We are thrilled to perform Elgar’s Enigma Variations at our upcoming Mainstage concert, Britten, Vaughan Williams & Elgar!

This work is famous for its hauntingly beautiful theme and the mystery behind its unexplained ‘enigma’. It is also unique in its sources of inspiration, the composer painting vivid portraits of his friends and relationships through music. With each variation evoking its own distinct mood and characteristics, Enigma Variations is captivating from start to end.

Thanks to its deeply emotional quality, Variation IX (Nimrod) is often played or performed at funerals. Notably, it was a part of the royal funerals of Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In popular culture, versions of Elgar’s Variation IX (Nimrod) adapted by Hans Zimmer are featured in the 2017 historical war thriller Dunkirk. The primary adaptation is called “Variation XV” in honour of Elgar’s original work.

Watch the videos below to hear the most famous variation, “Nimrod”, and for fun animated lesson on the relationships in the composer’s life that inspired him from the YouTube channel “Classics Explained”!

Click here to watch a full performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations on YouTube.

A sneak peek at our October Concert Program

Prefer to read about Enigma Variations? Get a sneak peek at our concert program notes by music historian Craig Doolin below!

Many consider Sir Edward Elgar to be the quintessential English composer. His music is full of the stirring themes that make one think of all the pomp of circumstance of coronation, the beauty of the English countryside, and the reserved sophistication that represents British-ness in the minds of many. However, his own countrymen were slow to accept his music. He was nearly fifty years of age before his reputation the premiere of the Enigma Variations sealed his reputation.

As many have explained, there are actually three puzzles in this work. Elgar’s main theme, which returns in various guises throughout the work, is entitled “Enigma,” but no solution is given as to its meaning. Most scholars believe that the puzzle is simply a musical setting of the rhythm of the composer’s own name. Elgar’s gave the following explanation about his other two enigmas: 

“It is true that I have sketched for their amusement and mine the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians, but this is a personal matter and need not have been mentioned publicly. (The initials, however, appear in the printed score.) The variations should stand simply as a ‘piece’ of music. 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 – e.g. Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse and Les Sept Princesses – the chief character is never on the stage.” 

As to the larger enigma, it remains unsolved. However, the smaller puzzle of connecting initials to Elgar’s friends was cracked by the composer himself when he revealed the solution in 1920. Presented below, each musical variation reflects certain defining characteristics of each of its subjects. 

Variations I to IV

Variation I (C.A.E.): Caroline Alice Elgar was the composer’s wife. The tender and sentimental quality of this variation blends seamlessly with the theme. 

Variation II (H.D.S-P): Elgar’s friend Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist who played trios with Elgar (violin) and Basil G. Nevinson (cello). The pianistic type of runs in the violins at the opening suggests the exercises of Steuart-Powell, warming up his fingers. 

Variation III (R.B.T.): Richard Baxter Townshend was an actor whose voice was capable of unusual changes of pitch. He was also known for his incessant ringing of a bell as he rode a tricycle around Oxford. Upper strings and woodwinds state the variation, followed by growling basses. 

Variation IV (W.M.B.): R.B.T.’s brother-in-law, William Meath Baker, was a man of great energy and one fiery in argument. This musical portrait expresses his eccentricities, especially his habit of slamming doors in anger, relying on brass and heavy timpani to do so. 

Variations V to IX

Variation V (R.P.A.): Richard Penrose Arnold, son of Matthew Arnold, was a man of changing moods and comic witticisms. We hear his characteristic laugh in this variation. 

Variation VI (Ysobel): Isabel Fitton was a very tall viola student for whom Elgar wrote a set of practice exercises. This viola-centric variation reflects both the exercise and her stature.

Variation VII (Troyte): Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect who designed Elgar’s house at Malvern. He was a man of excitable and tempestuous temperament, who dabbled as an amateur pianist. Elgar gave noble effort to help this dear friend learn to play the instrument, but these efforts led inevitably to an exasperated slam of the keyboard lid. 

Variation VIII (W.N.): This variation honours Winifred Norbury and pays homage to her gracious old-world courtesy. It leads without pause to the most famous of Elgar’s variations. 

Variation IX (Nimrod): This most eloquent of all the variations is a tribute to the composer’s close friend, A.J. Jaeger, editor of The Musical Times and adviser to the firm of Novello, which published many of Elgar’s compositions. (In German “Jaeger” means “hunter – thus the reference to “Nimrod” the mighty hunter.) 

Variations X to XIV

Variation X (Dorabella – Intermezzo): Dorabella refers to Miss Dora Penny, the daughter of a local parson. Elgar favored the nickname “Dorabella” because of the reference to the bright practicality of Mozart’s character in Cosi fan tutte. We can even hear her pronounced stammer in this variation. 

Variation XI (G.R.S.): Dr. George Robertson Sinclair was the organist of Hereford Cathedral who had a loveable bulldog named Dan. The chordal brass suggests the sound of the organ, while the playful and puckish string writing represents Dan. A delightful story relates how Dan rolled down the bank of the River Wye, only to swim upstream to the shore where he barked loudly.

Variation XII (B.G.N.): Basil G. Nevinson was cellist who played in Elgar’s piano trio. Elgar described this variation as “a tribute to a very dear friend 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 (***): The original inscription of a trio of asterisks masks a reference to Lady Mary Lygon, who was at the time en route to Australia. For the intimate group of friends to even hope to understand the reference, Elgar inserted a clarinet solo with a phrase from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The pulse of drums represent the hum of the ship’s engines. 

Variation XIV (E.D.U.): The Finale, elaborate and heavily orchestrated, is both a self-portrait and a musical culmination. (“Edoo” was the composer’s wife’s nickname for her husband.) The work ends in a broad presentation of the theme in a stately major key. 

©2023 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin 

Hear Enigma Variations live this October with the HPO

October 21, 2023 at 7:30pm

James Kahane, Conductor
Aleh Remezau, Oboe

  • Britten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge*
  • Vaughan Williams, Oboe Concerto
  • Kathryn Knowles (23-24 Composer Fellow), A Strange and Preposterous Affair**
  • Elgar, Enigma Variations

*Players Choice
**World premiere