We enjoy a full performance of the Enigma Variations at the end of the episode, but first, we get into the people and places depicted in colorful detail in Elgar's masterpiece. John Banther and Evan Keely uncover hidden clues in the music, the types of people Elgar depicts, and what the Enigma could possibly be (but isn't).

Show Notes

After listening to the episode...

Can't get enough Enigma from the in-episode performance?


A visual explanation of the people and themes





John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely, and we're breaking down Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, a work that sent him to international acclaim and includes all kinds of hidden musical ideas. But what is the enigma? And who were these unknown people that Elgar was depicting? We get into all of that and more, plus stay with us to the end as we hear an entire performance of it with the Royal Concercapa Orchestra.

So in England, for a few centuries after Henry Purcell died in 1695, they were basically importing their musical traditions and their composers. We know of George Frideric Handell, Johann Christian Bach. They traveled there and spent a lot of time. And then finally England focused some attention inward, especially after this piece, Evan was premiered, and we got into the 20th century. After this, we see a flood of English composers.


Speaker 2: Yeah, this is, some people consider this period, we're looking at the very end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century as a kind of renaissance in English music.


John Banther: And Gustav Holst is a name we've of course come to know. He said, " 1880 is usually given as the date of the modern Renaissance in English music. For me, it began about 20 years later when I first knew Elgar's Enigma Variations. I felt that here was music, the like of which had not appeared in this country since Purcell's death." Even from Gustav Holst in this time, in the early 20th century, recognizes the significance and the impact of this moment.


Speaker 2: Yeah, clearly he's aware that this is something very significant that's happening in music, in the musical scene in England.


John Banther: So Edward Elgar composed this in 1898 to 1899 and it was a big success when it premiered, and it really elevated his status, also internationally. It was his first fully published work in a full score, and he was also 41 years old. So he was a little bit later, as we know, in music. And stay with us to the end as we're going to also hear a full performance of this work as well. So we've got a theme in variations here, the Enigma Variations. What is the theme? How did Elgar even come up with this?


Speaker 2: So Elgar himself later told about this, how all this came to be. He was, apparently, he came home from work one day, sat down at the piano, he's noodling around. This is in October of 1898. And he later remarks about this experience. He wrote, " I musingly played on the piano the theme, as it now stands, the voice of CAE." That's his spouse. She's in a nearby room and she's hearing him playing, " And she asked with a sound of approval, what is that? I answered nothing but something might be made of it." And then he goes on to comment that he's playing this theme and then he's thinking about people that he knows and thinking, well, this person would play it like this, this person would play it in this style.

And one way to understand this set of variations is portraits of my friends pictured within is a subtitle that he gave to this piece. So we've had other pieces on Classical Breakdown where we've talked about music that tells a story like Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov or music that paints a picture like the pictures at an exhibition. John, you and I did an episode on Andro Made Andromeda by Augusta Holmès, this old Greek myth. The music tells a story. Well, here's music that's painting portraits of individual persons. And you and I don't really know these persons, they're not well known, but they were Elgar's friends. And the story of how that came to be as an interesting thing to understand about this piece. And even if we don't know these people, we can still appreciate the music, but it adds a layer of interest to know about these people, at least a little bit.


John Banther: It does add a layer of interest. And I love this for two reasons or a couple of reasons. One, what a almost boring, banal detail that is just beautiful. He comes home, he's noodling around on the piano, his wife says, " Oh, what is that? That's nice." And then we have this. It also speaks to the importance of boredom in creativity.


Speaker 2: Yes.


John Banther: Boredom is such a huge part that we're kind of losing in that he's just by himself noodling around, whatever, kind of bored, and then this comes out. I love it. So I guess Evan, Enigma Variations, this is the theme. This must be the enigma that is in the title, I guess, right? Has to be.


Speaker 2: Well, there's many ways of looking at that.


John Banther: And we have an interview from 1900 in the Musical Times F. G. Edwards wrote, " 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." And then in 1911 in the program, Elgar submitted this saying, " The enigma, I will not explain. It's dark saying," which is like the original Greek translation dark saying is enigma. He says, " Its dark saying must be left un- guessed. And I warn you that the connection between the variations and the theme is often the slightest texture. Further, through and over the whole set another and a larger theme goes but is not played. So the principle theme never appears." It's like a play, Evan, where the character is never on stage or the monster never appears.


Speaker 2: Yeah. Waiting for Gaudo. Gaudo never shows up. And yet that's what it's all about. And I think Elgar had a very literary sense, a very imaginative individual, and he's got this thing in his brain which never actually see or hear, and no one is sure what he meant by this.


