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Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36

The easy part is to identify the “friends pictured within.” Elgar was, however, ambivalent about the work, grumpily arguing on the one hand that people should hear an abstract, pure theme and variations, while at the same time talking of “dark sayings” embraced therein and baiting us with all those initials and other mysterious allusions. Then he and his friends went on to identify themselves anyway.You might as well go ahead and read about them, memorialized as they were—like the otherwise ephemeral pictures at the exhibition—in a musical masterpiece.At length, however, you will probably be so taken with the fertility of invention unleashed in Elgar by the writing of variations that you may lose interest in which character is which.

Observe, at the start, the shape and structure of the theme, for these maintain a certain identity as the variations proceed. First there is a restless phrase built of three pairs of measures where the second bar rhythmically mirrors the undulations of the first; this begins in the minor mode and cadences in the major. The second phrase, of four bars, is built of a rather similar sequence that rises to a peak, then subsides into the third phrase, for all intents and purposes an embellished repeat of the first.

Variation I, C. A. E., has to do with Mrs. Elgar: Caroline Alice. Her music is richly scored, always passionate, perhaps somewhat nervous and reticent; and I hear many allusions to Brahms’s Haydn Variations in the scoring at the start, and at the climax a clear reference to Wagner’s Liebstod. H. D. S. –P. is H. D. Steuart-Powell, a pianist, whose finger exercises are reflected in a scherzo of the elfin manner. Richard Baxter Townshend (R. B. T.) was an amateur actor of buffoon roles: over a typically “clown of the orchestra” bassoon line, we hear the theme as a mazurka for oboe, then as a silly chromatic figure in the winds. William M. Baker (W. M. B.) was a temperamental country squire, and this movement was said by the composer to concern his scatterbrained summoning of carriages for his houseguests, slamming of the door, and subsequent tittering of the witnesses. Richard P. Arnold (R. P. A. ), son of the poet Matthew Arnold, was a music lover given to melancholy conversation peppered with whimsical asides; this is one of the great variations in the set, particularly where, after the deep Brahmsian largamentes on the G-string of the violins, the whimsy breaks loose in the woodwinds and horns. Note particularly the charming passage for solo clarinet, with its tenuto at the beginning of each sextuplet. Elgar treats us to a reprise of this passage.

Ysobel is the violist Isabel Fitton, a pupil of the composer: thus a sensitive viola solo with a purposefully difficult string crossing at the beginning and, as Elgar put it, a touch of romance. (Tovey thought he detected here the “delicate aroma of a teacup.”) Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and rather chaotic amateur pianist. Here, in a festive movement at dead center of the work, it is the timpani cross rhythms that most seize the ear. Such an expanse requires counterbalancing: Winifred Norbury (W. N.), secretary to the Worcester Philharmonic Society, was a sedate, tranquil lady yet fond of an occasional giggle. Nimrod, another of the priceless movements, recalls a summer evening walk with the critic August Jaeger. The opening is meant to suggest the beginning of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, the whole is of rich religious scoring, especially in the voicing of the French horns and bassoons at their entry. The title is a multicultural play on words: Jaeger is the German word for hunter, and Nimrod is a mighty hunter in the book of Genesis.

Dorabella was Miss Dora Penny, later the wife of the Steuart-Powell pictured above, nicknamed after the flighty heroine of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. All the fluttering about between the violins and woodwinds is however the stuff of nineteenth-century ballet, offset to some degree by a contrastive center section and its reprise. (The charming Miss Penny/Mrs. Powell later wrote a monography on the characters in the Enigma Variations.) G. R. S. was George Robertson Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral. Actually the movement is said to describe Sinclair’s dog Dan as he falls into the River Wye, paddles out, and barks with satisfaction at achieving dry land. The amateur cellist Basil G. Nevinson (B. G. N.) played in a trio with Elgar and is portrayed by a memorable cello variation with profound falls at the conclusion.

*** was Lady Mary Lygon, who was at the time en route to Australia on a ship and thus could not be asked for permission to use her initials. We hear the clank of steam engines in the rattle of timpani hit with snare drum sticks (or, as Elgar timpanist preferred, big English pennies) and the piston-work in the viola section; the beginning of the clarinet melody, given in the score between quotation marks, is a citation from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The finale, E. D. U., is a self-portrait, the initials alluding to Lady Caroline’s pet name for her husband, Edoo. It is a big, multifaceted movement citing passages from Lady Caroline’s variation and from the great Nimrod movement. In proper English fashion, the pipe organ joins in the climax.

But Elgar would not explain the enigma. “Its dark saying must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent 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.”

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