The Enigma Variations were the turning point. The premiere in 1899, conducted by Hans Richter, led to subsequent performances in Europe. European recognition led to his greater appreciation by his own countrymen, and unprecedented success. His music seemed to embody the spirit of the new Edwardian Age, a golden period which lasted up until the First World War. He was showered in honours and knighted by the King. The humble Edward Elgar became Sir Edward Elgar, 1st Baronet OM GCVO and Master of the King’s Musick. With this success Elgar became what he was expected to be, developing a persona of the perfect English gentleman. After the war his music began to seem rather old fashioned and fell out of fashion, and after his wife’s death in 1920 he stopped writing. There was a revival and a new appreciation in the 1960s which has continued. There is no doubt that he somehow caught in his music the spirit of an England which still resonates to this day.
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Variations on an Original Theme, Op 36 (Enigma) Elgar chose this title to describe an ‘enigma’ at the heart of this work. He stated that there is, underlying the theme a well-known melody, which he never disclosed, and therefore the various solutions put forward can never now be finally verified. In addition to this, each variation carries a set of initials of the names his friends, characteristics of whom are represented in the variations. Theme: Elgar described this as representing the loneliness of the artist (Elgar himself). Variation 1 C.A.E: Caroline Alice Elgar (Elgar’s wife, who gave him the inspiration for the work). Variation 2 H.D.S-P: Hew David Steuart-Powell (amateur pianist & chamber music player). Variation 3 R.B.T: Richard Baxter Townshend (Oxford Don and friend). Variation 4 W.M.B: William Meath Baker (Squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire and step uncle of Dora Penny in variation 10). Variation 5 R.PA: (Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the poet Mathew Arnold). Variation 6 ‘Ysobel’: (Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar). Variation 7 “Troyte”: Arthur Troyte Griffith (Malvern architect and one of Elgar’s firmest friends). Variation 8 W.N: Winifred Norbury (one of the secretaries of the Worcester Philharmonic Society). Variation 9 ‘Nimrod’: Augustus J. Jaegar (a close friend of Elgar and music editor of his publisher Novello & Co.). This is the most famous and moving of the variations and is often played on solemn occasions. It is thought the clue to the ‘enigma’, which gives the work its title, may be found in the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, which Jaegar sang to Elgar as encouragement when he was at his most despondent and about to give up composition. ‘Jaegar’ is German for ‘hunter’ and ‘Nimrod’ is the famous hunter from the Bible – so Elgar is giving a clue here: that this is where the solution to the ‘enigma’ may be found, if you hunt for it. Variation 10 ‘Dorabella’: Dora Penny (a friend whose stutter is gently parodied in the woodwind). Variation 11 G.R.S: George Robertson Sinclair (a depiction of his bulldog falling into the river Wye, paddling upstream, and his joyful bark on landing). Variation 12 B.G.N: Basil George Nevison (an accomplished amateur cellist). Variation 13 Romanza ***: The name of a lady (Helen Weaver his former fiancée?). Variation 14 Finale E.D.U: (Elgar himself, nicknamed Edu by his wife - from the German, Eduard).
Programme notes by Alexander Cowdell © 2018