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  • Chris Anderson

The Enigma Variations

The "Enigma Variations" is a renowned orchestral composition by our composer of the month, Sir Edward Elgar. It was written between 1898 and 1899 and is considered one of Elgar's most significant and popular works. The piece consists of a theme, followed by fourteen variations, each representing a different person from Elgar's circle of friends and acquaintances.


The "enigma" in the title refers to a musical puzzle that Elgar embedded within the composition. He described it as "the enigma I will not explain," suggesting that there is a hidden theme that serves as the basis for the variations. To this day, the exact nature of this enigma remains a mystery, despite much speculation and numerous theories proposed by musicians and scholars.


Each variation in the "Enigma Variations" is dedicated to a specific person, identified only by their initials or a nickname. Elgar intended the music to capture the essence and character of each individual. The variations span a wide range of moods, styles, and emotions, showcasing Elgar's compositional skill and versatility.


The variations include playful and lighthearted moments, such as "Dorabella" and "G.R.S.," which evoke a sense of humour and joy. There are also more introspective and tender variations like "Nimrod," which I’ll write about shortly, and "Romanza," which conveys a sense of serene beauty. The final variation, titled "E.D.U.," represents Elgar himself and brings the composition to a triumphant and exuberant conclusion.


The "Enigma Variations" marked a significant milestone in Elgar's career, establishing him as a leading English composer of his time. The piece showcases Elgar's gift for melodic writing, harmonic richness, and orchestral colour.


The most famous of the “Enigma Variations” is probably the ninth variation, titled “Nimrod”. It stands out as a deeply expressive and poignant musical tribute. It is widely considered one of the most beautiful and emotionally stirring pieces of classical music ever composed.


The name "Nimrod" refers to the biblical figure, a great hunter and ruler in ancient times. Elgar dedicated this variation to his dear friend Augustus J. Jaeger, who was a music editor and influential supporter of Elgar's work. "Nimrod" was Jaeger's nickname, and Elgar chose it to symbolise strength and friendship.


The "Nimrod" variation is characterised by its slow and solemn tempo, rich harmonies, and soaring melodies. It opens with a soft, lyrical theme played by the strings, gradually building in intensity and emotional depth. The music unfolds with a sense of nobility, tenderness, and reverence. The grand orchestral climax towards the end of the variation is particularly impactful, expressing profound emotional power.


"Nimrod" has become an iconic piece of music, often performed and cherished independently from the full "Enigma Variations." Its universal appeal lies in its ability to evoke a range of emotions, including nostalgia, introspection, and a deep sense of connection. The variation has been performed at significant national and international events, including memorial services, state occasions, and concerts celebrating human achievements.


The "Nimrod" variation stands as a testament to Elgar's exceptional talent for composing deeply moving and meaningful music. Its enduring popularity and emotional impact have cemented its place as one of the most beloved pieces in the orchestral repertoire.


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