John Banther: It's something that he took to his grave. And looking into the music with this, there is something about Elgar's music in particular that I can't always put my finger on. I love how the theme returns. We're in this minor key. Things feel a little strange, but it's not anxiety. In a way it reminds me of how Debussy would paint pictures or (inaudible) would paint pictures into the music. But we have it here in this kind of English way. I don't know, there's some kind of correlation to that in my ears.


Speaker 2: I agree with you, John. There's a kind of almost conversational quality about this music, and yet the conversation is simultaneously, there's a surface of sort of casualness, and yet there's a depth that's underneath it. So it's something that seems very sort of almost commonplace. And yet as you listen to it, there's a real profundity there as well.


John Banther: Conversation. That's a great point because I hear a lot of call and response, but not in a very obvious attention- grabbing way in the music.


Speaker 2: There are those that say that Elgar's music sounds like the natural cadence of spoken English, the English language being spoken. I'm not sure if I know what that even means. And yet when I hear this theme, there's a kind of almost talky quality to it, and you want to hear what this taught. What is this person saying? It sounds like something interesting.


John Banther: That's a really good way to put it and definitely an interesting way to listen to this as we go forward, starting with Variation I, which has the initials, CAE, Caroline Alice Elgar, his wife, and most other variations have initials. And I think these were originally withheld, which would add more mysteriousness to I think.


Speaker 2: Yeah, it's not really clear about how he came to share with the world these very personal details of people that wouldn't be known to most listeners and why he chose to do that. But again, it adds a layer of interest to our experience of listening to this music.


John Banther: And as we listen to this, we realize the variation aspect to it is how these individual people might play the theme or embody it, so to speak, not so much all the ways you develop variations like we learned in a previous episode.

With this one, it has this tune, this theme, which is also something he used to whistle, I believe, when he got home to his wife, he would whistle this tune every time he would come home. And we hear that expanded on. I love those inconsequential moments between an intimate moment that's now blown up to something like this that we can hear. And the middle is very, very passionate. It feels very Elgar to me, the harmony, the voicing, especially his use of timpani as well. This is really characteristic or emblematic of Elgar.


Speaker 2: John, you and I talked about in a previous episode about Gustav Mahler who had this quality of having a very personal stamp on his music. He's telling his own story in a very personal way, and yet the individual details really transcend any one person's experience. So this very sort of domestic picture of this man whistling a tune in an affectionate way to his wife, and yet it becomes this orchestral masterpiece that the whole world listens to. You could have no idea who Edward Elgar is or what his life was like, and you can still appreciate this music. And yet knowing that little detail adds a layer of fascination,


John Banther: And we go into Variation II, H. D. S- P, who on earth could this be?


Speaker 2: Well, you find yourself asking that again and again as we go through this piece. Who are these people? This one variation two, H. D. S- P is Hugh David Stuart- Powell, very sort of almost stereotypical English name. And he was a amateur pianist that Elgar knew. And apparently he had this, Elgar remarked it later on, he had a characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play. Maybe he would play scales or something. It's not really clear exactly what that means. And Elgar writes this thing which evokes that, but in a way that's maybe more challenging to play than Hugh David Stuart- Powell would've appreciated. So maybe it's little sort of gently poking fun at his friend or having a joke with his friend in an affectionate way. It's not really clear. But there's a kind of delightful, pleasant sort of humorous quality to this that I find really charming.


John Banther: And you'll find a lot of humor in music, and musicians pick up on this, how other musicians warm up or get ready to play. Everyone has their own way of doing something and you can hear, oh, I hear someone in the distance or on the other side of the hall just by hearing them, oh, I know that warmup, that's-


Speaker 2: That's got to be so- and- so.


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: So-and-so always plays like that. Yeah, there's kind of this music nerd bonding that goes on in this music I find so delightful.


John Banther: As I said, some of these are very short, but they are so characteristic. And that's kind of how Elgar gets away with it too. If you have a movement that's jam packed with a thousand different things, but it's six minutes, seven minutes, 10 minutes long, well that becomes very fatiguing. It becomes less characteristic, it becomes even more diluted. So these short ones, they're very characteristic. And I love, Evan, how distinctive the transitions are as well. Some of them flow into the next one. Some of them are very abrupt with contrast, but that contrast is part of the whole experience too. So now we go to the third variation. This is RBT, Richard Baxter Townsend. And Evan, this is also the only variation that has a repeat sign, something we would usually expect from theme and variations, a lot of repetition.


