In 1898, after a hard day of teaching fiddle, Edward Elgar, a young musician from the English Midlands, relaxed by improvising melodies on the piano for the entertainment of his wife, Caroline. She was so intrigued by one of the themes that Edward improvised a number of variations on it, each illustrating the personality of someone the Elgars knew.
The improvisations were so successful that Elgar went on to make them into an orchestral composition he called Variations on an Original Theme. It was premiered in 1899 in London and was a great success, opening the door to the big-time for him.
Now that yarn sounds like something from one of those 1940’s lives-of-the-composers movies. But though it sounds suspiciously theatrical, the story comes from Elgar himself, so we might as well go along with it.
First Part of the Enigma
The Variations begin with a theme that is in two sections, the most important being the first four measures in G Minor. That consists of four four-note units separated by rests. Between the two statements of the minor key portion of the theme, there is a brief major key segment. Elgar called the theme “Enigma,” and later on the entire work acquired its popular name, The Enigma Variations.
Despite Mrs. Elgar’s enthusiasm, the theme seems unimpressive. Elgar himself said it was “nothing much, but something might be made of it.” In fact, the theme was perfect for Elgar’s purposes. He made imaginative use of the units as building blocks to be varied and recombined.
The task Elgar set for himself was to create musical impressions of members of his circle of friends—fourteen people—and one dog. Each variation was to present a general portrait of a person and a reference to a specific characteristic or event associated with him or her. Examples of the latter are the ‘cello solo in Variation XII, which portrays Basil George Nevinson, an amateur ‘cellist who often played with Edward, and the repeated woodwind notes in Variation X imitating the stutter of that variation’s namesake, Dora Penny. The titles of most of the variations include the initials of the individual sketched in the music.
After the theme is presented, the variations proceed with minimal breaks. The composition is anchored by three variations corresponding to the most important people in Elgar’s life.
The first of these is, of course, his beloved wife and muse, Caroline. For the greater part of this variation, Edward presents the Enigma as a warm and winsome melody with minimal ornamentation, but the music briefly rises to a passionate crescendo midway through.
The second anchor is Variation IX entitled “Nimrod.” It occurs two-thirds of the way through the Variations and
Theme of the “Nimrod” Variation
In Nimrod the Enigma is presented intact for the first time since the first variation. But now it is slowed down, compressed from 4/4 to 3/4 time by removing the rests, and transposed to a major key.
These changes give the variation a quiet nobility. Hearing it, one can imagine the decorous conversation of a pair of Victorian gentlemen enjoying each other’s company over cigars and brandy.
The subject of the last anchor, the Finale, is—surprise!—Elgar himself. The title E.D.U. is Caroline’s nickname for him, Edu. It comes from the first three letters of “Eduard,” the Germanized version of “Edward.” The Finale is brilliant with lots of brass and percussion. The units of Enigma get a workout, and the entire theme is presented in the Caroline Elgar and Nimrod versions.
But what about the enigma? You might think the “enigma” of the Variations would be identifying the people associated with each movement. But that puzzle was easy and was solved right away. It wouldn’t have risen to the level of a true enigma, defined as “a perplexing, baffling, or seemingly inexplicable matter, person, etc.”
Elgar said the real enigma had to do not with the theme of the variations but with an additional melody that “‘goes’ but is not played.” That was vague enough to keep musicologists busy for the next hundred years or so.
In that time various melodies have been proposed as the solution to the enigma, ranging from Rule Britannia to Bach’s Art of the Fugue. But none has been generally accepted. The futile search for the true enigma is a suitably theatrical coda to the Enigma Variations story.
By the way, the dog in the variations is a bulldog whose woofing and grumbling are depicted by the bassoon at the beginning Variation XI. The dog’s name was Dan. Our bassoonist’s name is also Dan. So Dan plays Dan. Catherine and Edu would have been quite amused.
© William F. Long, 2019