Enigma Variations, op. 36—Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar was born in 1857 in Broadheath, England. His father was a piano tuner, which gave Elgar the advantage of growing up in a musical environment. Past that, Elgar’s advantages were few. A self taught musician and composer, he struggled to be taken seriously in the musical community. Elgar became a private music teacher, and slowly his works began to spread beyond the small community he lived in. Elgar composed The Dream of Gerontius, based on a religious poem. Though the premiere of the work was a failure, critics recognized the greatness of the work, and second and third performances were quick to follow. The Dream of Gerontius played a major role in establishing Elgar as a progressive composer and musician. By the early twentieth century, Elgar was experiencing much positive feedback and success in his compositions. A festival was held in Covent Gardens in 1904 featuring all original compositions by Elgar. Later that year, Elgar was knighted by King Edward VII. This was the climax of Elgar’s career. He worked on his symphonic repertoire, but when the First World War descended, Elgar became deeply depressed. Not long after, his wife passed away, further diminishing Elgar’s spirit. In 1928, he jumped back into composition with a fresh outlook. Elgar died of a brain tumor in 1934, a year after he traveled to France to conduct his violin symphony.
Enigma Variations, op. 36 brought Edward Elgar into the international spotlight as a composer. The original tune began as an improvisation of Elgar’s on the piano. The variations developed from Elgar and his wife speculating on how different members of their social circle might play the original melody. Each variation was written for a friend of the Elgar’s, including a variation each for Elgar himself and his wife, Alice. The enigma referenced in the title is a musical one. Elgar claimed that there was a popular tune hidden in the piece. The tune never appears directly, but the theme of the piece is the counterpoint of it. Whether this is true or false is unknown, but it has stimulated great debate among music scholars and musicians.