Edward Elgar composed his Variations, Op. 36, popularly known as the Enigma Variations, between October 1898 and February 1899. It is an orchestral work comprising fourteen variations on an original theme.
Elgar dedicated the work 'to my friends pictured within', each variation being a musical sketch of one of his circle of close acquaintances (see musical cryptogram). Those portrayed include Elgar's wife Alice, his friend and publisher Augustus J. Jaeger and Elgar himself. In a programme note for a performance in 1911 Elgar wrote:
This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & 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 & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a ‘piece of music’ apart from any extraneous consideration.
In naming his theme ‘Enigma’ Elgar posed a challenge which has generated much speculation but has never been conclusively answered. The Enigma is widely believed to involve a hidden melody.
After its 1899 London premiere the Variations achieved immediate popularity and established Elgar's international reputation. The work has been recorded over 60 times.
Elgar described how on the evening of 21 October 1898, after a tiring day's teaching, he sat down at the piano. A melody he played caught the attention of his wife, and he began to improvise variations on it in styles which reflected the character of some of his friends. These improvisations, expanded and orchestrated, became the Enigma Variations. Elgar considered including variations portraying Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, but was unable to assimilate their musical styles without pastiche, and dropped the idea.
The piece was finished on 18 February 1899 and published by Novello & Co. It was first performed at St James's Hall in London 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 later revised the final variation, adding 96 new bars and an organ part. The new version, the one usually played today, was first heard at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival on 13 September 1899, with Elgar conducting.
The European continental premiere was performed in Düsseldorf, Germany on 7 February 1901, under Julius Buths (who would also conduct the European premiere of The Dream of Gerontius in December 1901). The work 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 an orchestra consisting of 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, organ (ad lib) and strings.
The theme is followed by 14 variations. The variations spring from the theme's melodic, harmonic and 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 the initials, name or nickname 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, many of them contain a musical reference to a specific characteristic or event, such as a laugh, a habit of speech or a memorable conversation.
Opus/Catalogue Number：Op. 36
Duration: 0:32:00 ( Average )