During the first weekend of October, the AYO Young Symphonists orchestra will tackle a diverse and colourful program of repertoire at the Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts under the baton of Fabian Russell. The concert will feature works drawing on the full spectrum of human experiences: from the darkness of grief to the warmth of friendship.
The centrepiece of the program will be Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, commonly known as the Enigma Variations. This is the piece which catapulted Elgar to international fame in 1899 when the composer was 42 years old. Elgar holds a distinctive place in British culture and is now considered the most important English composer since Henry Purcell (who lived more than two centuries before!).
Far from being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Elgar was raised by a working-class family. His parents could not afford to send him to Leipzig to study composition, so Elgar taught himself to play several instruments and directed his own study of composition.
In a scenario that will sound familiar to many modern-day composers, at the time of writing the Enigma Variations, Elgar was pulling together a modest income from several freelance streams: teaching violin, editing manuscripts for his publisher, and getting the odd piece published.
The concept behind Variations on an Original Theme came about as Elgar tinkered on his piano one evening. After his wife Alice asked him to repeat a tune he had improvised, the two started talking about how the musical material reminded them of one of their friends.
This led to the finished piece containing a total of 14 variations. In Elgar’s words, each variation was written how he imagined a friend would approach the task, “if they were asses enough to compose”. He wrote in his program notes that the work “commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness.” Excerpts from these notes are featured below.
There is also a mystery at the heart of the Enigma Variations. Elgar asserted that there was a second theme, never explicitly quoted but hidden in the musical texture of the entire piece: the ‘enigma’ itself. Many theories have emerged over the years (Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) but nothing has been proven- and some believe there is no enigma at all.
Variation I (C.A.E.) Alice Elgar
“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 (H.D.S-P.) Hew David Steuart-Powell
Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist with whom Elgar regular played chamber music (Elgar on violin). They often played as a piano trio with cellist Basil Nevinson, dedicatee of Variation XII.
Variation III (R.B.T.) Richard Baxter Townshend
“Has reference to [Richard Baxter Townshend’s] presentation of an old man in some amateur theatricals—the low voice flying off occasionally into ‘soprano’ timbre.”
Variation IV (W.M.B.) William Meath Baker
“A country squire, gentleman and scholar. In the days of horses and carriages it was more difficult than in these days of petrol to arrange the carriages for the day to suit a large number of guests. This Variation was written after the host had, with a slip of paper in his hand, forcibly read out the arrangements for the day and hurriedly left the music-room with an inadvertent bang of the door.”
Variation V (R.P.A.) Richard Penrose Arnold
“A great lover of music which he played (on the pianoforte) in a self-taught manner, evading difficulties but suggesting in a mysterious way the real feeling. His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.”
Variation VI (Ysobel) Isabel Fitton
Isabel Fitton studied violin and later viola with Elgar. This variation contains a string-crossing exercise the composer wrote to help his student.
Variation VII (Troyte) Arthur Troyte Griffith
“The uncouth rhythm of the drums and lower strings was really suggested by some 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 (W.N.) Winifred Norbury
Winifred Norbury was an arts patron who lived in an 18th century property known as Sherridge with her sister Florence. This house was the site of many recitals and musical gatherings. In Elgar’s words, “The gracious personalities of the ladies are sedately shown.”
Variation IX (Nimrod) August Jaeger
“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 nickname comes from ‘jaeger’ translating as ‘hunter’ in German, and Nimrod being a mighty hunter featured in the book of Genesis.
Variation X (Dorabella—Intermezzo) Dora Penny
Dora Penny was sister-in-law to Richard Baxter Townshend (Variation III), and step-niece to William Meath Baker (Variation IV). She spoke with a slight stutter, which Elgar refers to rhythmically in this variation.
Variation XI (G.R.S.) Dr George Robertson Sinclair
“The first few bars were suggested by [the] great bulldog Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank into the River Wye (bar 1); his paddling up stream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3); and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5). G.R.S. said ‘set that to music.’ I did; here it is.”
Variation XII (B.G.N.) Basil Nevinson
“The Variation is a tribute to a very dear friend [Basil Nevinson] whose scientific and artistic attainments, and the wholehearted way they were put at the disposal of his friends, particularly endeared him to the writer.”
Variation XIII (***Romanza) Lady Mary Lygon or Helen Weaver
The identity of the person behind this variation is contested. Many believe it is dedicated to Lady Mary Lygon, a friend of Elgar’s who was on a sea voyage to Australia at the time of writing. This variation contains a quotation from Felix Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture. Others believe the use of asterisks cover the fact the variation was inspired by Helen Weaver, to whom Elgar was engaged for over a year in the 1880s. After their engagement ended, she emigrated to New Zealand where she stayed until her death.
Variation XIV (Finale: E.D.U.)
Rather than someone’s full name, these initials refer to Alice Elgar’s pet name for her husband, ‘Edu’.