Enigmas, too, can be beautiful

Edward Elgar is one of those composers who has written a piece that would be instantly recognizable to many people who, upon being asked, wouldn’t have the slightest idea of who wrote it.  I’m referring to Pomp and Circumstance (official title Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1), heard every May and June at myriad graduation ceremonies here in the United States.  (The piece was on an album of marches I enjoyed listening to as a child, and for some reason I read the title as Pomp and Circumference; it was some time before I discovered my error).

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) at the piano.
Born in Broadheath, Worcestershire, UK, he was the son of a piano tuner.

But today’s focus is on another work, the one that changed Elgar’s fortunes as a composer.  On an autumn evening in 1898, he came home from a day of teaching and began noodling at the piano.  One melody he played caught his wife’s ear and she asked what it was. “Nothing,” he replied, “but something might be made of it.”  He then began improvising, varying the theme in a number of ways to personify, or represent in some fashion, his and his wife’s circle of friends; he also came up with variations representing himself, his wife Caroline, and a friend’s bulldog (named Dan).  The full set of variations, fourteen in all, scored for orchestra, was published in 1899 as Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36.  The work has come to be popularly known as the Enigma Variations because the ‘original theme’ of the title is never played.  Over the years, there has been much speculation about this ‘hidden theme’: is it a musical phrase?  Or perhaps a literary or philosophical reference?  Elgar himself never said.  Indeed, he wrote, “The ‘Enigma’ I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed…”  Musical sleuths have devoted blogs to this mystery.

Elgar LPThe ninth variation, ‘Nimrod’, is the emotional core of the piece, and certainly the best known section.  It honors Elgar’s good friend, music publisher August Jaeger.  (Jaeger is German for ‘hunter’, and Nimrod is described in Genesis as a ‘mighty hunter’).  Elgar wrote, “The Variation . . . is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred.”

The performance here, from 1975, is by the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Georg Solti in his first appearance as chief conductor of that ensemble.  The strings begin softly and are joined by flutes, clarinets, bassoons and English horns at 0:52; I love the contribution of the winds at this moment…it’s subtle, yet adds real ballast.  The music crescendos to what are my favorite moments: three descending chord sequences, at 1:28-1:32, 1:33-1:36 (ah, these 4 seconds in particular), and 1:37-1:40…this truly is glorious music.  If you don’t have goose bumps by then, you surely will at 2:15, when the brass and percussion sections join in.  This is a gift, and seeing the great Solti in action is icing on the cake.

As is the case for so many works written originally for orchestra, the Enigma Variations has been arranged for solo piano.  Here, the Nimrod variation is performed by British pianist, Ashley Wass.  It’s obviously a very different sound, but no less beautiful and still profoundly moving.

Finally, for those of you whose curiosity is piqued, and who have just under half an hour to spare, here is a classic recording of the complete work:


Trivia tidbit: The Nimrod variation is included in the memorial ceremony held every year at the Cenotaph, in London, on the second Sunday in November.  The day, known as Remembrance Sunday, commemorates “the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts.”

Her_Majesty_the_Queen_Lays_a_Wreath_at_the_Cenotaph_London_During_Remembrance_Sunday_Service_MOD_45152054

4 comments

  • An absolutely wonderful post! So informative — I was really interested to read about some of the background of the Enigma variations. I just love Elgar (the Cello Concerto is my favourite piece of music ever, I think!) Thank you 🙂

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    • Thank you, Emily, for your ongoing interest in my blog. Having posts really resonate with others is the ultimate reward of blogging. Jacqueline du Pré’s rendition of the Elgar Cello Concerto will be the subject of a future post, for sure.

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  • It’s so nice to hear Elgar being valued outside the British Isles, and for a work other than the P&C Marches. You mentioned the story of the origins of the Enigma Variations: the composer improvising at his piano after a day’s teaching. Did you know that recordings of Elgar improvising at his piano, exist? I thought that, as a pianist yourself, you might be intrigued.

    Some fine soul has put one of the improvisations on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rC57C_0DPo but the record is, as far as I know, readily available.

    Incidentally, Elgar (sorry to bore on about this, but Elgar has been a lifelong passion of mine) was a great fan of the gramophone record, and probably the first major composer to conduct a substantial body of his own work for the recording studio. Indeed, he conducted an orchestra at the opening ceremony for what probably remains the most celebrated studio in the world – that at Abbey Road.

    Thank you for a delightful post!

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    • Thank you for your comments, GHB. I had not heard the Elgar improvisation: it’s delightful! In my reading before posting the entry, I had, indeed, seen mention of his ‘gramophonia’ (to coin a word?) and his Abbey Road studio gig. The man’s bio is full of interesting tidbits, including this one: apparently the first time that P&C March No. 1 was played at a graduation was in 1905 at Yale University, just down the road a piece from me, where I’m on the teaching faculty at the medical school. Elgar was given an honorary degree and the head of the department of music felt–appropriately, I’d say–that a piece of his should be played at the ceremony. Thus was a tradition born! As noted in my comment to Emily above, I’ll be doing a post about another Elgar favorite, the cello concerto, in the future. (Interesting that both comments I’ve received about this post are from UK residents! :))

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