Enigma Variations

Enigma Variations

Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, Op. 36 ("Enigma"), commonly referred to as the "Enigma" Variations, is a set of a theme and its fourteen variations written for orchestra by Edward Elgar in 1898–99. It is Elgar's best-known large-scale composition, for both the music itself and the enigmas behind it. Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within", each variation being an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances.


One account of the piece's genesis is that after a tiring day of teaching in 1898, Elgar was daydreaming at the piano. A melody he played caught the attention of his wife, who liked it and asked him to repeat it for her. So, to entertain his wife, he began to improvise variations on this melody, each one either a musical portrait of one of their friends, or in the musical style they might have used. Elgar eventually expanded and orchestrated these improvisations into the "Enigma" variations.

The piece was premiered at St James's Hall, London, on 19 June 1899, conducted by Hans Richter. Critics were at first irritated by the layer of mystification, but most praised the substance, structure, and orchestration of the work. It has been popular ever since.



The work is scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, organ (ad lib) and strings.


The work consists of the theme, followed by 14 variations. The variations spring from the theme's melodic, harmonic and (especially) rhythmic elements, and the extended fourteenth variation forms a grand finale.

Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within" and in the score each variation is prefaced with either a nickname or initials, a clue to the identity of the friend depicted. The sections of the piece are as follows.

Theme (Andante)

: The theme consists of two contrasting melodic fragments, with the first one being the main theme::

: The main theme is played by the first violins at the beginning. It is played for a second time, with a slightly different accompaniment, after the second melody has been introduced by the woodwinds. Both fragments are further developed in the following variations.

: The theme leads into Variation 1 without a pause.

Variation 1 (L'istesso tempo) "C.A.E."

: Caroline Alice Elgar, Edward's wife. The variation contains repetitions of a four-note melodic fragment which Elgar reportedly whistled whenever arriving home to his wife; with a little imagination, something like "Dar-ling, I'm home"...

Variation 2 (Allegro) "H.D.S-P."

: Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist friend with whom Elgar and Basil Nevinson (of Variation 12) often played chamber music.

Variation 3 (Allegretto) "R.B.T."

: Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor and mimic, capable of extreme changes in the pitch of his voice, a characteristic which the music imitates.

Variation 4 (Allegro di molto) "W.M.B."

: William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire and builder of Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent, who 'expressed himself somewhat energetically'. This is the shortest of the variations.

Variation 5 (Moderato) "R.P.A."

: Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and himself an amateur pianist. This variation leads into the next without pause.

Variation 6 (Andantino) "Ysobel"

: Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. The melody of this variation is played by the viola.

Variation 7 (Presto) "Troyte"

: Arthur Troyte Griffiths, an architect. The variation good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano.

Variation 8 (Allegretto) "W.N."

: Winifred Norbury, a friend Elgar regarded as particularly easygoing, 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.

Variation 9 (Adagio) "Nimrod"

: Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar's best 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 punningly refers to an Old Testament patriarch described as a mighty hunter, the name Jaeger being German for hunter.

: This variation has become popular in its own right and is sometimes used at funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions. It is always played at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday (the Sunday nearest to 11th November).

: [http://www.theclassicalshop.net/mp3samples/CH/CHAN241-2820T01D01.wma Excerpt] performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson.: [http://www.theclassicalshop.net/mp3samples/NX/NX072611T01D01.wma Excerpt] arranged by Eric Ball and performed by the Black Dyke Band: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUgoBb8m1eE Complete variation] performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWsu6pLTwtA Complete variation] performed by the Massed Bands of the Household Cavalry at the 2007 Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph.

Variation 10 (Intermezzo: Allegretto) "Dorabella"

: Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter (or laugh, depending on the source) is depicted by the woodwinds. Dora was the stepdaughter of the sister of William Meath Baker, inspiration for the fourth variation, and sister-in-law of Richard Baxter Townsend, inspiration for the third. She was also the recipient of another of Elgar's enigmas, the so-called Dorabella Cipher.

Variation 11 (Allegro di molto) "G.R.S."

: George Robertson Sinclair, the energetic organist of Hereford Cathedral. 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.

Variation 12 (Andante) "B.G.N."

: Basil G. Nevinson, a well known cellist, who gets a cello melody for his variation. Later, Nevinson inspired Elgar to write his Cello Concerto.

