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Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra, Op. 36 ("Enigma"), commonly referred to as the Enigma Variations, is a set of a theme and its fourteen variations written for orchestra by Edward Elgar in 1898–1899. It is Elgar's best-known large-scale composition, for both the music itself and the enigmas behind it. Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within", each variation being an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances.


His wife's contribution

One account of the piece's genesis is that after a tiring day of teaching in 1898, Elgar was daydreaming at the piano. A melody he played caught the attention of his wife, who liked it and asked him to repeat it for her. So, to entertain his wife, he began to improvise variations on this melody, each one either a musical portrait of one of their friends, or in the musical style they might have used. Elgar eventually expanded and orchestrated these improvisations into the Enigma Variations.


The piece was first performed at St James's Hallmarker, Londonmarker, on 19 June 1899, conducted by Hans Richter. Critics were at first irritated by the layer of mystification, but most praised the substance, structure, and orchestration of the work. Elgar revised the final variation, adding 100 new bars and an organ part; the new version, the one usually played today, was played at the Worcestermarker Three Choirs Festival on 13 September 1899, with Elgar himself conducting. It has been popular ever since. It quickly achieved many international performances, from Saint Petersburg, where it delighted Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1904, to New York, where Gustav Mahler conducted it in 1910.



The work is scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horn in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, organ (ad lib) and string.


The work consists of the theme, followed by 14 variations. The variations spring from the theme's melodic, harmonic and (especially) rhythmic elements, and the extended fourteenth variation forms a grand finale.

Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within" and in the score each variation is prefaced with either a nickname or initials, a clue to the identity of the friend depicted. As was common with painted portraits of the time, Elgar's 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 sections of the piece are as follows.

Theme (Andante)

The theme consists of two contrasting melodic fragments, with the first one being the main theme:

The main theme is played by the first violins at the beginning. It is played for a second time, with a slightly different accompaniment, after the second melody has been introduced by the woodwinds. Both fragments are further developed in the following variations.

The theme leads into Variation 1 without a pause.

First four variations with photographic montage of Elgar performed by the CBSO with Simon Rattle

Variation I (L'istesso tempo) "C.A.E."

Caroline Alice Elgar, Elgar's wife. The variation contains repetitions of a four-note melodic fragment which Elgar reportedly whistled whenever arriving home to his wife. In 'My Friends Pictured Within' Elgar wrote, "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 (Allegro) "H.D.S.-P."

Hew David Steuart-Powell. In 'My Friends Pictured Within' Elgar wrote, "Hew David Steuart-Powell was a well-known amateur pianist and a great player of chamber music. He was associated B.G.N. (Cello) and the Composer (Violin) for many years in this playing. His characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play is here humorously travestied in the semiquaver passages; these should suggest a Toccata, but chromatic beyond H.D.S.-P.'s liking."

Variation III (Allegretto) "R.B.T."

Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor and mimic, capable of extreme changes in the pitch of his voice, a characteristic which the music imitates.

Variation IV (Allegro di molto) "W.M.B."

William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershiremarker and builder of Fentonmarker, Stoke-on-Trentmarker, who 'expressed himself somewhat energetically'. This is the shortest of the variations.

Variation V (Moderato) "R.P.A."

Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and himself an amateur pianist. This variation leads into the next without pause.

Variation VI (Andantino) "Ysobel"

Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. The melody of this variation is played by the viola.

Variation VII (Presto) "Troyte"

Arthur Troyte Griffiths, an architect. The variation good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano. It also refers to a specific memory, of a day on which Griffiths and Elgar were walking and got caught in a thunder-storm. The pair ran for it, and took refuge in the Norbury house, to which the next theme refers.

Variation VIII (Allegretto) "W.N."

Winifred Norbury, a friend Elgar regarded as particularly easygoing, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. The theme also refers to the Norbury house, which Elgar was fond of. At the end of this variation, a single violin note is held over into the next variation, the most celebrated of the set.