Speaker 2: Sure. You and I talked about the Haydn variations, rather, of Johannes Brahms, lots of repeat signs in that music. And that's a typical set of variations. This is the one variation in this set with a repeat sign. So it's almost like a throwback to a hearkening to the past or something.


John Banther: And this character, Richard Baxter Townsend, I guess he was like an actor, maybe an amateur actor, and he would be in these local theatrical productions and he was very good at playing an old man with this low voice and then on a turn of a dime talking or singing very super high in soprano. So this comedic character.


Speaker 2: Right. This exaggerated kind of comical character, and again, this is sort of an affectionate, you don't sense that Elgar is making fun of these people in a mean way. It seems like it's a very friendly sort of inside joke type of thing. And again, it transcends the particulars and we hear this very interesting music that we can enjoy, even though we didn't know Richard Baxter Townsend and what his voice sounded like. And yet we can imagine any person we've known in our own lives who has those same kind of humorous peculiarities.


John Banther: And critics and magazines also took a small issue with this. And we see in this one publication, the Anathenium from June of 1899 after it premiered, saying, " We regret the composer has dedicated his work," quote, " To my friend's pictured within. There was no harm in his working like Beethoven to pictures in his mind, but it would've been better not to call attention to the fact the variations stand in no need of a program, as abstract music, they fully satisfy. If the friends have recognized their portraits, it will no doubt please them. But this is altogether a personal matter." And he goes on to say, yeah, this is great, but I don't even know what this is.


Speaker 2: It's a strange critique too. Why would they object the Athenaeum in June of 1899 writing this article saying, why did Elgar tell us about these people? We don't care. Well then don't worry about it. But I find that very strange and I disagree. I think that knowing, even just cursory details about these friends that he made these portraits of in this music adds to it rather than subtracting from it.


John Banther: It's a classic, a critic, I don't like this. And the artist, okay, too bad,


Speaker 2: Too bad.


John Banther: That's fine.


Speaker 2: Elgar's first international success was this piece. I think he had the last laugh.


John Banther: The fourth variation, W. M. B, William Meath Baker. He's this, well- off man, he's a squire, super energetic. He's also kind of like Elgar in that he's quintessential British, the mustache, the fashion. He's the guy on the penny- farthing, pip (inaudible) cheerio, riding past you. It's the kind of person we all know that comes in to the room loud with the bang, says a ton of things, and they're already gone and you're just kind of like, wait, what'd they say? What just happened?


Speaker 2: Kind of this frenetic energy of someone who's very self- confident, but somebody you want to know, somebody who's an exciting, interesting person.


John Banther: And he also loved to cycle. And Elgar would also cycle with these friends as well. And I just want to read a moment here because this is just too funny to not include. We've all been there, you go, you're in a parking lot that's empty. Someone parks right next to you and you're trying to eat lunch or someone sits right next to you at the park or something like that. We don't know exactly who he wrote this to, but he said, " I am awfully worried with this moving and I'll do anything to escape it." I guess he was moving to a different house or a state.

He said, " I fled out yesterday straight across country to think out my thoughts to avoid everyone. Will you believe it? I had walked nine miles and was on the road and a man rode silently on a bicycle behind me and said, oh, Mr. Elgar, can you tell me if novellas have any performing rights to et cetera, et cetera." I was speechless. I'm just thinking, Elgar's, he's got all these thoughts. He runs out, he's nine miles, walked on the road, someone on a bike. Oh hey, what about this piece?


Speaker 2: Hey, Mr. Elgar, I want to ask about music publishing. Elgar is a fascinating character. You get this sense, he's this introvert. He wants people to leave him alone, and yet he also wants to share his thoughts with the world. So there's this ambivalence. Really comes across in this particular piece too. And it's interesting. This is perhaps his best known work, best loved work are certainly among them. And really I think the ambivalences of his personality really come out in this music in a way that makes it so much more interesting when you think about it and listen to it.


John Banther: And it's got very, we've been trying to reach you about your car's extended warranty vibes as well. I feel like that's really, that's what's happening.

So we get into Variation V, which is R. P. A, Richard Penrose Arnold, who was a piano player, and I guess he was also very serious and then also very witty. So kind of turning on a dime between these two characters for this person.


Speaker 2: Yeah, he is also the son of the famous poet, Matthew Arnold.