Variation 13 (Romanza: Moderato) "* * *"

: Because of the lack of initials, the identity of this person is unclear and remains an enigma within the Enigma. However, the music includes a quotation from Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" ("Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt"), which leads to speculation that it depicts either Lady Mary Lygon, local noblewoman on a voyage to Australia at the time, or Helen Weaver, who was Elgar's fiancée before she emigrated to New Zealand in 1884. At certain intervals, the timpani create a sound reminiscent of a ship's engines, by means of hard sticks or, traditionally, coins.

Variation 14 (Finale: Allegro Presto) "E.D.U."

: Elgar himself, "Edu" being his wife's nickname for him. The themes from the first and ninth variations are echoed. The original Variation 14 is 100 bars shorter than the version now usually played. In July 1899, one month after the original version was finished, Elgar's friend Jaeger, the person depicted in Variation 9, urged Elgar to make the variation a little longer. Elgar eventually agreed, and added an organ part.

(Note: on some recordings, the Theme and the 1st variation are conflated into a single track.)

As was common with painted portraits of the time, Elgar's musical portraits depict their subjects at two levels. Each movement conveys a general impression of its subject's personality; in addition, most of them contain a musical reference to a specific characteristic or event, such as Dorabella's stutter, Winifred Norbury's laugh, or the walk in the woods with Jaeger.

The enigma

The "Enigma" of the title refers to two puzzles. The first puzzle is to determine which of Elgar's friends each variation represents, and this has been solved with some certainty as outlined above. Elgar himself eventually provided brief notes on the subjects to accompany a piano roll version of the Variations. However, there also is a second, hidden theme, upon which all variations are based, which is never heard. In a note he wrote for the first performance, Elgar declared:

:"The enigma I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played.... So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on stage."

Elgar did write about the theme in a set of notes issued with pianola rolls published in 1929. He said:

:"The alternation of the two quavers and two crotchets in the first bar and their reversal in the second bar will be noticed; references to this grouping are almost continuous (either melodically or in the accompanying figures - in Variation XIII, beginning at bar 11 [503] , for example). The drop of a seventh in the Theme (bars 3 and 4) should be observed. At bar 7 (G major) appears the rising and falling passage in thirds which is much used later, e.g. Variation III, bars 10.16. [106, 112] - E.E."

Others, however, have thought that the hidden theme was itself a variation on some well known tune. Many have guessed at what this might be.

Fred Childs on NPR, December 27, 2007, interviewed a chemical engineer who said that he had determined that the musical puzzle of the enigma is the mathematical value of Pi (3.142).

Some have proposed the tune of the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen" as the enigma theme's inspiration; others prefer "Auld Lang Syne" transposed to a minor key, which suits the subject of "old acquaintance". Some music scholars believe the theme may be based on part of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, which was on the program at the "Enigma" Variations' premiere in 1899. Also proposed has been the traditional Renaissance theme La Folia, whose chords roughly fit the theme, although Elgar's use of accented seventh notes would have been a decidedly nineteenth-century adaptation. A currently popular theory is that the theme is related to the "never, never, never" section of "Rule Britannia"; in particular, the phrase is clearly audible in the first five notes of the work, and there are several other possible hints in Elgar's own statements, in particular "So the principal Theme "never" appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is "never" on stage." However, the word "never" can be related as well to the second line of Auld Lang Syne "And never brought to mind", which fits (also musically) with the theory postulated by Eric Sams in 1970. The most recent theory, proposed by Clive McClelland of the University of Leeds, suggests that the hidden theme is the hymn tune "Now the day is over". Unlike most theories, this deals convincingly with all 24 notes of the main theme; the lyrics too fit in elegantly with Elgar's 'dark saying'. [Shadows of the Evening: New Light on Elgar’s ‘dark saying’’ "Musical Times" Vol 148 No 1901 (Winter 2007)]

Others believe that the unheard theme is actually a countermelody to some other tune — in other words it would fit in with it, but does not necessarily contain "any" of its characteristics other than the most general harmonic or structural outline.

It is usually assumed that the unheard theme is a melody, but it should be noted that Elgar did not explicitly state that this was so.

