by David Powys Hughes

The legend (initiated by Elgar himself) goes that on 21 October 1898, he returned from teaching the violin—a task for which he had neither inclination nor patience—and decided to relax at the piano with a cigar. As he improvised, Alice interrupted, saying: Edward, that's a good tune. Play it again. Edward was unsure which tune she meant but continued to strum until she cried: That's the tune! So Edward, at first light-heartedly but then more intently, began exploring this melody in different guises. Thus was born the work popularly known as The Enigma Variations (although its official published title is merely Variations for Orchestra, Opus 36). As Edward later explained in a letter: I've labelled 'em [the variations] with the nicknames of my particular friends [except most are headed with three or four cryptic initials]. I've liked to imagine the 'party' writing the var: him (or her) self . . . what I think they wd. have written—if they were asses enough to compose—it's a quaint idee & the result is amusing to those behind the scenes & won't affect the hearer who 'nose nuffin'.

If we can believe the above-mentioned date for the work's first conception, the composition went forward with unusual speed. The variations were completed within four months, including the final fortnight devoted to orchestration and scoring. Alice prepared the score pages for her husband by laying out the instrument names and clefs down the left-hand side and drawing the bar lines—not, as has sometimes been sentimentally suggested, by laboriously ruling out every horizontal stave. The Elgars were never so impoverished that pages of printed manuscript paper were beyond their reach. And Edward's father owned a music shop, for heaven's sake!

Shortly before publication, Elgar asked to have the word 'Enigma' added to the printed score above the initial statement of the main theme. Before long, Enigma was adopted as the informal name of the whole variation set.

Intended or not, the Enigma title was a clever promotional ploy. It caught the public's attention and aroused their curiosity. A piece with a name will always have wider appeal. It's easier to remember and it catches the imagination. To use a modern radio idiom, named works get more 'play time': Surprise Symphony rather than Symphony No 94; Moonlight Sonata rather than Sonata No 14, Opus 27, No 2. Who cares if the assigned title bears minimal relationship to the music?

Something which generated further media discussion was Elgar's device of the hidden 'friends pictured within'. Was this all just a gimmick? Not really. Edward had a natural love of puzzles, crosswords and anagrams. For example, his daughter's name, Carice, was a composite of his wife's names Caroline and Alice. The Great Malvern house the family moved to just after Edward composed the Enigmas he dubbed Craeg Lea, which is an anagram of Elgar and the initials of its three occupants: E, A and C. That he should play verbal and personal games with his Opus 36 Variations needn't surprise us at all.

Elgar hinted at yet more riddles in the programme notes for the work's first performance: The Enigma I will not explain—its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed . . . further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played . . . the chief character is never on the stage. No one has ever satisfactorily deciphered the 'dark saying' or the unplayed 'larger theme', though many have tried. Elgar could not be persuaded to elucidate them. He took these last two mysteries to the grave.

I won't here list every one of the fourteen variations, each with its human 'picture'. Such lists are readily available. (You will even find one on this Website.) But I would like to mention some of the variations:

Variation I bears the initialled and bracketed heading (C.A.E). This is Caroline Alice Elgar's very own: tender and playful. Edward had a little 'signature' whistle that he used for Alice to herald his approach or his arrival home. This can be heard in the first part of the variation as a sort of 'diddely-doo' phrase in the oboe and bassoon accompaniment. Towards the end, the music swells momentarily, passionately, revealing, one might suppose, Edward's deep and sincere love for his wife.

