Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations on an Original Theme was one of the first works to bring this English composer to public recognition.
Elgar rose from being a proficient amateur to an internationally-renowned composer of symphonies, oratorios, orchestral pieces and concertos. Here Elgar portrays his close friends and family in subtly humorous ways, with the first variation depicting his wife, and the finale, a portrait of the composer himself.
The best-known variation is the ninth, 'Nimrod, the Mighty Hunter', which depicts his publisher and adviser August Jaeger. The variation was prompted by a discussion the two men had about Beethoven’s music during which Jaeger (which means 'hunter' in German) helped Elgar through a bout of depression.
Although suffering with depression throughout his life, Elgar’s lighthearted side was well-known among his friends. This is demonstrated in a letter he wrote to Jaeger about the Variations, suggesting that the listener ‘nose nuffin’ of the link between his friends and the music.
The 'enigma' of the title remains: many theories have been put forward for the melody hidden behind all the variations, with suggestions such as 'Auld Lang Syne', 'Rule Britannia' and Mozart's Symphony No. 40.