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Cracking the Enigma code

As he prepares to take the podium at Huddersfield Town Hall for Elgar’s Enigma Variations to close Kirklees Concert Season on 7 April, our Music Director Garry Walker ponders one of music’s great mysteries, wrapped up in one of the best-loved orchestral works of the 19th century.

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“Edward Elgar loved ‘japes’ of all sorts, but riddles and hidden meanings held a particular fascination for him: a coded letter that he wrote to his friend Dora Penny remains unsolved to this day. It was in this cryptic, mischievous spirit that he dedicated the Enigma Variations ‘to my friends pictured within’.

The composer’s notes and the initials at the start of each section of the manuscript give us plenty of clues as to the subject of each musical portrait. You can even hear his affectionate, teasing renditions of his friends’ personal attributes: Variation III apparently captures the sound of Oxford don and amateur thespian Richard Baxter Townshend’s imitation of an old man:

…and Dora’s slight stammer is tenderly evoked in Variation X, ‘Dorabella’:

But debate continues to rage about the musical ‘Enigma’ that links the works, “the Enigma I will not explain”, as Elgar teased: “Its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed”.

It’s a mystery that has spawned conspiracy theories to rival the whereabouts of Lord Lucan, or the idea that JFK wasn’t actually assassinated in Dallas (everyone knows he owns a small pub in Killarney). But I think there’s still room for a few more ideas from me…

An old music teacher of mine, who was a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, clearly had some close link to the Elgar family. Indeed, he gifted me some of Elgar’s manuscript paper. He said to me that he had heard a story from an organist who was friends with George Sinclair, a Scot and the subject of the XIth Variation, G.R.S.

The accepted story of this Variation is that Elgar is trying to represent musically Sinclair’s dog, Dan, falling into the river (scurrying downward scales in the strings) followed by frantic paddling upstream (basses and tuba) in order to get back to the riverbank.

My teacher maintained that the ‘paddling’ theme is actually a pre-existing study for organ pedal work. If you listen to it, then it certainly is in the right register, and with its leaping thirds, it sounds like a plausible sort of foot exercise! I’ve never been able to locate the study, but I hope one day I might find it.

If it were the case that this melody started out as an organ bass part, then one could say that it is the origin of the Enigma theme, and it’s presented in its original form in Variation XI, with a frenzied canine substituted for the frenzied organist.

Of all the other suggestions for the Enigma’s origin, I find the idea of it being a counterpoint to a hidden melody (never stated) slightly more plausible than it being a direct variation of a well-known theme.

There is the suggestion that it makes a very successful counterpoint to the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. The truth is, however, that Elgar spoke in riddles about the theme, and often he contradicted himself. It seems just as plausible that the first four notes are a musicalisation (if such a word exists) of ‘Ed-ward El-gar’:

This opening Theme could itself be described as ‘enigmatic’, in a musical sense. It starts undoubtedly in G minor, but the ends of bars one, two, there four and five are all open and unresolved. It’s only in bar 6 that we have a resolution, and surprisingly (if you don’t know the piece) it’s in the key of G major. Indeed, as it continues, it is a theme constantly changing light, like an early spring day of sunshine and cloud. Elgar was prone to mood swings (there’s a whole PhD in that, both medically and musicologically) and the Theme is constantly swinging between darkness and light, always supported by Elgar’s exquisite orchestration.

Edward Elgar, c.1900 (public domain)

The Enigma Variations represented Elgar’s breakthrough: when he wrote it, he was unknown and doubtless wouldn’t have imagined it would be such a success. In the hierarchical world of England in the late-1890s, a middle-class music teacher (and a Catholic) from the Welsh borders was hardly likely to have had the connections some of his more privileged counterparts had.

It feels to me like a work which starts in doubt, searching for inspiration, and which gathers confidence and momentum and triumphs over the initial uncertainty. And this, for me, is the true spirit of Elgar.”

Garry Walker and the Orchestra of Opera North close the current Kirklees Concert Season with the Enigma Variations at Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 7 April 2022.

Two more great British works provide a contrast to Elgar’s genial masterpiece: the Orchestra is joined by tenor Nicholas Watts and former Principal Horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra in Britten’s haunting settings of six poems, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; and Mark Anthony Turnage’s thrillingly intense Drowned Out is inspired by the account of a shipwrecked sailor in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin.

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