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Enigma Variations

The Enigma Variations are a set of variations for orchestra written by the composer Edward Elgar in 1898-99. The full title is Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma). It is probably Elgar's best known full length piece.

The story of the composition of the work is that one day, after a tiring day of teaching, Elgar sat at the piano and began to play a melody. Then, to entertain his wife, he began to improvise variations on it, each one a caricature of one of their friends or in the style they might have composed it in. Over time, the piece was worked on, expanded and orchestrated to become the well known piece it is today.

It is unusual for a set of variations in that the theme all the variations are based on is never heard. Instead, the piece starts straight away with the first variation. Elgar said that the unheard theme was itself a variation on some well known tune. Many guesses have been made as to what this might be, but nobody has ever solved this puzzle, the enigma which gives the piece its name. One of the more often heard guesses is that it is the British national anthem, God Save the King. In the opinion of some, the unheard "main theme" is actually a counter-melody to some other tune: in other words it would fit in with it, but does not necessarily contain any of its characteristics other than the most general harmonic outline.

Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within", and at the head of each variation, Elgar wrote the nickname or initials corresponding to the friend he was depicting. They are:

  • Variation 1: C.A.E. - Caroline Alice Elgar, Edward's wife
  • Variation 2: H.D.S-P. - Hew David Stuart-Powell, a pianist friend with whom Elgar often played chamber music
  • Variation 3: R.B.T. - Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor and mimic, capable of extreme changes to the pitch of his voice, a characteristic which the music imitates
  • Variation 4: W.N.B. - William Neath Baker, a country gent
  • Variation 5: R.P.A. - Richard P. Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and himself an amateur pianist
  • Variation 6: Ysobel - Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. The melody of this variation is played by the viola
  • Variation 7: Troyte - Arthur Troyte Griffiths, an architect, who attempted to play the piano, but was apparently not very good. The variation mimics his enthusiastic incompetence
  • Variation 8: W.N. - Winifred Norbury, a friend Elgar regarded as particularly easy going, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. At the end of this variation, a single violin note is held over into the next one, the most famous of them all
  • Variation 9: Nimrod - Augustus E. Jaeger, Elgar's best friend. It is said that this variation, as well as an attempt to capture what Elgar saw as Jaeger's noble character, depicts a night-time walk the two of them had, during which they discussed Ludwig van Beethoven. The name of the variation punningly refers to an Old Testament patriarch described as a mighty hunter, the name Jaeger being German for hunter.
  • Variation 10: Dorabella - Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter (or laugh, depending on who you listen to) is depicted by the woodwinds
  • Variation 11: G.R.S. - George Robertson Sinclair, the organist of Hereford Cathedral[?]
  • Variation 12: B.G.N. - Basil G. Nevinson, a well known cellist, who gets a cello melody for his variation. Later, Nevinson inspired Elgar to write his Cello Concerto[?]
  • Variation 13: * * * - because of the lack of initials, the identity of this person is unclear. However, the music includes a quote from Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt), which leads most people to believe it depicts either Lady Mary Lygon, local noblewoman on a voyage to Australia at the time, or Helen Weaver, who was Elgar's fiancée before emigrating to New Zealand in 1884
  • Variation 14: E.D.U. - Elgar himself, "Edu" being his wife's nickname for him

The piece was premiered at the St. James Hall in London on June 19, 1899, conducted by Hans Richter, and has remained popular since.

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