac quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, above the quiet throb of a ship’s engines, is apposite and poetic.

14 Finale: E. D. U. (‘Edoo’ was Alice’s pet name for her husband): a dashing self-portrait – accompanied in the middle section by a reference to C. A. E. herself, drawing the musical threads together in a symphonic finale of masterly conception and dynamic energy.

Programme note © John Pickard, 2005

Return to Notes index

    BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

    This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.