John Banther: Oh, okay. Also, this one has something that I didn't know actually until I really looked at it and that it has two time signatures at the same time. This is something that obviously doesn't happen too much, and we're in twelve- eight, four- four at the same time. Basically what that means is in twelve- eight we've got three notes to a beat, like one, two, three, one, two, three, and then the other one, four- four has two eighth notes to a beat. Da da da da da da. And when you put them together, you get this conflict of three against two, which in music isn't so much of a conflict, it's adding tension and also adds direction. It feels like you have to, one is holding back the other. So serious conversation broken up by Woody Remarques, that is the character of R. P. A. Then we get to Variation VI, which is not a set of initials. Now we have a full name, Ysobel.


Speaker 2: Ysobel, strange, Y- S- O- B- E- L. Kind of an odd spelling. No one's really sure why he spelled it that way for this variation. There's a sense of kind of an inside joke or a personal connection that we don't know about, as a layer of mystery perhaps to this enigma, who knows?


John Banther: And Ysobel Fitton, that was her last name, she was an amateur viola player. So as you imagine, these are people who played with Elgar and they really get to know each other's playing and the way they play. And something here that Elgar does is lost on everyone that listens to it. It was lost on me until I actually really looked at it. And that is the opening of this is a string crossing exercise. So next time you go to a concert, look at the viola, look at the string players, any of them really, and watch how their right arm with a bow pivots to play the different strings.

So when you're learning, you're playing on one string and then you go to the next one. And then a big lesson, however many months, or I don't know what it is later, you learn how to cross over or skip a string, which sounds like, okay, you just go to the other one. But there's a lot to manage. It's like you're in the left lane. I know we live in the DMV. It's popular just to go all the way to the right as fast as possible with no signal.


Speaker 2: I know it. Yeah,


John Banther: Yeah. But learning this exercise, it's like putting on your turn signal.


Speaker 2: Yeah.


John Banther: So the opening here to the viola is they know this is a little exercise that repeats, but yeah, that's a good lesson. You always use their signal too.


Speaker 2: Yeah, so he's signaling in this music that he appreciates Elizabeth Fitton and her viola playing.


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: And she is an amateur player like a lot of the people, friends pictured within this set of variations are amateur musicians. And Elgar seems to have a special love for them.


John Banther: Going into Variation VII, approaching the halfway point. This is called Troyte, another full name, Arthur Troyte Griffith. And this person was an architect and one of Elgar's close friends. This one apparently also in good fun, in good nature is kind of poking fun and mimicking his enthusiastic incompetence at the piano. So I get the idea this is someone who really loved to play the instrument and practice, but not always do the hard practicing. I sound really good on this part. I'm going to keep practicing this part, not the hard part. This one is also in one- one, Evan, which is another unusual time signature moment.


Speaker 2: Yeah. One, one, we don't see this time signature very often in music. Just try to imagine when you're hearing a waltz, one, two, three, one, two, three. We're going to be maybe in three- four or three- eight. This is one- one, one, one beat per measure. One, one, one. There's this insistent sort of banging like you imagine Arthur Troyte Griffith banging at the piano very enthusiastically. And maybe it's not beautiful playing, but there's this sort of insistent determination. And you hear this in this one- one time signature.


John Banther: Variation WN. Who is this?


Speaker 2: Winifred Norbury is the person who is represented by the initials W. N. And yet apparently this variation is less about a person and more about a household. And I think Elgar here is painting less a picture of persons or an individual and more of just a kind of an idea of, I'm not sure, domesticity or just the tranquility of a stately English home. And there's just this sense of, rather than a portrait of a person, it's an idea of a place.


John Banther: Yeah. Part of me was thinking, well, I don't know how I'd feel if you get to my movement and it's my house, not me. But the idea of maybe it's the idea when they go to whatever her estate is, the feeling and the atmosphere of it. There is this wonderful moment I love, trills in the oboe over a cello solo. This is a moment to listen for, the way they come out of the orchestra, it's almost childlike. Like they come into view at her estate, running over a hill with a stick and a hoop, whatever these kids do in the 19th century. So the oboe with the trill was kind of like a taunt, and the cello was really high and out of its comfort zone. And I think even this has really influenced a lot of video game music today. There's a lot of this kind of writing you still hear in video games.


Speaker 2: I think a lot of the very successful video game composers know their Elgar.


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: As well they should.


John Banther: Variation IX. Now, this is the one of course everyone knows whether you know it or not, Nimrod. And to me, Nimrod, when I was a kid, I thought, Nimrod, that's a mean name.


Speaker 2: It's like a taunt, right?


John Banther: Yeah. So what is this? What's Nimrod?


Speaker 2: Well, Nimrod is actually a biblical name. Nimrod is a character in scripture who is a mighty hunter before the Lord is how this person is described in the Bible. And this is actually a pun on Augustus Jaeger who was Elgar's publisher at Novellos and one of his closest friends and also one of his harshest critics in a supportive way, Augustus Jaeger, Jaeger being the German word for hunter. So this is a pun on Jaeger's name.