Variation IX (Adagio) "Nimrod"

Augustus J. Jaeger was employed as music editor by the London publisher Novello & Co. For a long time he was a close friend of Elgar, giving him useful advice, but also severe criticism, something Elgar greatly appreciated. Remarkably Elgar later related on several occasions how Jaeger had encouraged him as an artist and had stimulated him to continue composing despite setbacks. The name of the variation punningly refers to Nimrod, an Old Testament patriarch described as "a mighty hunter before the Lord" - the name Jäger being German for hunter.
In 1904 Elgar told Dora Penny (“Dorabella”) that this variation is not really a portrait, but “the story of something that happened”. Once, when Elgar had been very depressed and was about to give it all up and write no more music, Jaeger had visited him and encouraged him to continue composing. He pointed at Ludwig van Beethoven, who had a lot of worries, but wrote more and more beautiful music. “And-that-is-what-you-must-do”, Jaeger said and he sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven's [[Piano Sonata No. 8 (Beethoven)|Piano Sonata No. 8
' Pathétique ']]. Elgar disclosed to Dora that the opening bars of Nimrod were made to suggest that theme. “Can’t you hear it at the beginning? Only a hint, not a quotation”.

This variation has become popular in its own right and is sometimes used at funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions. It is always played at the Cenotaphmarker in London on Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday in November).

Excerpt performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson.
Excerpt arranged by Eric Ball and performed by the Black Dyke Band
Complete variation performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
Complete variation performed by the Massed Bands of the Household Cavalry at the 2007 Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph.
Complate variation performed by the Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Santa in Rotterdammarker
Complete variation performed by the LSO conducted by Sir Colin Davis in 2004
Complete variation in a Philip Bloom's airshow movie

Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) "Dorabella"==== : Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter (or laugh, depending on the source) is depicted by the [[Woodwind instrument|woodwind]]s. 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. She was also the recipient of another of Elgar's enigmas, the so-called [[Dorabella Cipher]]. ====Variation XI (Allegro di molto) "G.R.S."==== : George Robertson Sinclair, the energetic [[organ (music)|organ]]ist of [[Hereford Cathedral]]. More specifically, the variation also depicts Sinclair's [[bulldog]] Dan, and a walk by the [[River Wye]] with Sinclair and Elgar when Dan jumped into the river. Sinclair said to Elgar: "Set that to music." So Elgar did. ====Variation XII (Andante) "B.G.N."==== : Basil G. Nevinson, a well known [[cello|cellist]], who gets a cello melody for his variation. Later, Nevinson inspired Elgar to write his [[Cello Concerto (Elgar)|Cello Concerto]]. ====Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) "'''''* * *'''''"==== : Because of the lack of initials, the identity of this person is unclear and remains an enigma within the Enigma. The music includes a quotation from [[Felix Mendelssohn]]'s concert [[overture]] ''Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage'' (''Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt''), which leads to speculation that 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 she emigrated to [[New Zealand]] in 1884. At certain intervals, the timpani create a sound reminiscent of a ship's engines, by means of hard sticks or, traditionally, coins. ====Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro Presto) "E.D.U."

Elgar himself, Edu being his wife's nickname for him. The themes from two variations are echoed: "Nimrod" and "C.A.E.", referring to Jaeger and Elgar´s wife Alice, "two great influences on the life and art of the composer", as Elgar wrote in 1927. Elgar called these references "entirely fitting to the intention of the piece".

The original version of this variation is 100 bars shorter than the one now usually played. In July 1899, one month after the original version was finished, Elgar's friend Jaeger, the person depicted in Variation IX, urged Elgar to make the variation a little longer. Elgar agreed, and also added an organ part. The new version was played for the first time at the Worcestermarker Three Choirs Festival, with Elgar himself conducting, on 13 September 1899.


