It’s not the Enigma that has made Edward Elgar’s Variations endure for more than a century. It’s the warmth and sincerity with which he portrays real people who were important to him. Friendship, after all, is a fundamental human need, but it ranks far behind romantic love in terms of musical tributes.
Elgar stumbled on the theme on October 21, 1898, while improvising at the piano. His wife, Alice, was listening, and called out that it was a good melody. He began to vary it, imagining how his friends might write it “if they were asses enough to compose.” At first it was just a parlor trick, but then he began to wonder if it could be the framework for a real piece. Years later, he described the variations as “begun in a spirit of humor and continued in deep seriousness.”
The “Enigma” arises from the word being scrawled on the first page of Elgar’s manuscript, above the theme. It was jotted there by August Jaeger, Elgar’s close friend and the subject of the Nimrod variation. Early performances were simply labeled “Variations on an Original Theme,” but soon “Enigma” became part of the accepted title. Elgar stated:
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 . . . the chief character is never on the stage.
Taken literally, Elgar may be saying there is a secret musical theme that can be played over the music, in synch with its harmony and rhythm. “The theme is so well known that it is extraordinary that no one has spotted it,” Elgar later added. But the fact is, nobody in 125 years has ever found a very compelling, let alone definitive, solution. Another possibility is that there is no hidden tune, just an abstract “theme”: perhaps something as anticlimactic as “friendship” or some kind of inside joke. (More elaborate theories based on mathematics, Bible codes, or Shakespearian allusions should be approached with skepticism.)
Elgar was 41 when he began the variations. He already had a publishing deal with Novello and had written a number of successful choral works, but was hardly a household name. The Enigma Variations made him suddenly famous after the premiere led by Hans Richter at St. James Hall in London on June 18, 1899—it became (and arguably remains) the most celebrated piece of British orchestral music of all time.
The piece unfolds as a theme and 14 short variations. Most are labeled with initials, lending an even more enigmatic appearance—but the subjects were easily identified and confirmed by Elgar. The theme itself is cool and gray.
C.A.E. This is Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. They were happy together, and when she died in 1920, he mostly stopped composing.
H.D.S.-P. Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist Elgar often played chamber music with. His variation is perky and excited.
R.B.T. Richard Baxter Townshend was an Oxford classicist who also performed in amateur theater productions and rode a bicycle around town. Here he seems a little pompous, in a good-natured way—an eccentric professor.
W.M.B Here we have William Meath Baker, a country squire, in a brief, bombastic variation.
R.P.A. Richard Penrose Arnold was the son of the poet Matthew Arnold and also a pianist. “His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks,” Elgar recalled.
Ysobel This time Elgar offers a respelling instead of initials for Isabel Fitton, an amateur violist he played chamber music with. Naturally the viola section takes the starring role with an easy-going attitude.
Troyte was the middle name of Arthur Griffith, an architect and watercolorist. He was apparently profoundly unmusical, and this noisy variation imagines Elgar attempting to teach him to play the piano in vain.
W.N. is Winifred Norbury, an upper-class woman who lived in a grand Georgian-era house. The movement reflects her stately demeanor and environment.
Nimrod is a character from Genesis, “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” In a translation pun, Elgar uses it to refer to August Jaeger, whose last name means “hunter” in German. This is the most substantial movement and the centerpiece of the set. Jaeger worked in the office of Elgar’s publisher, Novello, and became a close confidante who supported the composer through stretches of depression.
Dorabella (Intermezzo) This is Dora Penny, whose stepmother was friends with Alice. Elgar grew close to the young woman, and probably found her attractive. The variation suggests a little bit of flirting. A few years later he would send her the “Dorabella Cipher,” a letter with three lines of curlicues containing another uncracked message.
G.R.S. George Robertson Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral, but Elgar’s music portrays his dog, Dan. “The first few bars were suggested by a great bulldog . . . falling down the steep bank into the River Wye; his paddling up stream to find a landing place; and his rejoicing bark on landing.”
B.G.N. Basil Nevinson was a scientist and artist. This lyrical variation captures someone sensitive and a bit sad.
***Romanza is a portrait of Lady Mary Lygon, who was sailing to Australia as Elgar wrote the Variations. He quotes from Felix Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and you can hear the churning of the ocean liner and surrounding waves.
E.D.U. This is not a friend at all, but rather Elgar himself. The regal, march-like music recalls the English festival pieces he had written earlier in his career. At the end of the score, he wrote a quote from Tasso, the Italian Renaissance poet: “Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio.” “I long for much, hope for little, and ask for nothing.”