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Composed: 1898-1899

Length: c. 29 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), organ, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 18, 1925, Henry Wood conducting

About this Piece

Elgar’s 1899 Variations on an Original Theme provides the listener an opportunity to follow a musical idea through diverse transformations. The piece earned its moniker “Enigma” for two reasons: first, because the composer himself claimed that the original theme was combined with another theme in his mind—a kind of shadow musical character–whose identity he refused to reveal. Second, because he tagged each of the 14 variations with initials that referred to private nicknames. 

Elgar explained his concept in a letter to August Jaeger (portrayed in Variation IX): “I have sketched a set of Variations (orkestra) on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labeled ’em with the nicknames of my particular friends—you are Nimrod. That is to say, I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’—I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the var. him (or her) self and have written what I think they wd. have written—if they were asses enough to compose.” Elgar’s lighthearted description is at odds with the weighty masterpiece that earned him a new measure of respect. 

The trick to any set of variations is the delicate balance between repetition (so the listener retains an awareness of the musical idea) and variety (so the listener remains diverted). Conventional wisdom is to begin with a theme that is compact and memorable. But herein lies another enigma of this work: The theme has an open-ended quality that simultaneously defies easy recognition and lends itself to ingenious permutations. 

Many of Elgar’s subjects were musicians, and the set reveals the composer’s sense not only of their individual personalities but also of the underlying relationship between personality and musical expression. The warm lyricism of the first variation represents the composer’s wife, followed by skittering passages in the second depicting H.D. Stuart-Powell’s enthusiastic piano exercises. In “R.B.T.,” Elgar uses woodwinds to mimic Richard Baxter Townshend’s ability to break into falsetto; in “W.M.B.,” brass and timpani paint the forceful personality of William M. Baker before “R.P.A.” suggests a more complex balance in Richard P. Arnold, son of Matthew Arnold. Effective juxtapositions abound: The wistful strains of “Ysobel” (Isabel Fitton, a viola player) give way to the off-balance timpani strokes of “Troyte” (Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect and wannabe musician), then yield to the graceful “W.N.” (Winifred Norbury). 

A perennial favorite is the ninth variation, a portrait of “a long summer evening talk, when my friend [Jaeger] grew nobly eloquent (as only he could) on the grandeur of Beethoven, and especially of his slow movements.” It’s back to speech patterns in the diffident phrases of “Dorabella” (Dora Penny). The subject of “G.R.S.”—a big, exclamatory work—is nominally cathedral organist Dr. George Robinson Sinclair but is actually his bulldog Dan! A cello solo in “B.G.N.” (Basil G. Nevinson) recalls Elgar’s experiences playing chamber music with his friend. In the “Romanza (***),” the clarinet quotes from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture–a nod to the fact that the dedicatee (Lady Mary Lygon) was sailing to Australia. The final variation portrays the composer himself: stirring, multi-valanced, and ultimately transcendent. —Susan Key