articles / Pop Culture

Behind the Top 100: Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”

This year, we’re taking you “Behind the Top 100”, spotlighting select pieces on KUSC’s Top 100 Countdown with fun and informative blogs about the music you love.

It’s an enigma wrapped in an enigma! 14 Variations on an Original Theme, popularly known as the Enigma Variations, were composed by Edward Elgar in 1898 and 1899. Elgar embodied the picture of the Edwardian man. Not only was he named Edward, and lived during the so-called Edwardian period, but he had the big bushy mustache, so popular with King Edward VII and many of his subjects. Take a look:

The Enigma Variations, more than any other piece, established Elgar’s fame throughout Britain; a fame that would eventually lead to his appointment as Master of the King’s Musick in 1924. The Enigma Variations started as a lark between Elgar and his wife, Alice. The theme popped into his head one day and he sat down at the piano to explore it casually. He started playing different versions of the theme in styles inspired by some of his closest friends, including Alice herself. Soon he realized that he was onto something:

“This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends” from Elgar’s own notes for the premiere. He continued: “The sketches are not ‘portraits’, but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people.”

He goes on to state that there is yet another overall enigma contained in the piece. This particular mystery has never been solved!

The following selection of descriptions are quoted from Elgar’s book, My Friends Pictured Within:

#10: a musical portrait of “Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter is gently parodied by the woodwinds. ”

#11: actually a picture of a friend’s “great bulldog, Dan, falling down the steep bank into the River Wye.”

#13: (inspired by) “…an unnamed a lady, who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage. 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.”

The most famous Variation is #9. Dedicated to Elgar’s friend and publisher, Augustus Jaeger. Jaeger being German for “hunter”, this variation is entitled “Nimrod” after a hunter in the Bible. It is a beautifully solemn, meditative take on the theme, and has achieved classical hit status in its own right.

And so on…

For the complete background details on each of the variations, click here.

Written by:
Dianne Nicolini
Dianne Nicolini
Published on 04.25.2019