Elgar was 42 years old when he penned the theme that would inspire his most popular work and it sprang from a humble scene of domesticity.
"After a long day’s fiddle teaching... I came home very tired. Dinner being over, my dear wife said to me, ‘Edward, you look like a good cigar,’ and having lighted it, I sat down at the piano.
In a little while, soothed and feeling rested, I began to play, and suddenly my wife interrupted by saying, ‘Edward, that’s a good tune.’ I awoke from the dream: ‘Eh! tune, what tune!’ and she said, ‘Play it again, I like that tune.’"
Elgar then proceeded to play the theme in the style he imagined various friends might have done 'if they were asses enough to compose', or in a way that depicted their various characteristics with teasing good humour.
The variations are each cryptically titled, often with the subject's initials. They range from a loving and dignified portrait of his wife to one of an habitually door-slamming country squire to the work's most popular section, Nimrod, that recounts a conversation between Elgar and August Jaeger, his friend, publisher, and musical confidant, about the slow movements of Beethoven.
In the programme notes for the work's première, Elgar introduced an enduring mystery that has tantalised the musical public, critics and historians alike, writing:
"The Enigma I will not explain – its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed... further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played... the chief character is never on stage."
Whether this larger theme was, as has been postulated, Rule! Britannia, God Save the Queen, Pop Goes the Weasel or Auld Lang Syne, or was simply a broadly unifying theme such as friendship or love, will never be revealed.
Elgar took that enigma to the grave.
Elgar dedicated his Enigma Variations “to my friends pictured within,” and begins with the theme, followed by fourteen variations.
Variation I (L’istesso tempo) “C.A.E.”
Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. Elgar wrote, “The variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who knew C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration.”
Variation II (Allegro) “H.D.S.-P.”
Hew D. Steuart-Powell. Steuart- Powell played piano in Elgar’s trio.
Variation III (Allegretto) “R.B.T.”
Richard Baxter Townshend, the popular author of A Tenderfoot in Colorado.
Variation IV (Allegro di molto) “W.M.B.”
William Meath Baker.
Variation V (Moderato) “R.P.A.”
Richard P. Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold.
Variation VI (Andantino) “Ysobel”
Isabel Fitton, a friend of Elgar whom he tried to teach to play the viola but he ended her lessons stating, “I value our friendship much too much.”
Variation VII (Presto) “Troyte”
Arthur Troyte Griffith, another of Elgar’s students. According to Elgar, the variation depicts Troyte’s “maladroit essays to play the pianoforte; later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor (E.E.) to make something like order out of chaos, and the final despairing ’slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain.”
Variation VIII (Allegretto) “W.N.”
Winifred Norbury - a friend and host of musical evenings.
Variation IX (Moderato) “Nimrod”
August Jaeger, Elgar’s publisher and close friend. “Jaeger” is German for “hunter,” and Nimrod is one of the Old Testament’s hunters.
Variation X (Intermezzo) “Dorabella”
Dora Penny - a family friend.
Variation XI (Allegro di molto) “G.R.S.”
Dr. G.R. Sinclair. Dr. Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral.
Elgar said, “The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog Dan (a well-known character) falling down a steep bank into the River Wye; his paddling up stream to find a landing place; and rejoicing bark on landing.”
Variation XII (Andante) “B.G.N.”
Basil G. Nevinson, the cellist in Elgar’s trio.
Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) “***”
Lady Mary Lygon, or maybe Helen Weaver?
Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) “E.D.U.”
This stands for Edu or Edoo, Alice Elgar’s nickname for her husband.
He writes, “Written at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraging as to the composer’s musical future, this variation is merely intended to show what E.D.U. intended to do. References are made to two great influences upon the life of the composer: C.A.E. and Nimrod. The whole work is summed up in the triumphant broad presentation of the theme in the major.”
Recorded by RNZ Concert, 19 April 2018, at Auckland Town Hall
Producer: Tim Dodd
Engineer: Adrian Hollay