And this is like you said, John, this is one of Elgar's best- known works other than the tune we hear at graduations from the Pomp and Circumstance March number one. This is one of these pieces, it's almost like a patriotic tune in England. It's played at Queen Elizabeth II's funeral. This is one of these things you hear. I remember one of my earliest encounters, by the way, with this music, I feel like I should just point out, was driving my car around somewhere in the DMV. This was many years ago before I ever dreamed I would be working for WETA Classical. And I had WETA Classical on the radio in my car, and I'm hearing this music, I'm not really paying attention, and this Nimrod comes on.

And I'm just driving. And these emotions just start swelling in my being. And what is this music? I guess I knew the Enigma Variations a little bit, but I didn't really know it that well. I didn't remember what I was hearing. But the feeling this music gives you, it's such a powerful expression of something. Nobilmente is the adjective he uses in the piano version of this piece, nobly. And there's this sense of, it's almost a stereotype of nobility, but it'd be easy for this to be a cliché. It's really not. It's just an extraordinarily powerful and moving thing, which seems to be less a portrait of Jaeger himself and more of an image of what Elgar described simply as something that happened.

And we don't know what that is, my guess, and I think a lot of people guess that it's Jaeger and Elgar had a conversation at some point where Elgar was feeling, as he very often did, very discouraged and dispirited and Jaeger gave him the courage through their friendship to carry on. And maybe that's being depicted here, but on another level, who cares? It's just this magnificent music that is so stirring and so powerful and so suitable for so many different occasions and expressions.


John Banther: It's a sound you just want to bathe in.


Speaker 2: Yeah.


John Banther: It's one of these works like the Barber Adagio for Strings or Rachmaninoff, Vocalise that's just, it's been rearranged for 1, 000 different kinds of ensembles, and surely it kind of works in all of those settings. It has a very affectionate quality to it, a very warm, loving friendship that you kind of hear with these two. And a great testament to this actually is another letter that Elgar wrote to him a year, over a year and a half, I think after he even completed this. He wrote, " Dear Nimrod, what a jolly fine tune your variation is. I'd forgotten it. And I've been playing it through. It's just like you, you solemn, wholesome, hearty old dear. I could give another side of your character, but won't musically just yet." It's been over a year. He's totally forgotten it. Oh, I'm bored. I'll play this thing again.


Speaker 2: Wow, this is pretty good, what I wrote about my friend Nimrod.


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: Yeah.


John Banther: I love that. It's such a close relationship between an editor, your publisher. Even today I was reading in the Washington Post, there is a reporter whose editor is retiring, and I think she wrote literally, " I threw up thinking about it. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."


Speaker 2: This sense of connection, this person that you really count on. It's a professional connection. I love this phrase in this letter, you solemn, wholesome, hearty old dear.


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: Wow, get yourself a friend like this friendship.


John Banther: Okay, Variation X, another name. Here we have Dorabella. And this really also brings to life the sentence we read earlier from Elgar's program. The connection between the variations and the theme is often of the slightest texture. And we see that in this one too.


Speaker 2: Sure. You listen to this and you think, how is this in any way related to that theme I heard at the beginning? But Elgar seems to know what he's doing. Dora Penny was her name. Dorabella is a nickname, one of the characters in Mozart's opera, Così fan tutte has that name. So there's an inside story there. We don't know a whole lot about it. And there's this wonderful viola solo, this childlike viola solo in this piece. So there's a lot of affection in this music too, as there is in so many of these variations.


John Banther: And to give a little more of a picture of Dora Penny, I found this in a letter. I thought it was just so funny or so endearing. Elgar was writing to Jaeger saying, " I had a bunch of letters and things to send to you, maybe some music and something you sent me, some stuff to be stamped," et cetera. And then he says, " I sent the young Dorabella off. But she came back later in tears after something happened and she lost several of the things." And Elgar, he didn't see mad. He was just like, " Well, no time to rewrite. More later." Just thinking of Elgar. Okay, Dora, here you go. He hands off all this stuff and she's a young child. She leaves, she comes back in tears, a kid comes back, you don't even know what happened. They can't explain it. Things are (inaudible) .


Speaker 2: Yeah. And this is yet another instance in this music of these very sort of mundane, everyday life kinds of things. We were just talking about Nimrod, this incredible profundity of this deep friendship. But then there's these everyday life, like here, hey, could go to the post office for me? Oh, I lost. I dropped the letters. I don't know. I can't find them. Just as like everyday life, boring things. And yet they become in this music, this really intimate portrait of human life in a way that's so beguiling and so relatable.


