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Variations for orchestra 'Enigma', Op 36

'Elgar: Enigma Variations and Introduction & Allegro' (LSO0609)
Elgar: Enigma Variations and Introduction & Allegro
LSO0609  Download only   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Elgar: Enigma Variations' (SIGCD168)
Elgar: Enigma Variations
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'Elgar: Enigma Variations & Organ Sonata' (CDA67363)
Elgar: Enigma Variations & Organ Sonata
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Enigma: Andante
Variation 01: C.A.E. (L'istesso Tempo)
Variation 02: H.D.S-P. (Allegro)
Variation 03: R.B.T. (Allegretto)
Variation 04: W.M.B. (Allegro di molto)
Variation 05: R.P.A. (Moderato)
Variation 06: Ysobel (Andantino)
Variation 07: Troyte (Presto)
Variation 08: W.N. (Allegretto)
Variation 09: Nimrod (Adagio)
Variation 10: Dorabella (Intermezzo. Allegretto)
Variation 11: G.R.S. (Allegro di molto)
Variation 12: B.G.N. (Andante)
Variation 13: *** (Romanza. Moderato)
Variation 14: E.D.U. (Finale. Allegro – Presto)
Variation 14: E.D.U. (Finale. Allegro – Presto)

Variations for orchestra 'Enigma', Op 36
One evening in October 1898, Edward Elgar lit himself a cigar and sat down at the piano. It had been a wearying day, and his playing was aimless – just a kind of improvisatory doodling. Suddenly his wife, Alice, interrupted him:

‘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.’
I played and strummed, and played, and then she exclaimed:
‘That’s the tune.’

And that, according to Elgar, is how the theme he was to call ‘Enigma’ came into being. In another version of the story, Alice asks him what he’d been playing: ‘Nothing’, says Elgar, ‘but something might be made of it’. That comment is of more than musical significance, because it seems that for Elgar that theme represented something important about himself. At first he was cagey about this: ‘The Enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed’. But 13 years after the hugely successful premiere of the ‘Enigma’ Variations, he told the critic Ernest Newman that ‘it expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of the loneliness of the artist … and to me, it still embodies that sense’.

Loneliness, a sense of nothingness yet combined with great idealism and ambition – all that was true of Elgar. Since the ‘Enigma’ Variations first appeared there has been endless speculation as to whether some musical riddle is contained in that ‘Enigma’ theme: cryptogram perhaps, or a scrambled reference to the well-known tune ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has been suggested. However ingenious or entertaining the results, surely this misses the point. The Variations may begin with ‘nothing’, the lonely, melancholic, self-doubting artist; but they progress to something very different: a depiction of the artist in triumph: in the Finale, ‘EDU’ (‘Edu’ was Alice’s nickname for Elgar), we see the man who has indeed made something of himself. And it is a musical journey through friendship – the 13 vivid musical portraits of his closest friends that build up to the Finale – which has enabled Elgar to reach that longed-for goal. But there is another side to this story. In Elgar’s own words: ‘This work, commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called.’ So, something of Elgar the Enigma remains unsolved – even the warmest, most understanding friendship cannot completely relieve that ‘sense of the loneliness of the artist’.

After the ‘Enigma’ theme, the first variation depicts Elgar’s wife: ‘CAE’ – Caroline Alice Elgar – ‘a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions’, was Elgar’s description. No II, ‘HDS-P’ is Hew David Steuart-Powell, a chamber-music partner of Elgar, and clearly a light-fingered keyboardist.

In III, ‘RBT’ mimics Richard Baxter Townsend, eccentric tricyclist with a querulous, reedy voice. IV, ‘WMB’ depicts Squire Baker of Hasfield Court, hurriedly presenting his house guests with the day’s itinerary then slamming the door as he leaves. V, ‘RPA’ reveals two sides of Matthew Arnold’s son Richard, serious in conversation, but with a ‘funny little nervous laugh’ on woodwind. ‘Pensive, and for a moment, romantic’ was Elgar’s description of Isabel Fitton, the subject of No VI, ‘Ysobel’ – a viola player, hence the starring role for this instrument. No VII ‘Troyte’ depicts more music-making, though this time it is the ‘maladroit’ efforts of the architect Arthur Troyte Griffith to play the piano. According to Elgar, No VIII, ‘WN’ is ‘really suggested by an 18th-century house’: Sherridge, near Malvern, home of Winifred Norbury. But Winifred herself appears in ‘a little suggestion of a characteristic laugh’.

Then comes the famous ‘Nimrod’, Variation IX. This is a portrait of one of Elgar’s closest friends, A J Jaeger (‘Jaeger’ is the German for ‘hunter’, and Nimrod is the hunter mentioned in the Biblical book of Genesis). Specifically this music records ‘a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven … It will be noticed that the opening bars are made to suggest the slow movement of the eighth sonata (‘Pathétique’).’ No X, ‘Dorabella’ was Elgar’s nickname for Dora Penny. ‘The movement suggests a dancelike lightness’, Elgar wrote. It does – but it also reveals great tenderness; of all Elgar’s friends Dora was one of the most helpfully responsive to Elgar’s devastating mood-swings. ‘GRS’ (G R Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral), was the owner of the bulldog Dan, who fell into the River Wye, scrambled out and barked in triumph. ‘Set that to music’ said Sinclair. The result was Variation XI. The heartfelt cello melody of XII is a tribute to Basil G Nevinson, whose faith in Elgar sustained him in times of crisis and neglect. The subject of Variation XIII, ‘***’, is more mysterious.

Elgar tells us that he intended it for the ‘most angelic’ Lady Mary Lygon, who was then on a long sea-voyage – hence the clarinet’s quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and the depiction of a low throbbing ship’s engine. But according to Ernest Newman, there is also the memory of an earlier love lost and still yearned for – there is certainly a strange poignancy here. But it is Elgar the self-made Edwardian gentleman who strides out in the Finale, ‘bold and vigorous in general style’. Memories of earlier friends’ variations are recalled, especially ‘CAE’ and ‘Nimrod’. But the end is a glad, confident apotheosis, culminating in a foretaste of the first phrase of Elgar’s next orchestral masterpiece, the First Symphony – a celebration of the present, and hope for the future.

from notes by Stephen Johnson © 2006

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Details for LSO0609 track 14
Variation 13: *** (Romanza. Moderato)
Recording date
7 January 2007
Recording venue
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
James Mallinson
Recording engineer
Jonathan Stokes & Neil Hutchinson
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  1. Elgar: Enigma Variations and Introduction & Allegro (LSO0609)
    Disc 1 Track 14
    Release date: June 2007
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