Elgar’s Enigma Variations

Elgar’s Enigma Variations

By Michael Warren

edward elgar

Edward Elgar


Edward Elgar (1857 -1934) was born in a small house near Worcester, in England.  His father worked as a piano tuner and also ran a small shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. Young Edward was surrounded by music and did receive some tuition on the violin, but he was essentially self-taught. If you listen to his most well-known pieces, such as the Cello Concerto or the Enigma Variations, you will recognize a sort of heroic melancholy that can only be Elgar.

He was unrecognized as a composer until he was in his forties. He made his living by managing and composing for provincial choirs in and around Worcester, including the post of conductor at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum.  Another post he held in his early days was professor of the violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen. His musical career was going nowhere.  He was very poor.

Suddenly, in 1899, at the age of forty-two he achieved instant fame with the Enigma Variations. He had been doodling on the piano, when his wife remarked that it was an interesting tune. Later he reworked the piece as Variations on an Original Theme. The word Enigma does not appear in the original title, but does appear over the first six bars of music, which led to the familiar version of the title. The enigma is that, although there are fourteen variations on the “original theme”, there is another overarching theme, never identified by Elgar, which he said “runs through and over the whole set” but is never heard. He famously remarked that it is like the main character in a play, who never actually appears on stage. The piece premiered in London under the baton of the eminent German conductor Hans Richter, and was an instant success. Finally Elgar was recognized as an authentic musical genius.

I have a personal and romantic attachment to this wonderful piece of music. On my first date with my wife Marianne, we went to a concert at the Festival Hall in London where Sir Adrian Boult conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, playing Elgar’s Enigma Variations. We had only met the day before—this was indeed serendipity! My other connection has been less successful. Several years later no one had identified the unknown theme (and that is true to this day), although Elgar himself said it was a known and popular melody. One day I was listening to a recording of the Variations when I suddenly realized what was the mystery theme. It was Oranges and Lemons! This is a popular nursery rhyme using the bells of various London churches.

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clements, you owe me four farthings, say the bells of Saint Martins. I told you so, says the Great Bell of Bow…”

And so on. This was an amazing insight. I had to tell the world! So I immediately wrote a letter to the Times of London, revealing my intuitive discovery. About a month later I received a nasty letter from the Editor, saying “this correspondence must end!” Evidently, unknown to me, a long and bad-tempered dialogue on this very topic had been carried on through the letter pages of the Times. My correspondence had been the last straw that broke the Editor’s back!

So, you musical experts, tell me that I’m wrong—no reward is offered save eternal fame.


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