Secrets Behind Inspiration

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

“Enigma” Variations, Op. 36 (Variations on an Original Theme)

March 12 & 13, 2016
Program Notes by Paul Hyde

Elgar composed this piece in 1899 as a tribute to his friends, and it brought the English composer international fame. It remains Elgar’s second-most popular work after the “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” the latter familiar to Americans as graduation music and to the British as the hymn “Land of Hope and Glory.”

The setup for the “Enigma” Variations is simple: A theme is presented, followed by 14 musical portraits, all variations on the main theme. Among those depicted in music are Elgar, his wife and 12 friends.

The title refers to two enigmas: 1.) The first puzzle: Who is being represented in each movement? That enigma has been solved, as shown below. 2.) The second puzzle: “Through and over the whole set,” Elgar said, “another and larger theme ‘goes’ but is not played.”

What is this “larger theme”? Many suggestions have been offered: the British National Anthem, “Auld Lang Syne,” “Rule Britannia,” a melody from Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony or even “Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay.” Music critic Ernest Newman proposed that the larger theme was merely “friendship,” which, if not true, certainly is apropos.

The beating heart of the work is the noble and elegiac Variation IX (“Nimrod”). It’s the product of a patriotic Englishman at the end of the 19th century looking back wistfully but also with pride at the grandeur of the Victorian era:

1. Introduction: The work begins softly with the main theme, dark and plaintive in the minor key.

2. C.A.E.: The music brightens with a warmhearted and lyrical portrait of the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar.

3. H.D.S-P: H.D. Stuart-Powell, a pianist friend with whom Elgar often played chamber music.

4. R.B.T.: Richard Baxter Townshend, an amateur actor and mimic, who entertained audiences with extreme changes in the pitch of his voice.

5. W.M.B.: William M. Baker, an English country squire. The music represents the brusqueness but also the solidity of the subject’s temperament.

6. R.P.A.: Richard P. Arnold, an amateur pianist and the son of the poet Matthew Arnold. The younger Arnold was given to daydreaming, as the airy music suggests.

7. Ysobel: Isabel Fitton, who studied viola with Elgar. The main melody is given to the violas.

8. Troyte: Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect who attempted to play the piano. The music suggests his enthusiastic incompetence.

9. W.N.: Winifred Norbury, a gracious and easygoing friend. An extended violin note leads softly into the next movement, the piece’s core variation.

10. Nimrod: Augustus E. Jaeger and the memory of a long summer evening talk, when my friend grew nobly eloquent (as only he could) on the grandeur of Beethoven and especially his slow movements,” Elgar said. The opening bars suggest the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata. Elgar was particularly close to Jaeger. The name of the variation refers to an Old Testament patriarch described as a mighty hunter, the name Jaeger being German for “hunter.”

11. Dorabella: Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter – or perhaps laughter – is depicted by the woodwinds. “Dorabella,” after the character in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” was Elgar’s affectionate nickname for Dora.

12. G.R.S.: Dr. George Robinson Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral. But the movement actually is a portrait of Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan, falling into the River Wye, padding upstream and barking joyously when he reaches land.

13. B.G.N.: Basil G. Nevinson, a well-known cellist who joined Elgar in chamber music sessions. The cellos have the main melody in this affectionate portrait.

***: A mystery movement but often thought to represent Lady Mary Lygon, who was on an ocean voyage to Australia at the time Elgar composed the work. Drums suggest the distant throb of an ocean liner over which the clarinet quotes a phrase from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.”

14. E.D.U. (Finale): Elgar’s self-portrait. Edu was Lady Elgar’s name for her husband. Elgar said this assertive, exuberant finale represented his hopes and confidence as a composer at a time when some discouraged his ambitions. Elgar refers to themes from the first (C.A.E.) and ninth (Nimrod) movements, underscoring the influence of his wife and Augustus Jaeger on the composer’s life and art.


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 47, D minor

Is it about heroism or oppression? Shostakovich gave conflicting answers about what has become his most frequently performed symphony.

At one time, Shostakovich described his Symphony No. 5 (1937) as a work that begins with tragedy and ends in triumph. “Its main idea is man’s emotional experiences and all-conquering optimism,” he said. “I wanted to show how, overcoming a series of tragic conflicts arising in the intense struggle which rages in one’s soul, optimism is born as a world outlook.”

Later, in his memoirs, Shostakovich would basically retract his earlier words. Speaking about the possibly affirmative finale, Shostakovich said, “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’”

Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist, conductor and good friend of Shostakovich, expanded vividly on the composer’s thoughts. Speaking also of the fourth movement, he said, “The end is irreparable tragedy. Stretched on the rack of the inquisition the victim still tries to smile in his pain – anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot.”

Shostakovich had good reason to conceal his real feelings about the work and to put a positive spin on it. He was seeking to regain political favor after his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1936) earned the composer official censure for alleged anti-Soviet (i.e., complex and original) qualities. It was the sort of official disfavor that could have ended Shostakovich’s musical career if not his life.

With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich produced a work less dissonant, more conventionally structured and seemingly optimistic than the earlier symphonies that had so enraged Soviet officials, particularly Stalin. Again offering a positive view of the work, he said the symphony was “a Soviet artist’s practical, creative reply to just criticism.” Ultimately, the symphony’s meaning – heroic or tragic – may depend on the interpretation of the conductor and the listener.

1. The symphony opens with a jagged, tension-filled theme for strings. That’s followed by a serene, almost visionary episode, the calm before the storm. A brutal mechanical march eventually asserts itself. The march becomes increasingly intense and menacing, building up to a climax of almost hysterical force. But the tension finally subsides and the movement is rounded off by a mysterious but peaceful coda.

2. The second movement scherzo, though satiric in tone, has a blunt heaviness that suggests something sinister is afoot. A middle section features a sharply contrasting waltz, delicate and flippant, for solo violin and harp.

3. Strings and woodwinds are spotlighted alone in the third movement. The expansive melody begins softly but will build to a searing intensity, with the strings divided into eight parts. The music is expressive, part elegy, part outcry of a soul in torment. The movement ends in the mysterious quietude in which it began.

4. The finale opens with a brassy, forceful march, propelled by thunderous timpani. The strings, after taking over the march, introduce a rhapsodic interlude. A moment of lyric repose paves the way for the return of the brass and timpani to set up a mighty, though ambiguous, conclusion.


Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville News and a founding editor of the website Classical Voice North America. For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.