SUMMARY OF THE COMPOSITION
Upon returning home from giving violin lessons, Elgar sat down at the piano and to unwind, began improvising. His wife, Alice, commented favourably on the tune that emerged, and Elgar responded by suggesting how some of their friends might have played it. The spontaneous exchange led to the idea of the Enigma Variations, a work that finally secured his reputation as a composer nationally and internationally.
Variation I (l’istesso) C.A.E.
A portrait of Elgar’s wife, the music has a tender lyricism that also reflects Elgar himself.
Variation II (Allegro) H.D.S.-P.
A portrait of Hew D. Steuart-Powell, the pianist in Elgar’s trio, this variation mimics the pianist’s trademark way of warming up on the piano.
Variation III (Allegretto) R.B.T.
A portrait of Richard Baxter Townshend, a popular author who wrote A Tenderfoot in Colorado, Elgar imitates the author’s tendency to raise his voice pitch when excited.
Variation IV (Allegro di molto) W.M.B.
This variation is a portrait of William Meath Baker, a gruff country squire who often made hasty exits by slamming the door. According to Elgar, he would “forcibly read out the arrangements for the day” to his guests.
Variation V (Moderato) R.P.A.
This variation is a portrait of a young philosopher Richard P. Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold. In Elgar’s words, “His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks”.
Variation VI (Andantino) Ysobel
This variation is a portrait of Elgar’s friend, Isabel Fitton, who tried to learn the viola under the composer’s tutelage. It seems likely she was not a very good student and ended her lessons, stating, “I value our friendship much too much”. Viola, the featured instrument of this variation, contains many string crossings that depict Isabel’s struggle in playing the string instrument.
Variation VII (Presto) Troyte
This variation is a portrait of Arthur Troyte Griffith, another of Elgar’s less than successful students. According to Elgar, the variation depicts Troyte’s “maladroit essays to play the pianoforte; later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor (Elgar) to make something like order out of chaos, and the final despairing ’slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain”.
Variation VIII (Allegretto) W.N.
A portrait of Winifred Norbury, this variation depicts her charming house that Elgar enjoyed so much. It was the site of many musical performances and musician gatherings.
Variation IX (Moderato) Nimrod
A portrait of Elgar’s publisher and close friend, August Jaeger, this variation is the artistic centre of the work, and one of Elgar’s greatest works. The noble theme is deliberately built around a melody by Beethoven.
Variation X (Intermezzo) Dorabella
A portrait of Dora Penny, a young and vivacious friend of the Elgars, this variation depicts Dora’s slight stutter. She was the stepdaughter of William Meath Baker’s (Variation IV) sister and the sister-in-law of Richard Baxter Townshend (Variation III).
Variation XI (Allegro di molto) G.R.S.
A portrait of Dr. G.R. Sinclair, an organist at Hereford Cathedral, this variation is based on Sinclair’s dog. In Elgar’s words, “The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog Dan (a well-known character) falling down a steep bank into the River Wye; his paddling up stream to find a landing place; and rejoicing bark on landing”.
Variation XII (Andante) B.G.N.:
A portrait of Basil G. Nevinson, the cellist in Elgar’s trio, this variation features the cello section in honour of Nevinson, who was also Elgar’s “serious and devoted friend”.
Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato)
This variation is a portrait of Lady Mary Lygon. Elgar intended to get her permission to use her initials, but she was on her way to Australia. According to Elgar, “The drums suggest the distant throb of the engines of a liner over which the clarinet quotes a phrase from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage!”
Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) E.D.U.
This variation is a portrait of Elgar himself, depicting his intentions for the future through its triumphant conclusion.
WHO IS ... Edward Elgar?
Suprising fun facts
- Elgar was an enthusiastic cyclist. He named his Royal Sunbeam bicycle “Mr. Phoebus”.
- His father, an accomplished violinist and organist, was also a piano tuner and the owner of a music shop.
- His wife, Alice, was disinherited for marrying him.
- More than 60 roads in the United Kingdom are named in honour of Elgar.
- Loved the countryside and had lived in more than 25 houses or apartments during his lifetime.