Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, Op. 36 ("Enigma"), commonly referred to as the Enigma Variations, is a set of a theme and its fourteen variations written for orchestra by Edward Elgar in 1898–1899. It is Elgar's best-known large-scale composition, for both the music itself and the enigmas behind it. Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within", each variation being an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances.
One account of the piece's genesis is that after a tiring day of teaching in 1898, Elgar was daydreaming at the piano. A melody he played caught the attention of his wife, who liked it and asked him to repeat it for her. So, to entertain his wife, he began to improvise variations on this melody, each one either a musical portrait of one of their friends, or in the musical style they might have used. Elgar eventually expanded and orchestrated these improvisations into the Enigma Variations.
The piece was first performed at St James's Hall, London, on 19 June 1899, conducted by Hans Richter. Critics were at first irritated by the layer of mystification, but most praised the substance, structure, and orchestration of the work. Elgar revised the final variation, adding 100 new bars and an organ part; the new version, the one usually played today, was played at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival on 13 September 1899, with Elgar himself conducting. It has been popular ever since. It quickly achieved many international performances, from Saint Petersburg, where it delighted Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1904, to New York, where Gustav Mahler conducted it in 1910.
The main theme is played by the first violins at the beginning. It is played for a second time, with a slightly different accompaniment, after the second melody has been introduced by the woodwinds. Both fragments are further developed in the following variations.
The theme leads into Variation 1 without a pause.
Variation I (L'istesso tempo) "C.A.E."
Caroline Alice Elgar, Elgar's wife. The variation contains repetitions of a four-note melodic fragment which Elgar reportedly whistled whenever arriving home to his wife. In 'My Friends Pictured Within' Elgar wrote, "The variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who knew C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration."
Variation II (Allegro) "H.D.S.-P."
Hew David Steuart-Powell. In 'My Friends Pictured Within' Elgar wrote, "Hew David Steuart-Powell was a well-known amateur pianist and a great player of chamber music. He was associated B.G.N. (Cello) and the Composer (Violin) for many years in this playing. His characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play is here humorously travestied in the semiquaver passages; these should suggest a Toccata, but chromatic beyond H.D.S.-P.'s liking."
Variation III (Allegretto) "R.B.T."
Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor and mimic, capable of extreme changes in the pitch of his voice, a characteristic which the music imitates.
Variation IV (Allegro di molto) "W.M.B."
William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire and builder of Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent, who 'expressed himself somewhat energetically'. This is the shortest of the variations.
Variation V (Moderato) "R.P.A."
Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and himself an amateur pianist. This variation leads into the next without pause.
Variation VI (Andantino) "Ysobel"
Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. The melody of this variation is played by the viola.
Variation VII (Presto) "Troyte"
Arthur Troyte Griffiths, an architect. The variation good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano. It also refers to a specific memory, of a day on which Griffiths and Elgar were walking and got caught in a thunder-storm. The pair ran for it, and took refuge in the Norbury house, to which the next theme refers.
Variation VIII (Allegretto) "W.N."
Winifred Norbury, a friend Elgar regarded as particularly easygoing, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. The theme also refers to the Norbury house, which Elgar was fond of. At the end of this variation, a single violin note is held over into the next variation, the most celebrated of the set.
Variation IX (Adagio) "Nimrod"
Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar's best friend. An attempt to capture what Elgar saw as Jaeger's noble character, it is also said that this variation depicts a night-time walk the two of them had, during which they discussed the slow movements of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The first eight bars resemble, and have been said to represent, the beginning of the second movement of Beethoven's Eighth Piano Sonata (Pathetique). The name of the variation punningly refers to Nimrod, an Old Testament patriarch described as "a mighty hunter before the Lord" - the name Jäger being German for hunter. It has been suggested that the famous Beethoven theme is the 'solution' to Elgar's 'enigma'. However, Elgar only suggested a slight connection with this particular variation (Elgar's programme notes to A.J. Jaeger memorial concert, 1910). Elsewhere in the variations there is an acknowledged Mendelssohn quotation, not related to 'the enigma'.
Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) "Dorabella"
Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter (or laugh, depending on the source) is depicted by the woodwinds. Dora was the stepdaughter of the sister of William Meath Baker, inspiration for the fourth variation, and sister-in-law of Richard Baxter Townsend, inspiration for the third. She was also the recipient of another of Elgar's enigmas, the so-called Dorabella Cipher.
Variation XI (Allegro di molto) "G.R.S."
George Robertson Sinclair, the energetic organist of Hereford Cathedral. More specifically, the variation also depicts Sinclair's bulldog Dan, and a walk by the River Wye with Sinclair and Elgar when Dan jumped into the river, with the orchestra playing a virtual "splash." G.R.S. and Dan mirror the English national symbol: John Bull. Another John Bull, a composer, was also organist of Hereford cathedral.
Variation XII (Andante) "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 XIII (Romanza: Moderato) "* * *"
Because of the lack of initials, the identity of this person is unclear and remains an enigma within the Enigma. The music includes a quotation from Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt), which leads to speculation that 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 she emigrated to New Zealand in 1884. At certain intervals, the timpani create a sound reminiscent of a ship's engines, by means of hard sticks or, traditionally, coins.
Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro Presto) "E.D.U."
Elgar himself, Edu being his wife's nickname for him. The themes from the first and ninth variations are echoed. The original Variation 14 is 100 bars shorter than the version now usually played. In July 1899, one month after the original version was finished, Elgar's friend Jaeger, the person depicted in Variation IX, urged Elgar to make the variation a little longer. Elgar agreed, and also added an organ part. The new version was played for the first time at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival, with Elgar himself conducting, on 13 September 1899.
Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, Op. 36 ("Enigma")
Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op.20
Concert Hall Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Walter Goehr