Elgar: Enigma Variations

COMPOSER: Edward Elgar

BORN: June 2, 1857. Broadheath, Worcestershire, England

DIED: February 23, 1934. Worcester, Worcestershire, England


WORLD PREMIERE: June 19, 1899. London, England

INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, triangle, organ (optional), and strings.

ABOUT THE COMPOSER: Sir Edward Elgar (full name Sir Edward William Elgar) was an English composer whose works in the orchestral idiom of late 19th-century Romanticism—characterized by bold tunes, striking color effects, and mastery of large forms—stimulated a renaissance of English music.

WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: In the “Enigma” Variations, Elgar introduces the central theme that serves as the basis for the – each a musical depiction of a person in the composer’s life. Elgar crafted each variation to describe a friend or acquaintance; however, while he would not reveal their identities, the connection was suggested (and later confirmed) by initials attached to each section. Elgar also spoke of a hidden “Enigma,” a musical mystery that hasn’t been solved. In fact, many theorize that the “enigma” cannot be guessed with certainty because no enigma exists.

As to the identities of the individuals portrayed in the variations, they are listed below:

Theme: A 17-bar introduction with the strings, followed by the winds, presents the various elements of the theme.

Variation I: C.A.E. – Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife.

Variation II: H.D.S-P. – Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar often played chamber music.

Variation III: R.B.T. – Richard Baxter Townshend, a participant in amateur theatricals and a classicist at Oxford.

Variation IV: W.M.B. – William Meath Baker, a country squire, gentleman, and scholar.

Variation V: R.P.A. – Richard Penrose Arnold, the music-loving son of the poet Matthew Arnold

Variation VI: Ysobel – Isabel Fitton, an amateur violinist and good friend of Elgar’s

Variation VII: Troyte – Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect, one of Elgar’s closest friends.

Variation VIII: W.N. – Winifred Norbury, an arts patron who lived in an 18th-century country house titled “Sherridge.”

Variation IX: Nimrod – the most well-known variation, named after the Biblical hunter in Genesis and depicting the music publisher and Elgar’s musical confidant August Jaeger — Jaeger being German for “hunter.”

Variation X: Dorabella – Dora Penny, step-niece of William Meath Baker (from Variation IV).

Variation XI: G.R.S. – George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedra (although the music depicts Dr. Sinclair’s dog Dan falling into the river and swimming to shore).

Variation XII: B.G.N. – Basil Nevinson, a cellist friend who played chamber music with Elgar and Steuart-Powell (of Variation II).

Variation XIII: ***Romanza – a contested identity, although Elgar explains that the *** take the place of the name of a lady who was, at the time of composition, on a sea voyage – Lady Mary Lygon of the Worcestershire nobility.

Variation XIV: E.D.U. – The composer himself, depicting Alice nickname for her husband of “Edoo.”