Related Artists/CompaniesEdward Elgar
About the Work
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, "Enigma"
The "Enigma Variations" were the breakthrough that established Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and have remained his most-popular work. Like Stephen Sondheim in our own time, Elgar was a passionate devotee of puzzles. He originally applied the label "Enigma" to the theme alone, but the entire set of variations soon became known by that nickname.
There are, in fact, several enigmas associated with the work. Each of the fourteen variations is associated with friends and loved ones who were part of the composer's relaxed life in provincial England. Elgar cryptically indicated the corresponding personalities with initials, but his remarks on the piece made them readily identifiable. There are also personal interrelationships between some of the subjects. Moreover, Elgar hinted at a larger, unexplained enigma, whereby the true principal theme is never played but only outlined indirectly by the theme and variations that we do hear—"even as in some late dramas the chief character is never onstage." The theme and variations of the written score, then, would form a kind of countermelody to the unheard theme, whose "dark saying" can only be "left unguessed."
Not surprisingly, the enigma has been catnip for generations of scholars and puzzle-lovers. Proposed solutions to the "unheard" theme range from "Auld Lang Syne" (a solution Elgar categorically denied) and "Rule Britannia" to a scriptural quote about the omnipresence of love. Meanwhile, the theme itself, stated in a songlike ABA form, involves a basic contrast between G minor and major. Elgar reverses the rhythmic pattern in each phrase of the theme's main part, from short-short-long-long to long-long-short-short and vice versa.
Adams has come to realize there remains yet another enigma. As an artist who, like Copland and Leonard Bernstein, attempts to balance distinctive identities as composer and conductor, Adams is especially intrigued by the evidence of recordings on which Elgar conducts his own work. "The conundrum," Adams points out, "of whether or not to follow a composer-conducted recording that radically departs from the notated score" adds to the fascination the "Enigma Variations" holds for him.
The breakdown of the various personalities encoded in the Variations is as follows.
I: Elgar's beloved wife, Caroline Alice Elgar, appears as a fuller, romanticized, harmonically richer development of the theme.
II: Notably chromatic excursions are said to refer to exercises with which Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist, would warm up at the keyboard.
III: Registral extremes of high and low woodwinds are played off each other to etch a portrait of amateur actor Richard Baxter Townshend, who could vary the pitch of his voice to extreme contrasts.
IV: A blustery change of tempo suggests a musical counterpart to the confident country gentleman William Meath Baker.
V: This moody variation captures the mutability of poet Matthew Arnold's son, Richard Penrose Arnold.
VI: Isabel Fitton studied viola with Elgar and hence is depicted by the melodic dominance of a luminously beautiful viola.
VII: Another music student, the architect Arthur Troyte Griffth, is the target of Elgar's characteristic humor as he battles valiantly for command of the keyboard and then just gives up.
VIII: The graceful world of the elderly music patroness Winifrid Norbury—punctuated by her signature laugh—comes to life in this delicately proportioned variation.
IX: A sustained line from the previous variation segues directly into what is the best-known variation of the set—and its emotional core. In fact, this piece is often extracted for use at funerals and serious ceremonial occasions. It has become the epitome for the grand rhetorical expression of the end of an era, before war and modernism swept it all away. "Nimrod" is one of Elgar's puns for A. J. Jaeger (his name is the German word for "hunter," like the biblical namesake). Jaeger was the composer's closest friend who continually encouraged his efforts. His "portrait" recalls a deep conversation the two engaged in while walking one night, as Jaeger described the nobility of Beethoven's slow movements.
X: A delicate intermezzo depicts Dorabella Penny (who was related to the subjects of Variations III and IV), including her stutter.
XI: This variation includes not only the subject, organist George R. Sinclair, but his pet bulldog Dan. Elgar recalls a picnic afternoon during which Dan fell into the River Wye and barked emphatically as soon as he could wriggle out.
XII: Here the cello takes the spotlight (as the viola did in Variation VI), referring to the cellist Basil G. Nevinson in this variation of touching melancholy.
XIII: Another enigma within the "Enigma" is the subject of the penultimate variation, indicated only by asterisks in the score. Elgar notes that his quotation from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage refers to the subject undertaking a sea voyage. Some speculate she may be an old flame, Elgar's former fiancée Helen Weaver.
XIV: Elgar bookends the Variations with a depiction of his wife at the beginning and, here, a self-portrait in a magnificent summing up of the whole work ("E.D.U." or "Edoo" was a pet name Elgar's wife used for him). He draws on the full panoply of the orchestra for this energetic and most comprehensive expansion of the theme. In its opulent and stately guises, Elgar suggests how deeply his personality is entwined with those of his wife and his friend Jaeger.