Elgar Enigma Variations

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Elgar Enigma Variations Program Notes

Elgar  dedicated  his  Enigma  Variations  to  my  friends  pictured  within.    He  said  the  Enigma  theme  was  derived  from  a  well-known  tune,  but  for  the  rest  of  his  life  he  would  not  say  what  it  was.    There  have  been  interesting  guesses,  including  Rule,  Britannia  (the  words  Britons  never,  never,  never…).    Author  Robert  W.  Padgett  refutes  Britannia,  because  Elgar  insisted  Enigma  is  a  counterpoint  to  the  principal  theme,  which  is  never  heard.  This  means  the  listener  could  hear  two  different  melodies  if  they  were  played  simultaneously.  Padgett  tells  entertaining  examples  –  a  hidden  melody  Elgar,  age  12,  added  to  Handel’s  Messiah,  and  God  Save  the  King against  the  5/4  melody  in  Tchaikovsky’s  6th  Symphony.  Padgett  makes  a  detailed,  and  technical,  case  for  the  1529  hymn  by  Martin  Luther,  A  Mighty  Fortress.In  any  case,  our  enjoyment  (and  even  interpretation)  of  the  Variations  is  less  about  ciphering  and  more  about  Elgar  having  immortalized  the  character,  and  even  his  feelings  for,  the  friends  in  the  variations.  He  wrote  about  them  in  1929,  in  a publication,  now  available  online,  called  My  Friends  Pictured  Within.

Theme:  Andante  –  Variation  I:  Andante  Caroline  Alice  Elgar,  his  wife.  Elgar  wrote  the  theme  with  what  I  wished  to  be  romantic  and  delicate  additions:  those  who  knew  CAE  will  understand  this  reference  to  one  whose  life  was  a

romantic  and  delicate  inspiration.

II.  Allegro.  Hew  David  Steuart-Powell,  amateur  pianist.  His  characteristic  diatonic  runs  over  the  keys  before  beginning  to  play…travestied  [by  Elgar]  …  chromatic  beyond  H.D.S-P.’s  liking.

III.  Allegretto.  Richard  Baxter  Townshend,  author,  and  also  a  player  in  amateur  productions:  this  imitation  is  meant  to  be  an  imitation  of  an  old  gentleman:  the  growing  grumpiness  of  the  bassoons  is  important.IV.  Allegro  di  molto.  W.  M.  Baker,  an  energetic  country  squire,  gentleman  and  scholar,  who,  having  forcibly  instructed  guests  on  the  day’s  plans,  hurriedly  left  the  music-room  with  an  inadvertent  bang  of  the  door.

V.  Moderato.  Ricard  P.  Arnold,  son  of  Matthew  Arnold,  amateur  pianist.  His  serious  conversation  was  continually  broken  up  by  whimsical  and  witty  remarks.

VI:  Andantino.  Isabel  Fitton,  a  Malvern  lady,  and  one  of  Elgar’s  viola  students,  whose  solo  viola  string-crossing  exercises  grow  into  a  beautiful  and  genteel  variation.

VII:  Presto.  Troyte  Griffith,  architect,  and  briefly,  a  piano  student  of  Elgar,  who  said  the  noise  of  him  trying  to  learn  piano  (in  vain)  reminded  him  of  the  thunderstorm  the  two  were  caught  in  on  a  walk  in  the  countryside.    They  took  shelter  at  the  comfortable  old  house  of  Winifred  Norbury,  subject  of  the  next  variation.

VIII:  Allegretto.  Winifred  Norbury,  amateur  musician,  and  her  sister,  lived  in  an eighteenth-century  house

IX:  Adagio.  Nimrod.  A.  Jaeger,  office  manager  at  Novello,  Elgar’s  music  publisher.  Earlier  in  Elgar’s  career,  Elgar  had  shared  with  Jaeger  his  self-doubts  about  composing.  Jaeger  talked  about  Beethoven’s  struggling,  yet  composed  even  more  beautiful  music.  Nimrod  hints  at  the  slow  movement  of  Beethoven’s  Pathetique.  (For  the  title,  Jaeger  is  German  for  Hunter,  and  Old  Testament  Nimrod  was  a  great  hunter.)

X.  Allegretto.  Dorabella:  Dora  Penny.  One  of  Elgar’s  viola  students,  she  was  a  close  friend;  he  gently  plays  on  her  stutter  in  the  woodwind  writing,  while  the  inner  sustained  phrases  at  first  on  the  viola  and  later  on  the  flute  should  be  noted.

XI.  Allegro  di  molto.  George  Robertson  Sinclair,  organist  of  Hereford  Cathedral.    However,  Elgar  portrays  his  dog,  Dan.  In  the  first  five  measures,  his falling  down  the  steep  bank  into  the  river…  his  paddling  upstream  to  find  a  landing  place…  and  his  rejoicing  bark  on  landing…  G.R.S.  said  ‘set  that  to  music.’  I  did;  here  it  is.

XII.  Andante.  Basil  G.  Nevinson,  scientist  (including  insect  biology),  an  amateur  cellist  and  a  member,  with  Elgar  and  H.D.S-P  (Variation  II),  of  a  piano  trio

XIII:  Moderato.  *  *  *  Lady  Mary  Lygon.  Elgar  quotes  Mendelssohn’s  Calm  Sea  and  Prosperous  Voyage.  Elgar  omitted  Lady  Lygon’s  initials,  because  it  might  seem  like  presuming  an  endorsement  (e.g.  by  appointment  to…).  There  are  suggestions  the  variation  had  a  secret  dedicatee,  too.  Elgar  seems  to  have  always  contemplative,  wondering  ‘what  if?’  Another  piece,  composed  soon  after,  was  his  seldom-played  orchestral  miniature  Dream  Children,  inspired  by  poet

Charles  Lamb,  about  ideas  of  children  one  never  had,  and  lives  unlived.

XIV:  Allegro.  Finale:  E.D.U.  Elgar  himself  –  a  grand,  sprawling  movement,  with  self-contradictions  tugging  between  grand  martial  music,  espressivo  material,  a  return  to  the  music  from  his  wife’s  variation,  and  an  exciting  culmination  at  the  work’s  end.

Born: June 2, 1857, Broadheath, United Kingdom
Died: February 23, 1934, Worcester, United Kingdom

Categories: Program Notes