Among many, the following are noteworthy:
  • The composer's arrangement of the complete work for piano solo
  • The composer's arrangement of the complete work for piano duet (two pianos)
  • Piano duet (one piano) - by John E. West
  • Brass band - by composer Eric Ball
  • There are many arrangements of individual variations, particularly the popular Variation IX "Nimrod"
  • Variation X "Dorabella", also popular, was published separately in its orchestral version

The enigma

To determine which of Elgar's friends each variation represents, is not the puzzle "Enigma" of the title refers to. The identity of most of them we know (see above): Elgar himself provided brief notes on the subjects to accompany the five Duo-art pianola rolls of the Variations that the Aeolian Company brought out in 1929.However, there is also a theme hidden in the work, which is 'not played'. To solve this, we only have a few clues. In a programme note for the first performance Charles A. Barry rendered Elgar's own words:

The Enigma I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the 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 the stage.

Elgar wrote the following in a set of notes issued with the Aeolian Company pianola rolls published in 1929:

The alternation of the two quavers and two crotchets in the first bar and their reversal in the second bar will be noticed; references to this grouping are almost continuous (either melodically or in the accompanying figures - in Variation XIII, beginning at bar 11 [503], for example). The drop of a seventh in the Theme (bars 3 and 4) should be observed. At bar 7 (G major) appears the rising and falling passage in thirds which is much used later, e.g. Variation III, bars 10.16. [106, 112] - E.E.

1. Some believe that the theme itself is a derivation of some well-known, hidden tune. Many have guessed at what this might be.

Some have proposed the tune of the Britishmarker national anthem, "God Save the Queen" as the enigma theme's inspiration; others prefer "Auld Lang Syne" transposed to a minor key, which suits the subject of "old acquaintance". Some music scholars believe the theme may be based on part of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, which was on the program at the "Enigma" Variations' premiere in 1899. Also proposed has been the traditional Renaissance theme La Folia, whose chords roughly fit the theme, although Elgar's use of accented seventh notes would have been a decidedly nineteenth-century adaptation.

A popular theory is that the theme is related to the "never, never, never" section of "Rule, Britannia!"; in particular, the phrase is clearly audible in the first five notes of the work, and there are several other possible hints in Elgar's own statements, in particular "So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on stage." However, the word "never" can be related as well to the second line of Auld Lang Syne "And never brought to mind", which fits (though not musically) with a theory postulated by Eric Sams in 1970. It is usually assumed that the 'unheard theme' is a melody. But Elgar did not explicitly state that this was so. It is possible that the 'enigma' also represents a 'friend pictured within.' According to the Rule Brittania! theory (presented by the Anglo-Dutch musicologist and writer Theodore van Houten, in Music Review, May 1976) this hidden character is 'Britannia ruling the waves.' Moreover, Van Houten suggested that Variation XI represents another symbol for England: John Bull, with bulldog and all! Van Houten's Rule Britannia theory links the Enigma Variations with nationalism in European music around 1900. Elgar, then a solid conservative, wrote his patriotic cantata Caractacus (op. 35) just before the Enigma Variations (Op. 36). The Rule Britannia! theory was accepted by the Honorary President of the Elgar Society, the illustrious Yehudi Menuhin. Before conducting the variations at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1984, Menuhin addressed the audience explaining that the solution to Elgar's 'enigma' was 'none other' than Rule Britannia! Remarkably, Elgar seems to have thought that the 'enigma' would be 'solved' by any listener at the first performance. The premiere concert was significantly concluded by Alexander MacKenzie's Overture Britannia, based on Rule Britannia!

2. Others believe that the theme is a countermelody to some other unheard tune — in other words it would fit when played simultaneously, but does not necessarily contain any of its characteristics other than the most general harmonic or structural outline. F.G. Edwards conveyed in a biographical article on Elgar in the Musical Times of 1900 Elgar's own words:

In connection with these much discussed Variations, Mr Elgar tells us that the heading Enigma is justified by the fact that it is possible to add another phrase, which is quite familiar, above the original theme that he has written. What that theme is no one knows except the composer. Thereby hangs the Enigma.

So did Robert Buckley in his Elgar biography of 1905:

The theme is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard.

A recent theory, proposed by Clive McClelland of the University of Leeds, suggests that the hidden theme is the hymn tune "Now the day is over". Unlike most theories, this deals convincingly with all 24 notes of the main theme; the lyrics too fit in elegantly with Elgar's 'dark saying'.

