Variations on an Original Theme

Op. 36 ("Enigma"), Sir Edward Elgar

On February 2, 1899 Edward Elgar completed his Variations on an Original Theme saying “In this music I have sketched for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of 14 of my friends, not necessarily musicians.” Although the composer began with the idea of simply having fun, Opus 36, catapulted England back onto the international music scene after Elgar took his theme and elaborated on it in a magnificent set of variations for orchestra. England had not had any musical prominence for so long that the music critic of the Manchester Guardian, Arthur Johnstone, wrote “The audience seemed rather astonished that a work by a British composer should have other than a petrifying effect on them!”

The additional title “Enigma” refers to a concealed theme which is suggested within the variations. Elgar baited speculation about the work saying “The enigma 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 and larger theme goes, but is not played.” The composer carried this special secret to his grave.

The theme emerged from casual circumstances. In his own words, Elgar explained “One evening, after a long and tiresome days teaching, aided by a cigar, I musingly played on the piano the theme as it now stands. The voice of C.A.E. (Lady Elgar) asked with a sound of approval, ‘What was that?’ I answered, ‘Nothing — but something might be made of it.” It was as if Elgar merely stumbled upon the keystone of his momentous work.

The composer’s own words (in quotations) enhance the nature of his friends’ tonal portraits.

C.A.E. – Caroline Alice Elgar, his wife “a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions.”

H.D.S.P.- H. David Stuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar played chamber music. “His characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play is here travestied in the semiquaver (sixteenth note) passages.”

R.B.T. – Richard Baxter Townshend, an actor famous for playing the roles of old men with their “low voices flying off occasionally into ‘soprano timber’ as heard in the dialogue between the bassoon and the higher woodwinds.” He was also a bass singer.

W.M.B. – William M. Baker, a fiery and vigorous country squire who one time “forcibly read out the arrangements for the day and hurriedly left the music-room with an inadvertent bang of the door.”

R.P.A. – Richard Penrose Arnold, a self-taught amateur pianist and delightful raconteur, about whom Elgar noted “His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.”

Ysobel – Isobel Fitton was an amateur violist/violinist and a student of Elgar’s “who was very tall, explaining the huge upward leaps in the melody.” The composer felt that her music should be “pensive, and for a moment, romantic.”

Troyte – Arthur Troyte Griffith, a “truculent architect” who had a habit of saying the unexpected. Hence, the music is often surprising. “The strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor to make something like order out of chaos. “

W.N. – Winifred Norbury (and her sister) Elgar wrote “The gracious personalities of the ladies are shown, and a little suggestion of a characteristic laugh is given.” Winifred was secretary to the Worcester Philharmonic Society.

Nimrod – August Jaeger (the Hunter) an esteemed musicologist. “The music is the record of a long summer evening talk when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven.”

Dorabella – Dora Penny, a friend of the composer. “The music suggests a dancelike lightness.”

G.R.S. – Dr. George Robinson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral. “The music has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals. The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog, Dan, falling down the steep bank into the River Wye and his rejoicing bark on landing.” G.R.S. said ‘Set that to music!’ I did, and here it is.”

B.G. N. – Basil G. Nevinson, an amateur cellist “A tribute to a very dear friend.” Note the special role given to the celli in this section.

***** – Lady Mary Lygon “The asterisks take the place of the name of a lady who was, at the time of composition on a sea voyage (and hence could not be asked for permission to use her initials). The drums suggest the distant throb of the engine over which the clarinet quotes a phrase from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

E.D.U. – “Edu” was the pet name given to Elgar by his wife. “The music is bold and vigorous in general style.”

After the friends are presented, Elgar concludes with a fast coda. The Variations premiered at the Worcester England Festival on September 13, 1899 under the baton of the composer.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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