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Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, Enigma Variations

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edward Elgar
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Mark O'Connor, violin and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin Jun. 16 - 18, 2005
© Richard Freed
Elgar composed the Enigma Variations in the spring of 1899; the premiere was given in London on June 19 of that year under the direction of Hans Richter. Although the National Symphony Orchestra has given numerous performances of this work during its regular subscription seasons, both its earliest one and its most recent one were given under guest conductors at summertime venues—the first outdoors at the Water Gate on June 24, 1942, with Guy Fraser Harrison conducting, and the most recent at the National Cathedral on July 20, 2001, under Giancarlo Guerrero.

The score, dedicated “to my friends pictured within,” calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, strings, and organ. Duration, 34 minutes.


It was Elgar himself who first used the term “enigma” in speaking of this work, though its genesis was neither puzzling nor profound. “After a long and tiresome day's teaching [i.e., giving violin lessons],” he recalled, “aided by a cigar, I musingly played on the piano the theme as it now stands.” He then proceeded to entertain his wife by altering the theme as it might be played by—or reflect the characteristics of—certain of their friends. The work thus conceived, actually Elgar's first major composition for large orchestra, was completed swiftly and enjoyed a pronounced success when Richter introduced it in London in June 1899. Three months later Elgar himself conducted a performance at Worcester (with the coda added, presumably on Richter's advice) which confirmed his status as a master whose only rival in the orchestral sphere, many insisted, was Richard Strauss.

Strauss had introduced his own self-congratulatory tone poem A Hero's Life in March of that year; Elgar's score also includes a self-portrait, but a much briefer one, which is the last in a series of fourteen. In a note to his friend and publisher August Jaeger (of the firm of Novello), himself the subject of Variation IX, Elgar stated that he had written the variations as he imagined the respective individuals depicted therein might have done “if they were asses enough to compose.” The origins of the theme, however, he steadfastly refused to clarify or discuss, stating,

The Variations should stand simply as a piece of music. 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 larger theme “goes,” but it is not played . . . So the principal theme never appears, even as in some late dramas . . . the chief character is never on the stage.

In 1952 Irving Kolodin, then music editor of Saturday Review was stimulated by Arturo Toscanini's newly issued recording of this work to hold a contest to solve Elgar's enigma; the winning entry was one that suggested a theme from Mozart's opera Così fan tutte , but this theory has not won universal acceptance. There is, to be sure, a “Dorabella” in Variation X, but no trace there of Così , while quotations from Beethoven and Mendelssohn are prominent in Variations IX and XIII, respectively. A somewhat more persuasive case was made about twenty years ago for “Auld Lang Syne,” and yet another for “Rule Britannia”—but one might well ask why Elgar would have troubled to title this work “Variations on an Original Theme” if the theme had in fact been borrowed from Mozart or from any other source.

Elgar himself, still refusing to identify the theme in any specific sense in his later years, described it as expressing his “sense of loneliness as an artist.” Five years after his death the music critic Ernest Newman, who admired Elgar (and this work in particular) profoundly, suggested that friendship itself may have been the “larger theme,” which of course cannot be “played.”

In any event, if the theme itself remains elusive or enigmatic, Elgar made his descriptive intentions clear enough (with a single exception). Following the initial statement of the theme ( Andante ), the dramatis personae appear in the following order:

I ( L'istesso tempo —”C.A.E.”). The initials identify the composer's wife, Caroline Alice Elgar

II ( Allegro —”H.D.S.-P.”). Hew David Steuart-Powell, an amateur pianist

III ( Allegretto —”R.B.T.”). Richard Baxter Townshend, a popular author who enjoyed mimicry and whose voice rose in pitch during excited performances

IV ( Allegro di molto —”W.M.B.”). William Meath Baker, a country squire, barking orders to his guests and making a brusque exit

V ( Moderato —”R.P.A.”). Matthew Arnold's son Richard, good-natured but given to day-dreaming

VI ( Andantino —”Ysobel”). Miss Isabel Fitton, an amateur violist who always had trouble crossing from one string to another

VII ( Presto —”Troyte”). Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect, persistently unsuccessful in his attempts at playing the piano

VIII ( Allegretto —”W.N.”). This variations is actually not so much a portrait of Miss Winifred Norbury, a music-lover and nonstop talker, as an evocation of her splendid house, the scene of numerous performances and gatherings of musicians.

IX ( Moderato —”Nimrod”). A reference to the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata in the opening of this variation represents Elgar and his closest friend, the aforementioned August Jaeger (whose surname, the German word for “hunter,” is clearly hinted at in the heading of this variation), engaged in a discussion of Beethoven.

X ( Intermezzo —”Dorabella”). Dora Penney (Mrs. Richard Powell, daughter of the Rector of Wolverhampton) was a vivacious young woman whose curious speech pattern Elgar tried to imitate here. His remark to her that she of all people ought to have guessed the identity of his theme has been cited in support of the “Rule Britannia” possibility, since the figure of Britannia appeared on the old British penny.

XI ( Allegro di molto —”G.R.S.”). George Robertson Sinclair was the organist of Hereford Cathedral; his bulldog Dan is heard barking as he jumps into the River Wye to fetch a stick.

XII ( Andante —”B.G.N.”) Basil G. Nevinson, an amateur cellist who played trios with Elgar and H.D.S.-P.

XIII ( Moderato —*** -Romanza). Lady Elgar is said to have inserted the asterisks, presumably to cloak the identity of Lady Mary Lygon, who had sailed for Australia at about the time Elgar began composing the Variations; the citation of Mendelssohn's overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage was thought to allude to her ocean trip. The possibility was raised, however, that the allusion may have been to Helen Weaver, to whom Elgar had been engaged in 1883-84 and who also sailed to Australia, but in this case as an emigrant rather than a visitor. It now seems most likely that the unidentified subject was actually Alice Stuart-Wortley, a daughter of the English painter Sir John Everett Millais. Elgar had a close relationship with her for some 35 years; she was the secret dedicatee of his Violin Concerto in 1910, and probably of his Second Symphony as well.

XIV ( Finale: Allegro —”E.D.U.”). A self-portrait, of which Elgar (called “Edoo) by his wife) noted: “Written at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging as to the composer's musical future, this variation is merely intended to show what E.D.U. intended to do. References are made to two great influences upon the life of the composer: C.A.E. and Nimrod. The whole work is summed up in the triumphant broad presentation of the theme in the major.”