John Banther: Another kind of life event that's described in Variation XI, which is G. R. S, George Robertson Sinclair. He was an organist. And I guess the only professional musician that is depicted in this piece, and I guess he had this bulldog, his name was Dan. That's a great name. I love dogs that have people's names. Like, here's Dan. And the dog, of course, was very popular with the friends. And apparently Dan fell down a river bank. He's okay.


Speaker 2: No animals are harmed in the making of this music.


John Banther: No. But then he says something like, set that to music. And then Elgar, he does that. I guess we can listen to the opening again and follow it sentence and measure by measure. Dan tumbles down the river bank in the first bar. Then we hear his paddling upstream to find a landing place. And then he barks once he gets onto the shore. And there's this little twinkle of the tail wagging at the end.


Speaker 2: And you can just imagine Elgar and George Robertson Sinclair walking along outdoors and the dog goes in the water and comes back out. And it's like a challenge. Like, Edward, my dear chap, set that to music. Challenge accepted. And there's also George Robertson Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral. And there's a kind of organish quality to this music as well. And again, it's sort of an affectionate nod to his organist friend.


John Banther: And I bet the dog had the mustache too and a top hat.


Speaker 2: I guarantee it.


John Banther: He also has some fantastic use of timpani throughout this and a lot of his music, I love how he uses the timpani. I love when conductors have the players go above and beyond at this point, at this moment, because there's some recordings where it's just a very tame doom. And some of them, they're going to break the timpani head when they slap that drum. I love that. And of course, a movement with a dog in it, it's no wonder that it's also kind of been one of my favorite variations too.


Speaker 2: You got to love it.


John Banther: Variation number XII. B. G. N, who is this?


Speaker 2: Basil George Nevinson, quote, whose scientific and artistic attainments and the wholehearted way they were put at the disposal of his friends, particularly endeared him to Elgar. So we hear that endearing quality in this music. He was also an amateur cellist. And the cello and the entire cello section is featured prominently in this variation. And they split it to two different parts` too, as we hear the theme tumbling around. And most of us probably know somebody like Basil George Nevinson, very smart, very great scientist. Also a lover of the arts, apparently a very generous person. And the music really has this endearing quality.


John Banther: Yes, exactly. And listen for that cello section when you said they're breaking into two different parts or sections. You listen for how big it makes the whole sound come across. It's a big sound that kind of washes off the stage. Variation XIII, Romanza, and then X, X, X or star, star, star. This is another intriguing bit here because the initials have been withheld, but there's some theories about who it could be.


Speaker 2: Yeah. And why this particular variation, it was withheld, but none of the other ones is another mystery that's not really easy to solve. Apparently Elgar commented that this is a depiction of old lady going on a sea voyage and that the music quotes a phrase from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, The Overture by Felix Mendelssohn inspired by Goethe's poem. And Elgar remarks, " The pretty lady is on the sea and far away. And I meant this originally as a little quotation from Mendelssohn's Meeresstille, the Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. But I did not acknowledge it as the critics if one mentions anything of the kind talk of nothing else."

So he's, again, being, I think deliberately cryptic here maybe to make it more interesting. I'm not sure as a marketing ploy or what he's trying to do here. And apparently the lady in question was Lady Mary Lygon, which who apparently wasn't on a sea voyage when he composed this music. And she did take one thereafter. Why was he invoking her taking a sea voyage? Why didn't he include her initials? Why did he use asterisks instead of her initials? Maybe it was actually somebody else. It's all very strange, but again, it just makes the music that much more interesting to listen to.


John Banther: And there's a couple of moments you can listen to here because something is definitely being evoked. It starts off cheery. And as we get more into it, we hear this sound from the timpani. It actually kind of sounds like a field drum or a snare drum without the snare being engaged. And what Elgar's doing, he's instructed the timpani player to use basically drumsticks on the timpani head, which is much bigger than a snare drum. Use these drumsticks instead of the mallets with the felt on the end.

And so this gives you two sounds at the same time. You have the (inaudible) of the drumsticks hitting, that surface level noise. And then because the drum is so big and the sound is bouncing around so much inside of it, it's this low rumbling too. I hear this a lot in association with the sea. So it makes sense with everything you just described.


Speaker 2: The waves and the sound of the ship's engines and so forth, yeah.