The most famous variation (and the one most often heard in isolation) is Variation IX, entitled Nimrod. Nimrod was a mighty hunter of the Old Testament; and this variation is in honour of Elgar's German publishing agent, August Jaeger, the connection being that 'jäger' is the German word for 'hunter'. Elgar had every reason to be grateful to his 'Nimrod'. Jaeger was a dedicated friend and a relentless artistic adviser who actively promoted Elgar's music on the continent.
It is interesting to compare the music with the man. Jaeger was described by another of the Enigma dedicatees as garrulous, with an amusing—almost racy—turn of phrase. This sounds far from the grave, emotive character of the Nimrod variation. But Elgar explained to Jaeger: I have omitted your outside manner & have only seen the good loveable honest SOUL in the middle of you! Then he added: and the music's not good enough.
A further interpretation of the Nimrod music is revealed by Elgar when he describes it as the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend [Jaeger] discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven. Elgar points out how the opening bars of the variation suggest the slow movement of Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata.
Nimrod is the most deeply felt and moving music in the Enigma collection and it has become something of a musical symbol for 'Englishness'—an expression of the 'indomitable' and 'sensitive' national spirit. It is, for example, always played during the Queen's annual visit to the London Cenotaph in solemn memory of the British soldiers who died in the First and Second World Wars; which might seem a little incongruous when one remembers that this variation is dedicated to a German! (An appropriate irony? The widely held image of Elgar as a jingoistic, flag-waving nationalist is far from the truth. But I will come to that question elsewhere.)

Variation XI (G.R.S.) is not so much about the Hereford organist, George Robertson Sinclair, as about his bulldog, Dan. This rumbustious, tumbling variation reportedly pictures an occasion when Elgar and Sinclair were walking with Dan along the banks of the River Wye. The dog fell or jumped noisily into the river and George challenged Edward: Set that to music! Apparently Elgar took him at his word.

None has caused more extramusical debate than the Romanza, Variation XIII, with its mysterious heading (***) in place of the expected initials. Who do the three asterisks represent? Why is the person's identity concealed? The most favoured contender seems to be Lady Mary Lygon of Madresfield Court (near Malvern), Earl Beauchamp's sister and a vigorous supporter of local music culture. She was depicted by one of Elgar's circle of friends as a lively intelligent creature who could keep him [Edward] in order and make him work as well as amuse him. Lady Mary was often in Elgar's company. She helped to found a choral and orchestral society, the Worcestershire Philharmonic, specifically created for Edward to conduct; and she was a regular visitor to the Elgars' home.
The Romanza variation was characterized by one music critic as a poignant brooding upon some personal experience or other that had made a profound and enduring mark on the composer, who now dwelled in imagination on somebody . . . the parting from whom . . . had torn the very heart out of him. Embedded in the piece, a solo clarinet several times plays a quotation from Mendelssohn's overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. We know that soon after the variations were completed, Lady Mary Lygon sailed for Australia with her brother who was to take up the governorship of New South Wales. Was this Mendelssohn theme an advance reference to Mary's departure by sea?
Some have proposed that the three asterisks replace L.M.L. (initials indisputably appearing in Elgar's Enigma sketches) as a superstitious avoidance of directly naming Lady Mary Lygon as the 'thirteenth' dedicatee. Be that as it may, other listeners and commentators have made more romantic surmises: Could Lady Mary have been Edward's illicit lover? Or, at least, the object of his unrequited love?

The final Variation XIV represents the composer himself. Its title (E.D.U.) is derived from the pet name Alice liked to use with her husband: 'Edoo', a shortened form of the French, Edouard.
This is a kind of musical summing up, and we hear Elgar at his most extrovert and optimistic. In the confident spirit of a march, he carries us through two full versions of the Enigma theme, on the way recalling Alice's variation with gentle affection, and featuring the Nimrod tune in a new and more strident grandioso form.
Although August Jaeger was thrilled by the variations, he begged Elgar to give the finale even more weight by extending it. The composer complied (albeit grudgingly) to excellent effect.

The first performance under the famed Austrian-Hungarian conductor, Hans Richter, was given in London. It was a triumph and literally shot Elgar to stardom. In The Musical Times, Jaeger wrote of the composer and his achievement: Effortless originality . . . combined with thorough savoir faire, and, most important of all, beauty of theme, warmth, and feelings are his credentials, and they should open to him the hearts of all who have faith in the future of our English art and appreciate beautiful music wherever it is met.

Several days after the premiere, Elgar's mother sent Alice a letter: What can I say to him, the dear one—I feel that he is some great historic person—I cannot claim a little bit of him now he belongs to the big world. Ann Elgar was right about her son's changed status: if not yet with regard to 'the big world', at least to a larger international music community.


All material on this website © Simon Boswell


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