Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, op. 36 ("Enigma"), commonly referred to as the "Enigma" Variations, is a set of variations on a theme for orchestra composed by Edward Elgar in 1898–99. It is probably Elgar's best-known full-length piece.
The story of the composition of the work is that one day, after a tiring day of teaching, Elgar sat at the piano and began daydreaming while playing. Then a melody caught the attention of his wife, who liked it and asked him to play it again for her. So, to entertain his wife, he began to improvise variations on this melody, each one a musical portrait of one of their friends or in the style they might have composed it in. Over time, the piece was worked on, expanded and orchestrated to become the well known piece it is today.
From a purely musical standpoint, the structure is normal for a set of variations. The visible theme, actually two contrasting melodic fragments, is presented in a short movement. The variations spring from the theme's melodic, harmonic and (especially) rhythmic elements, and a grand finale wraps it all up. However, in another sense, there also is a hidden theme, upon which all variations are based, which is never heard. He once declared:
- The enigma I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played.... So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on stage. (Elgar)
Elgar hinted that the unheard theme was itself a variation on some well known tune. Many guesses have been made as to what this might be, but nobody has ever solved this puzzle, the enigma which gives the piece its name.
One of the more often heard guesses is that it is the British national anthem, God Save the King. Music scholars believe it may be from Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, which was on the program at the "Enigma" Variations' premiere in 1899. In the opinion of others, the unheard theme is actually a countermelody to some other tune – in other words it would fit in with it, but does not necessarily contain any of its characteristics other than the most general harmonic outline.
Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within" and for each variation, he wrote the nickname or initials corresponding to the friend he was depicting. They are:
- Theme (Andante)
- Variation 1 (L'istesso tempo) "C.A.E." – Caroline Alice Elgar, Edward's wife.
- Variation 2 (Allegro) "H.D.S-P." – Hew David Stuart-Powell, a pianist friend with whom Elgar often played chamber music.
- Variation 3 (Allegretto) "R.B.T." – Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor and mimic, capable of extreme changes to the pitch of his voice, a characteristic which the music imitates.
- Variation 4 (Allegro di molto) "W.M.B." – William Meath Baker , squire of Hasfield , Gloucestershire and builder of Fenton, Stoke on Trent.
- Variation 5 (Moderato) "R.P.A." – Richard P. Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and himself an amateur pianist.
- Variation 6 (Andantino) "Ysobel" – Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. The melody of this variation is played by the viola.
- Variation 7 (Presto) "Troyte" – Arthur Troyte Griffiths, an architect, who attempted to play the piano, but was apparently not very good. The variation mimics his enthusiastic incompetence.
- Variation 8 (Allegretto) "W.N." – Winifred Norbury, a friend Elgar regarded as particularly easygoing, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. At the end of this variation, a single violin note is held over into the next variation, the most celebrated of the set.
- Variation 9 (Adagio) "Nimrod" – Augustus E. Jaeger, Elgar's best friend. It is said that this variation, as well as an attempt to capture what Elgar saw as Jaeger's noble character, depicts a night-time walk the two of them had, during which they discussed Ludwig van Beethoven. The name of the variation punningly refers to an Old Testament patriarch described as a mighty hunter, the name Jaeger being German for hunter.
- Variation 10 (Intermezzo: Allegretto) "Dorabella" – Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter (or laugh, depending on the source) is depicted by the woodwinds. Dora was the stepdaughter of the sister of William Meath Baker, inspiration for the fourth variation, and sister-in-law of Richard Baxter Townsend, inspiration for the third.
- Variation 11 (Allegro di molto) "G.R.S." – George Robertson Sinclair, the organist of Hereford Cathedral. More specifically, the variation depicts Sinclair's bulldog, which once fell into the River Wye.
- Variation 12 (Andante) "B.G.N." – Basil G. Nevinson, a well known cellist, who gets a cello melody for his variation. Later, Nevinson inspired Elgar to write his Cello Concerto.
- Variation 13 (Romanza: Moderato) "* * *" – because of the lack of initials, the identity of this person is unclear and remains an enigma within the enigma. However, the music includes a quote from Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt), which leads most people to believe it depicts either Lady Mary Lygon, local noblewoman on a voyage to Australia at the time, or Helen Weaver, who was Elgar's fiancée before emigrating to New Zealand in 1884.
- Variation 14 (Finale: Allegro Presto) "E.D.U." – Elgar himself, Edu being his wife's nickname for him. The themes from the first and ninth variations are echoed.
Implicitly, these descriptions highlight Elgar's mastery as a miniaturist. As was common with painted portraits
of the time, his musical portraits depict their subjects at two levels. Each movement conveys a general impression of its subject's personality; in addition, most of them contain a musical reference to a specific characteristic or event, such as Dorabella's stutter, Winifred Norbury's laugh, or the walk in the woods with Jaeger.
The piece was premiered at the St. James Hall in London on June 19, 1899, conducted by Hans Richter, and has remained popular since.
In 1995, Rob Dougan's hit song Clubbed To Death featured an enticing piano part, reminiscent of the Theme and variations 1 and 12, that could be seen either as an apocryphal 15th variation, or his attempt at recreating the enigmatic hidden theme.
Piano adaptation of Enigma Variations in MIDI file (104KB) The theme and its 14 variations are located at ca. [00:00, 00:55, 02:05, 02:55, 04:20, 04:50, 06:25, 07:30, 08:28, 09:50, 12:22, 14:55, 15:53, 17:38, 19:13] in this 24-min track.