Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” (No. 9-12)


From Lindorossini:  “At the end of an overlong day laden with teaching and other duties, Edward Elgar lit a cigar, sat at his piano and began idling over the keys. To amuse his wife, the composer began to improvise a tune and played it several times, turning each reprise into a caricature of the way one of their friends might have played it or of their personal characteristics. “I believe that you are doing something which has never been done before,” exclaimed his wife”. Thus, as the legend tells us, was born one of music’s great works of original conception, and Elgar’s greatest large-scale “hit”: the Enigma Variations.

The enigma is twofold: each of the 14 variations refers to a friend of Elgar’s, who is depicted by the nature of the music, or by sonic imitation of laughs, vocal inflections, or quirks, or by more abstract allusions. The other enigma is the presence of a larger “unheard” theme which is never stated but which according to the composer is very well known. A third enigma formed, when I decided to upload the variations, as I am completely baffled about the identity of either the conductor or the orchestra.

But getting back to the work itself, the work contains some most charming and interesting music.

As the piece is about thirty minutes long, I’ve divided it into three parts, each one finishing with a furious allegro passage (and, interestingly enough, the variations go well this way).

VIII. W.N. (allegretto0:00), Winifred Norbury, a gracious and gentle friend, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. At the end of this variation, a single violin note is held over into the next variation, the most celebrated of the set. The gentle chirping of the flutes, wonderfully contrasted by the plucking of the strings, paints a most gracious person.

IX. Nimrod (andante; 1:55), Augustus Jaeger, Elgar’s close 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 the slow movements 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 cunningly refers to an Old Testament patriarch described as a mighty hunter, the name Jaeger being German for hunter. Though certainly the most celebrated of all the variations, I find myself admiring, rather than truly enjoying it, unlike, for example, the previous variation.

X. Dorabella (allegretto:  5:57), Dora Penny, whose infectious laugh is depicted in a repeated line for the the woodwinds.

XI. G.R.S. (allegro di molto: 8:33), George Sinclair, an organist. More specifically, the variation also depicts Sinclair’s bulldog Dan, and a walk by the River Wye with Sinclair and Elgar when Dan fell into the river: one can actually see the dog running back and forth to and away from his master in a frenzy… and then falling into the water. 

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