Order of the Cynthian Palm


The Enigma Variations, after the first Pomp and Circumstance March, is probably Elgar's most famous work and perhaps the first to put England back on the musical map after the death of Purcell in the late 17th century. Despite the circumstances of its composition and "the friends pictured within" both being well known, I do feel that I should write something about these Variations.

Elgar was an enthusiastic mystifier all his life and the theme itself is the "enigma": something that goes along with it but is unheard. Various solutions such as "Auld Lang Syne" have been suggested but perhaps the most plausible candidate is a theme (click to download excerpt.) from the Andante of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, on which he may have been idly improvising when his wife remarked that it was a "good tune". Anyway, Elgar never explained it so we don't know for certain. The theme itself represented for Elgar the loneliness of the creative artist and is so used in his later cantata "The Music Makers" which quotes from many of his earlier works.

Each of the following variations is a character-piece based loosely on the Enigma theme as though seen through the eyes of Elgar's friends (..."if they were asses enough to compose." to quote the composer).

Variation 1, "C.A.E." is for his wife Caroline Alice Elgar and interpolates a triplet figure representing the composer's whistle when he returned home. Alice was almost 9 years older than Edward and several others have surmised the relationship was not very romantic (they did have a daughter.), but he was devastated on her death in 1920 and was to write comparatively little after that.

Variation 2 (H.D.S-P) was about Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist friend with whom Elgar often played trios as the violinist. (The cellist was Basil G. Nevinson who has his own variation.) The fast and short 16th notes represent the pianist and the theme is relegated to the bass instruments.

Variation 3 (R.B.T.) is for Richard Baxter Townshend, an amateur actor who played old men while frequently going into the falsetto range, characterized in this variation by the rapidly ascending melodic line. He was a brother-in-law of William Meath Baker whose variation immediately follows this one.

Variation 4 (W.M.B.): Baker was a country squire who lived on a large estate (Hasfield Court) where he had large parties, arranged expeditions for various party groups and who habitually slammed doors behind him. This is portrayed in the music by the loud outburst of the opening, the soft and bustling middle section, and the return of the outburst for the close.

Number 5 (R.P.A.) is for Richard Penrose Arnold, an amateur pianist and a son of the poet and critic Matthew Arnold. (I have set Matthew Arnold's most famous poem, "Dover Beach", and it is also included in the "singing scores" section of my page.) He would often have serious discussions with Elgar as shown by the first section in the minor, and then suddenly interrupt these with a witticism followed by his laughter. These "ha-has" are imitated in the contrasting section in the major and this section occurs twice in the variation but the first section is used three times coming back once again to close the variation.

Number 6 (Ysobel) was for Isabel Fitton, an early viola student of Elgar's. The variation begins with a reminiscence of an exercise he wrote for her though the solo viola only enters a little later, playing the actual exercise (for quick changing on the mostly open strings) softly at the very end of the variation.

Variation 7 (Troyte) is for Arthur Troyte Griffith, (the "Ninepin", so-called because of his height and shape.) a young architect who set up shop with Basil Nevinson's brother Edward. Troyte was an abrupt and forceful person who didn't like others disagreeing with him.The character of the variation might also have been suggested by a thunderstorm he and Elgar were caught in on one of their walks. Or it might also have been suggested by Troyte's unsuccessful attempt to play the piano. In addition, there is a suggestion of a game of bowling with ninepins, perhaps alluding to Elgar's nickname for Griffith.

Musically, the 1/1 meter of most of the instruments is set against an essentially triple meter in the timpani and lower strings. Naturally, though there is little difficulty sequencing this variation providing each note is put on the right part of the beat, actual performance is something else. But a procedure evolved, early on, to allow an even faster speed than Elgar's metronome mark. I suspect that not every note of the string triplets can be played correctly at that tempo so, in sequencing it, I've suggested the effect by using rather soft dynamics at the lowest parts of these passages as happens in all the recordings.

Variation 8 (W.N.) is for Winifred Norbury and her companion Martina Hyde and at whose house "Sherridge", Troyte and Elgar took shelter during the above-mentioned thunderstorm. The old house and the ladies are suggested by the expansively melodic sequential tune, and the variation leads directly into the most famous of all the variations:

Number 9: (Nimrod) For August Johannes Jaeger, an editor at Novellos, Elgar's publisher and a warm supporter of Elgar's music. "Jaeger" means "hunter" in German and Nimrod was a "mighty hunter" in the Old Testament. This variation is central to the work as it is later in "The Music Makers" ("But on one man's soul...") written some years after Jaeger's premature death in 1909. The variation is said to get its character from a discussion they had about Elgar's musical resemblance to Beethoven, which touched the composer, and it is indeed one of the noblest melodies Elgar ever wrote.

Number 10 (Dorabella) was for Dora Penny (later Powell), a beautiful young woman with a stammer, which Elgar suggests in the somewhat hesitating sixteenth notes used almost throughout the variation. The solo viola reappears here as well and there is a wistful contrasting section.

Variation 11 (G.R.S.) for George Robertson Sinclair a church organist is the one variation whose protagonist is not human: it is really about Sinclair's bulldog Dan who one day fell into the Wye river but successfully paddled his way to safety and emerged with a bark. (In some earlier versions of the file I actually put in a bark but later thought better of it.) Elgar's musical entry in Sinclair's Visitors' Book yielded material he later used in other works such as the first theme of "In the South" which was originally called "Dan triumphant". Elgar was also a dog lover and owned several throughout his life.

Variation 12 (B.G.N.) was for the aforementioned cellist Basil Nevinson and it is the solo cello, which begins and ends this variation carried mainly by the cello ensemble.

Variation 13 (***) "Romanza" was said to have been originally for Lady Mary Lygon but other candidates have been suggested such as Helen Weaver, a friend of his youth. In any case, Lady Mary accompanied her brother Lord Beauchamp to his position as a Lieutenant Governor to Australia and Elgar appropriately quotes Mendelssohn's Overture "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage".

Variation 14, Finale (E.D.U.) is for Elgar himself but as seen through the eyes of his wife ("Edu" was her nickname for him.). On the whole, this variation is perhaps best described as "heroic". It was originally to end with the recapitulation of the "Alice" material, and was performed that way at the work's premiere, but now also ends heroically with variants of "Nimrod". I think too much has been made of this since it was "Nimrod" himself who induced Elgar to change the ending. Not unusually, Elgar brings in the pipe organ at the end (as in Cockaigne and the Coronation March as well as Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.) but it's usually left out in performance. I have restored it here as well as in Cockaigne.

Edward Gold

My mp3 of Enigma Variations.


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