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.