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Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Image from the autograph manuscript of Variations on an Original Theme ('Enigma')

Autograph manuscript of Variations
British Library Add. MS 58004, ff.35v-36
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

Elgar's 'Enigma Variations on an Original Theme' is one of the most familiar pieces of English music, and portrays the characters of a number of the composer's close friends in subtly humorous ways: the inexpert playing of amateur violists and pianists, or the dramatic splash of a friend's bulldog jumping in the river. This was one of the first works to bring Elgar to public recognition, and was first performed in London in June 1899.

Who was Elgar?

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) rose from being a proficient amateur in rural England to being an internationally recognised composer of mighty Romantic symphonies, oratorios, orchestral pieces and concertos. Though often thought of as an establishment figure, perhaps thanks to the familiar setting of his 'Pomp and Circumstance March' with the words Land of Hope and Glory, he always felt himself an outsider because of his humble origins, provinicial background and Catholic faith.

He was already at work on 'The Dream of Gerontius' when the 'Enigma Variations' first brought him public acclaim. Following performances of the Dream in Germany in 1901 and 1902, Richard Strauss awarded him the accolade 'Meister'. He was knighted in 1904, awarded the Order of Merit in 1911 and made a baronet in 1931.

Elgar wrote little in the last few years of his life apart from his valedictory Cello Concerto, but his unfinished Third Symphony was recently 'completed' (or rather, the 'sketches elaborated') by composer Anthony Payne.

What sort of a character was he?

Elgar loved wordplay, puzzles and good-natured mischief (he once wrote a joke 40-second piece with the absurd opus number of 1001). He also the great outdoors - he was a very keen cycle-tourer.

But he also suffered chronically from depression and self-doubt and often needed encouragement from his wife Alice, and from his musical friends such as his close confidante and supporter August Jaeger.

He also loved technology: he conducted chemical experiments in his garden shed, and delighted in the new recording techniques that came in through the 1920s. He conducted his works for recording, rearranging them to fit on the four-minute sides of the 78s then available.

Image of Edward Elgar

Elgar left 90 or so works with opus numbers, including a joke 40-second piece called 'The Smoking Cantata' styled as his Op. 1001

What is special about his music?

Elgar's musical language is German-Romantic, rather than the English-folk style taken up by Vaughan Williams or Holst. He generally wrote for instruments in their plummy middle registers, and his orchestral works are full of lush orchestration, chords aching to resolve, and grand, curvaceous melodies.

Though writing on a grand scale, there is often also a tenderness, intimacy and deep melancholy in his music, perhaps most famously in the Cello Concerto.

What does this page show?

Between the first Variation which represents Elgar's wife, and the finale, a portrait of the composer himself, come the 'Friends pictured within' to whom the work is dedicated. They are identified by nicknames or initials; the best-known of all, Variation IX above, is Nimrod, the mighty hunter - a play on the name of Elgar's publisher and most valued adviser August Jaeger.

The Variation was prompted by a discussion the two men had about Beethoven's music, during which Jaeger managed to pull Elgar out of one of his depressions; it has become one of the best-known of all English melodies. It derives much of its poignancy from a series of suspensions (where one note of a chord is held on longer than expected from the previous chord before eventually dropping down, giving a floating or yearning feeling).

Elgar had a sound practical playing knowledge of many instruments - his father had run a music shop - and the manuscript shows his understanding of writing clearly for working musicians.

This lighthearted side of Elgar's complex character was also to the fore when he wrote to Jaeger describing the link between friends and variations as 'a quaint idea... the result is amusing to those behind the scenes and won't affect the hearer who "nose nuffin"'.

The 'enigma' of the title remains: many theories have been put forward for the melody hidden behind all the variations, with candidates such as the Auld Lang Syne, Rule, Britannia!, and Mozart's Symphony No. 40, but the jury is still out.

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