John Banther: And a timpani does something else that's very interesting here. He instructs, okay, now you go back to the mallets with the felts on him, and it's this imposing booming rhythm that increases and then decreases in volume, which we see so many times in music to depict something coming and then going, the ox carton pictures at an exhibition. I don't know what's happening here, but it's one of the more unsettling points of the variations.


Speaker 2: And again, if we knew nothing about any of this, just listen to the music, the music itself would be interesting to listen to.


John Banther: Now it's the 14th and final variation, E. D. U. Those are the initials. And that might be said as Ado, which was the nickname he got from his wife. So I like that we do have this. She is first and then he's at the end here, this kind of book ending of the piece. A lot comes through in this one. It's confident. We hear things coming back in little ways here and there. It sounds almost heroic in a sense.


Speaker 2: Yeah, there's a kind of a Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben quality to this. And yet it's I think, unlike the Richard Strauss piece, there's a kind of self- effacing quality too in I think a good- natured way. Maybe he's making fun of himself a little bit in this music, but there's also that confidence. And you see this in Elgar's character. You see it in his letters. There's this sense of why don't people appreciate what a genius I am? And then in the very next paragraph, oh, nobody cares about me. I'm just a loser.


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: So there's a struggle within himself. And you hear this in this variation, this final variation, self portrait.


John Banther: And it seems like we can actually get an idea of this variation by not looking at even the music, but actually looking at the very last page, because there's an inscription on it.


Speaker 2: This is one of the most fascinating things for me about this piece. He writes, and we have a picture, maybe we can share it on the show notes page.


John Banther: Yes.


Speaker 2: An image of this manuscript. On the last page, he wrote this Italian phrase, Bramo Assai, Poco Spero, Nulla Chiego. And then he writes 1595 Tasso in brackets after it. And then on the following page, he translates it and he writes, " I essay much, I hope little, I ask nothing," which is sort of a translation of this phrase. Now this is fascinating. We can do a whole episode on this one thing, which we don't want get into too much of it, but it's a misquotation from Tasso Torquato Tasso, a 16th- century poet, wrote this famous poem, Jerusalem Liberata, Jerusalem Liberated. Elgar would've known this poem. We know that he knew it. And the original, he's misquoting it. The original is actually a little bit different. And Elgar's translation is in fact wrong. He writes Bramo Assai, which he translates as I essay much, I strive much, but it actually doesn't mean that. It means I desire much.

So why does he misquote Tasso? Why does he mistranslate it? And apparently Brian Trowell, a musicologist in the late- 1990s, stumbled accidentally upon the answer to these questions. And he wrote an article about it in 1998. Apparently the misquotation from Tasso isn't something that Elgar just came up with on his own. It's in the frontispiece of a 1595 biography of English Naval hero, Sir Richard Grenville. And Tennyson wrote a poem about this naval hero called The Revenge, which was the name of the ship that he was the captain of, which attacked a much larger Spanish fleet back in the 16th century. And there's this heroic 19th- century poem about it, which is a poem about taking on impossible odds and so forth. And Elgar quotes this misquote from Tasso in this book about Sir Richard Grenville. And he writes it on the last page of the Enigma Variations.

Why does he do this? No one can really be sure, but maybe he is trying to evoke that same spirit, this sense of trying to overcome impossible odds and striving in a hopeless situation. There's no doubt that he knew this book, this 1595, but 1595 is the year that he writes in the manuscript. It's not the year Tasso wrote the poem. So why would he write 1595? Probably because he's quoting from this book about Sir Richard Grenville. The misquotation is from that book. It's not from Tasso, and it's not impossible. He's evoking the spirit. And he mistranslates the phrase, not I desire much, but I essay much, I strive much is what he's trying to say.

So it seems like a very self- referential kind of thing. And yet again, there's this very personal aspect that becomes universal. We can all relate to this same spirit. And we hear that spirit in the music. We hear that spirit in so much of Elgar's music. And I think it's one of the reasons why he's this formidable figure in this English Renaissance that we were talking about at the beginning of the episode.


John Banther: That is some very good digging right there. That's amazing that, one, that person, Brian Trowell even found this out. And when I read this, when you were sending this to me about this English naval hero and this the Ballad of a Fleet, this famous sea battle, I almost don't even want to say it. Some of this music sounds swashbuckling. Now. Is that because of Erich Korngold 30, 40 years later that we hear that? I don't know, but it does sound, it really reminds me of that.


Speaker 2: It really is that heroic. Yeah, swashbuckling. I agree, John. It has that quality. And yet it doesn't sound cliched or try, it doesn't sound hackneyed, is a real sense of heroic struggle here that we can relate to and find the meaning in this music.