Another theory, postulated by Professor Ian Parrott, former vice-president of the Elgar Society, in his book on Elgar ("Master Musicians", 1971) was that the "dark saying", and possibly the whole of the Enigma was related to the Vulgate version of 1 Corinthians 13:12 which reads: "videmus nunc per speculum in "enigmate" tunc autem facie ad faciem nunc cognosco ex parte tunc autem cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum" which reads according to the Authorised Version: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.". This verse is from St. Paul's essay on love. The Enigmatic Theme that 'goes', but is not played" "through and over the whole set" is the great and central theme of Christian scripture - love.

References in other music

*Elgar himself quoted many of his own works, including "Nimrod" (Variation 9), in his choral piece of 1912, "The Music Makers".
*Frederick Ashton's ballet "Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within)" is set to Elgar's score with the exception of the finale, which uses the original shorter ending (see above), transcribed from the manuscript by John Lanchbery. The ballet, which depicts the friends and Elgar as he awaits Richter's decision about conducting the premiere, received its first performance on 25 October 1968 at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London. [Lanchbery J. Enigma Variations, in Royal Opera House programme, 1984.]
*In 1995, Rob Dougan's hit song Clubbed To Death featured a piano part reminiscent of the Theme and variations 1 and 12, that could be seen either as a new 15th variation, or his attempt at recreating the enigmatic hidden theme. (An MP3 file with only the Elgar-influenced piano parts is available in the links for Furious Angels.) This song, and thus the Theme, was played on soundtrack to the 1999 movie The Matrix, during the "The Lady in the Red Dress" scene.
*Steve Spiegl included a jazz version of Variation #9 in his album "Enigma".
*The theme of the Enigma Variations was used by On Thorns I Lay, a Greek rock band, in the song "A Blue Dream", which appears in the "Orama" album (1997).
*The score to Batman Forever features a cue titled 'Nygma Variations', named after the character Edward Nygma.
*VNV Nation's 'Futureperfect' album opens with a synthesized string version of Nimrod.
*In the Mountain Goats song "Horseradish Road" from "The Coronor's Gambit" album (2000), the protagonist is listening to "the Enigma Variations on the radio".


One of the earliest recordings dates from 1926, of the composer himself conducting the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra on the EMI label; it has been remastered to CD and also includes Elgar conducting his own Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist. Three score years later Menuhin took the baton to condcut the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Variation for Philips.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner's 1998 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon had to wait until 2002 for its release.

Most CDs nowadays split the work into 15 tracks, allowing quick and precise access to any variation in the set. David Zinman's recording with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Telarc, however, puts it on a single track; index points are provided but not all CD players can access them. (See logical structure of compact discs).

References in popular culture

*In Episode 3.13 13. "Grandstand," of Monty Python's Flying Circus, the cast of The Dirty Vicar Sketch accepted their award for "The Cast With the Most Awards" while Variation No. 9 ("Nimrod") played in the background.

*In the 1998 film "Elizabeth" starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Shekhar Kapur, Variation No. 9 ("Nimrod") is played during Queen Elizabeth I's final confrontation with Lord Robert Dudley, played by Joseph Fiennes.

*The Variation, Nimrod, is also used as the Theme Music for the film Young Winston" (1972), starring Simon Ward, Anne Bancroft & Robert Shaw. [cite web
title = Young Winston (1972)
publisher = Internet Movie Database (IMDB)
url = http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069528/
accessdate = 2008-08-14

* In the British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, when discussing the opening music for his first television appearance as PM, Jim Hacker wants a British composer. The television producer suggests Elgar and Jim Hacker agrees. However he does not want Land of Hope and Glory. Bernard immediately suggest the Enigma Variations.


*Nice, David (1996). "Edward Elgar: an essential guide to his life and works". London: Pavilion. ISBN 1-85793-977-8.
*Reed, W H: "Elgar", London, J M Dent & Sons, 1939.

External links

* [http://users.rcn.com/rfinley/enigma.mid Piano adaptation of "Enigma Variations" in MIDI file] (104KB) The theme and its 14 variations are located at ca. [00:00, 00:55, 02:05, 02:55, 04:20, 04:50, 06:25, 07:30, 08:28, 09:50, 12:22, 14:55, 15:53, 17:38, 19:13] in this 24-min track.
* Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive [http://www.bris.ac.uk/theatrecollection/ University of Bristol Theatre Collection] , University of Bristol
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/elgar/notes/note_enigma.shtml Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) (1898–9)]
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/discoveringmusic/ram/cdmwk0129.ram "Discovering Music" Enigma Variations] (.ram file)

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