A recent solution from the Netherlands was proposed in 2007 by Hans Westgeest. He found a connection between the enigma and the Jaeger-Beethoven-story behind the Nimrod-variation, which Elgar told Dora Penny in 1904 (see var. IX above). The real theme of the Enigma Variations, which is present everywhere throughout the work in different shapes, is rather short: it consists of notes which form the rhythm of Edward Elgar’s own name, "short-short-long-long", and the reverse of it, "long-long-short-short" (and an endnote). The mysterious melody which is hidden in the Enigma Variations is the theme of the second movement of the Pathétique-sonata of Ludwig van Beethoven. This is the “principal Theme” which is “not played” itself, which is much “larger” and quite “well-known”. Elgar composed his “Elgar-theme” as a countermelody to the beginning of this Beethoven-theme and it also comprises the very notes of it. As Westgeest states, the symbolism of this is evident: Elgar follows the example of Beethoven, as Jaeger told him to do. By doing so, the artist triumphs over depression and discouragement in the Finale, "E.D.U.".

Even Dora Penny could not solve the enigma, because she didn't see the connection with the Jaeger-Beethoven-story Elgar had told her in private. He was surprised: "I thought that you of all people would guess it."

3. There have been published many other solutions of a totally different kind. Only a few examples:

1 Corinthians 13:12

A famous theory, postulated by Professor Ian Parrott, former vice-president of the Elgar Society, in his book on Elgar ("Master Musicians", 1971) was that the "dark saying", and possibly the whole of the Enigma was related to 1 Corinthians 13:12 which reads according to the Authorised Version of the Bible:

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known".

This verse is from St. Paul's essay on love. Elgar was a practising Roman Catholic and on 12 February 1899, eight days before the completion of the Variations, Elgar attended Quinquagesima Mass at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Malvern. This particular reading was read. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Vulgate translation (in Latin) would have been used which reads:

"videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate tunc autem facie ad faciem nunc cognosco ex parte tunc autem cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum".

Perhaps then, the Enigmatic Theme that 'goes', but is not played "through and over the whole set" is the faith, hope and love of the friends who had been close to him during his years of obscurity and frequent depression, friends who for Elgar had reflected that great and central theme of Christian scripture - God's love.

Another type of solution is that the 'larger theme that "goes" but is not played' is a literary theme. In The Elgar Soceity Journal (November 2004, Vol.13,No.6) Edmund M. Green suggested that the 'larger' theme is Shakespeare's sixty-sixth Sonnet and that the word 'Enigma' stands for the real name of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

The Art of Fugue

In 1985, Marshall Portnoy in the Musical Quarterly (Oxford) suggested that the answer to the enigma was J S Bach's The Art of Fugue. The Art of Fugue contains the B-A-C-H motif (in English notation, B-flat A C B-natural) which appears in the 14th fugue, which also seems to have been hinted at in the Enigma variations. This seems to have some grounds for the following reasons:

  • The Art of Fugue has 14 fugues on the same fugue subject. The Enigma variations have 14 variations on the same theme.

  • Bach signed the 14th fugue with the tune "B A C H". Elgar signed the last variation with "EDU" (his nickname that his wife used), in the title.

  • The "B A C H" tune begins on a B-flat, and ends on a B-natural, the enigma theme does likewise.

  • There are some superficial relationships between the B-A-C-H note sequence (B-flat A C B-natural) which appears in the 14th fugue, and the theme of the enigma variations, e.g. they both start on B-flat and end on B-natural. The first 4 notes of Elgar's theme has a similar shape (down-up-down), although the intervals are augmented by a step — B-A-C-H is minor 2nd down, minor 3rd up, minor 2nd down; the first intervals of the theme are minor 3rd down, perfect 4th up, minor 3rd down. Shape is similar, but enough to make the tune sound different. Sometimes the rhythm of the first 4 notes is played in retrograde.

  • Bach liked number games, that's why the 14th fugue has B-A-C-H (in alphabetical order A=1, B=2, C=3, H=8, BACH=14, hence 14th fugue). Elgar was also known for cryptographic games also (Dorabella Cipher, etc). Elgar, when he was 9, foreshadowed the Enigma Variations by drawing an ingenious musical anagram which spells out the four letters of Bach's name.

