Saturday, March 5, 2005 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)
VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME (“ENIGMA”) , Op.36
Premiered: London, England, 1899
There are no other works of English music that are simultaneously as popular, and as mysterious, as the Enigma Variations. The rather odd theme that forms the bedrock of the work sounds more like an accompaniment to a melody than an actual melody, a fact reinforced by Elgar’s apparent announcement that it is exactly that – only the “real” melody is never heard, and lurks in the background of the whole work as a ghost, only fleetingly observed through the variations and known only to Elgar himself. It was, he said, a melody that everyone knows. Musicians have since spent over a hundred years looking for the “Enigma” melody.
In fact, it is Elgar’s own curious phraseology gives his game away – “The melody never is heard,” he said. It is now widely accepted that the answer is, in fact, in plain sight. The melody is the chain of interlocking thirds that form the setting of the word “never” in Arne’s Rule Britannia. This little phrase is literally all over the Variations, and is unmissable once listened for.
The Variations originated in a musical parlor game that Elgar played with his wife after returning home one evening. He played a tune on the piano and then proceeded to improvise different versions of it, portraying how their friends might have played the same tune, as his wife shouted suggestions and the Elgars became progressively more giggly.
The Enigma Variations ultimately came to portray fourteen people and a dog; two other friends, Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, were dropped early on, as Elgar wished to avoid writing pastiche. Here are the work’s surviving friends:
C.A.E.: A loving portrait of Elgar’s wife Alice; H.D.S-P.: Hew David Steuart-Powell, the pianist in Elgar’s piano trio (Elgar played violin); R.B.T.: Richard Baxter Townshend, a caricaturist, here caricatured himself; W.M.B.: William Meath Baker, Elgar’s local squire and unlikely amateur musician; R.P.A.: Richard Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold and a staunch Anglo-Catholic; Ysobel: Isobel Fitton, a violist later rumored to have had a relationship with Elgar; Troyte: Arthur Troyte Griffith, architect of Elgar’s house and a very bad pianist; W.N.: Winifred Norbury, secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society and a champion of Elgar’s music; Nimrod: A. J. Jaeger, Elgar's publisher and Beethoven scholar (Nimrod is the Hunter in the Book of Genesis, and Jaeger is the German word for hunter); Dorabella: Dora Penny, daughter of the Rector of Wolverhampton; G.R.S.: George Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral, - but the Variation actually portrays Sinclair’s dog Dan falling into the River Wye; B.G.N.: Basil Nevinson, the cellist in Elgar’s trio;- ***: Now known to be Helen Weaver, who was once Elgar’s fiancée, but abandoned him to emigrate to New Zealand – hence the quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage;- E.D.U.: Elgar himself. His wife called him Edu, abbreviated from the German form of his name, Eduard. The variation features the tiny tune Elgar would whistle as he came through the front door to let his wife know he was home.