This morning I bring to you a blog with a difference.
The story of the Enigma Variations is an amusing one. Tired from a day of giving violin lessons, Elgar returned home to improvise a theme on the piano. His wife liked it and he comically tried to imagine how some of their musical friends may play the piece instead, hence the proper title of Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op 36.
The collected pieces were known as Engima for two reasons. The first puzzle inside it is to tie the likely personalities to the variations, a game which Elgar himself gave away when he wrote some notes for (of all things) a pianola roll version of his music. The second puzzle contained in the music is far more subtle, and concerns a musical link that ties all the variations together. Elgar himself said that the theme is never actually heard and that the element that links the pieces is of the ‘slightest texture’ and therefore that ‘the chief character is never on stage’. Elgar never gave the game away about the identity of the piece and took the solution to his grave in St Wulstan’s Catholic Church in Little Malvern in 1934. He actually thought any suitably educated person would solve it on hearing the first performance. No one did, and no one has.
Others have wished the theme to be more obvious than all of this and have suggested that the musical link is anything from God Save the Queen, through Auld Lang Syne and (more promisingly) Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Others have taken a more tortuous look at things and have suggested that the theme is in fact a reflection of Elgar’s own Christian faith, particularly in the context of some wordplay concerning biblical quotations. No one is ever going to know for certain and that, to me, is appealing.
The ninth variation was given the name ‘Nimrod’ after the biblical reference to Noah’s great-grandson of the same name who was a gifted hunter. It pays tribute to Elgar’s great friend Augustus J Jaeger (whose surname in German translates to ‘Hunter’) who managed to keep Sir Edward’s hopes up while he was still trying to make his mark on the world of music. Elgar attempted to capture Jaeger’s nobility in the slowness of the piece and (allegedly) tried to make a musical reproduction of a a conversation they once had late at night concerning the slow movements of Beethoven’s slow pieces. Indeed, the first few bars closely resemble the very start of the second movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Piano Sonata (also called Pathetique). Having said that, the piece also quotes from Mendelssohn at one point as well.
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the piece is always played at the Cenotaph on Rememberance Sundays that this piece of music captures – maybe more than even his celebrated Pomp and Circumstance – the essence of Britishness in a few pithy musical phrases. Jaeger’s personal nobility aside, its slowness and languid fluidity seems to speak of stoical endurance, making do, fighting to the last bullet and of a small ‘c’ variery of conservatism that the sceptred isle will probably never shake off as long as we exist.
As for the music, I’ve loved this one variation above all the others since I was a child. Like everyone else I probably know it best from a muted brass band playing it on some Sunday every November, but the orchestral version offers so much more. The music appears to climb endlessly, like some kind of Escher staircase (or Shepard tone), playing with cadence, crescendo, tension and release in the most masterful of ways.