John Banther: And this one is naturally longer than I think pretty much all of the variations and things that have come before. And when I listen to all of the character changes, the timbre changes, the key changes, all of that and all these different ideas from the previous variations come and go, it makes me wonder, is this him also depicting how he feels around his friends? Around this person, I feel this way. I'm always elated or whatever. With this person, I'm always serious and philosophical or something like that. I like that.


Speaker 2: The portraits of his friends. But they're also each of them portraits of himself and aspects of his own psyche.


John Banther: There's a particular moment I like. It's about towards the middle, there's a character change in the music and we get this variation on that tune, that theme he whistled for for Caroline. And then we have the line coming again in the winds and then a following echo. It sounds like it's accompanying a movie. And so we have this call and response that's not calling too much attention to itself. And then all together, it just sounds like it's accompanying something like a movie or a film.


Speaker 2: And again, there's that sense of everyday life, domesticity, people just living their lives, the dog falling in the water or he's whistling when he comes home from work and to his wife in an affectionate way. It's just this everyday life quality that it's like a movie, like you said, John. It's just a sense of just living life and there's a vitality there that's so compelling.


John Banther: So in the end, what is the enigma? Of course, someone's figured this out, right? Well, we've already kind of spoiled it. He took it to his grave. Some people have really taken this seriously. Part of me wonders, I'm not saying he made it up. I don't think Elgar would make it up, but part of me thinks maybe the enigma, it's the friends we made along the way, or something like that. And people have said and really tried in music theory, oh, it's Auld Lang Syne, or it's (inaudible) or this. Even Pop Goes the Weasel, which is completely unacceptable.


Speaker 2: I can't, yeah, I'll draw the line at Pop Goes the Weasel. But yeah, apparently there's this tune that we don't hear that's supposedly in there. Nobody knows what it is. And like you said, John, rivers of ink have been spilled, musicologists and so forth trying to figure out, well, what is this mysterious piece? Which by the way, Elgar never called this piece Enigma Variations.


John Banther: That's right.


Speaker 2: We all know it by that name. We can call it that. That's fine. He called it Variations for Orchestra or Opus- 36. Enigma maybe just refers to the theme and the original score. It's written in Jaeger's handwriting, which means Elgar probably told him to put it there. But whose idea was it? There's all kinds of unanswered questions. And what this tune is that it goes, but it's not (inaudible) the character is never on the stage. It's maddening. It's fascinating, it's taunting, it's tantalizing. I don't know. I don't worry too much about it. We can enjoy this piece without knowing the mystery of the enigma. It's just glorious music. But we can't help but be kind of curious too.


John Banther: Part of me wonders, is it something that we could even ever figure out today? Because it's just obscure to us now. It was something that was maybe known to them at the time, but unknown to us today. If in 500 years you went to someone and went Febreze, okay, you know exactly what that is Febreze, right? In 500 years, I don't know what they're going to think of that.


Speaker 2: Or five years for that.


John Banther: Five years. Yeah. But you found one that was, some call them most plausible. Also in 1999 and that's Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.


Speaker 2: Yeah. Patrick Turner wrote a book for the centenary in 1999. And he observed that if you take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, if you change it into the minor mode, it fits really well when you play it along with the theme. It fits perfectly in fact.


John Banther: And so we're listening to an example that you made, Evan, and we hear that Twinkle Twinkle. It's more to the left side on the marimba. And it fits. Part of me is just almost confused, bewildered when I hear it.


Speaker 2: Elgar said it was a familiar tune, but is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star sung in the minor? Why would you do that? What the heck is that? And yet, it does fit. So I don't know what to do with that, but it's fascinating to just listen to that and wonder what the heck that has to do with anything.


John Banther: And part of you might wonder what Turner's mental state was at the time when he's playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in a minor key against Elgar's theme.


Speaker 2: How would he even come up with that?


John Banther: Yeah.


Speaker 2: But yeah, it does fit though. You got to admit.


John Banther: Someone opens the door. Are you okay, honey? So that's Elgar's Variations for orchestra or the Enigma Variations, of course, as we know it today. So many things here. The banal everyday details of life brought to life also makes us maybe think and appreciate those moments in our own lives as well. And a nice mystery. I like it when things are, I don't know, not lost to time, but we're never going to know. I like that.


Speaker 2: We're never going to know and we don't need to and we can't help but be curious and we can still enjoy it even if we don't know the answers to the questions.


John Banther: So if you have an idea of what the enigma is, as long as it's not Pop Goes the Weasel or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you can send us an email with that and your episode ideas to Classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. Okay, now let's enjoy this full recording of Elgar's Enigma Variations, Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.