  • Just as the main Art of Fugue subject is heard throughout the whole piece (heard in the first 2 bars of the first fugue), the theme is presented, recognizably, in many forms throughout the variations.

  • The scoring of the Variations includes an organ (ad lib). Bach, of course, was a well known organ player and composer. The organ is especially heard in the background 14th variation (perhaps a tribute to Bach?). The organ seems to always be in the background, never in the foreground, just as the hidden theme is always in the background, but never presented up front.

  • The Art of Fugue is never directly quoted, like, as Elgar himself wrote, principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on stage.

Objections to the Art of Fugue as the answer to the enigma:

  • The Art of Fugue also has 4 canons after the last fugue, which are not accounted for in the Enigma Variations.

  • The Art of Fugue is in D-minor, and Enigma variations in G-minor. It has been proposed, that G-minor was used since both B-flat and B-natural can be used in G-minor.

Subsequent history

Elgar himself quoted many of his own works, including Nimrod (Variation 9), in his choral piece of 1912, The Music Makers.

On 24 May 1912 Elgar conducted a performance of the Variations at a Memorial Concert in aid of the family survivors of musicians who had been lost in the Titanic disastermarker.

Frederick Ashton's ballet Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within) is choreographed to Elgar's score with the exception of the finale, which uses Elgar's original shorter ending (see above), transcribed from the manuscript by John Lanchbery. The ballet, which depicts the friends and Elgar as he awaits Richter's decision about conducting the premiere, received its first performance on 25 October 1968 at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London.Elgar himself suggested, that in case the variations were to be a ballet the 'enigma' would have to be represented by 'a veiled dancer'. Elgar's remark suggested that the 'enigma' in fact pictured 'a friend', just like the variations. He used the word 'veiled'. It was obviously a female character (Brittania).

"Enigma Variations" is also a drama in the form of a dialogue - original title "Variations Énigmatiques" (1996) - written by the French dramatist Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and widely performed. It is inspired to Elgar's music composition.


One of the earliest recordings dates from 1926, with the composer himself conducting the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra on the EMI label; it has been remastered, and the CD also includes Elgar conducting his own Violin Concerto in B minor with Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist. Sixty years later, Menuhin took the baton to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Variations for Philips. Sir John Eliot Gardiner's 1998 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon was released in 2002.



  • Buckley, R. J. (1905). Sir Edward Elgar. London / New York.
  • Edwards, F.G. (1900). ‘Edward Elgar’, in: The Musical Times 41 (1900). Reprinted in: Redwood 1982, pp. 35-49.
  • McClelland, Clive (2007). "Shadows of the evening: new light on Elgar’s ‘dark saying’". In: Musical Times, Vol. 148, No 1901 (Winter), pp. 43-48.
  • My friends pictured within. The subjects of the Enigma Variations as portrayed in contemporary photographs and Elgar's manuscript. London, [1946].
  • Nice, David (1996). Edward Elgar: an essential guide to his life and works. London: Pavilion. ISBN 1-85793-977-8.
  • Powell, Mrs. R. (1947). Edward Elgar. Memories of a Variation. London. 2nd ed.
  • Redwood, Chr. [1982](ed.), An Elgar Companion. Ashbourne.
  • Reed, W H: Elgar, London: J M Dent & Sons, 1939.
  • Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma variations. Cambridge: CUP 1999.
  • Van Houten, Theodore (1976). " 'You of all people' - Elgar's Enigma". In: Music Review, xxxvii, May, pp. 131-142.
  • Van Houten, Theodore (2008). " 'The Enigma I will not explain' ". In: Mens & Melodie, #4, pp. 14-17.
  • Westgeest, Hans (2007). Elgar's Enigma Variations. The Solution. Leidschendam-Voorburg: Corbulo Press. ISBN 978-90-79291-01-4 (hardcover), ISBN 978-90-79291-03-8 (paperback).

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