1899: Elgar: Enigma Variations in G minor, age 42

Jacek Kaspszyk

Before listening to the whole compostion, please listen to this one variation:

Nimrod”, Eb major

Now, it’s time to listen to the whole thing:

First there is the theme:

0:38 – Theme (Enigma: Andante), G minor – G major

Then the variations follow:

  1. 2:19 – Variation I (L’istesso tempo) “C.A.E.”, G minor – Eb major – G minor – G major
  2. 4:12 – Variation II (Allegro) “H.D.S-P.”, G minor
  3. 5:05- Variation III (Allegretto) “R.B.T.”, G minor
  4. 6:31 – Variation IV (Allegro di molto) “W.M.B.”, G minor – G major
  5. 7:13 – Variation V (Moderato) “R.P.A.”, C minor – C major – C minor
  6. 9:55 – Variation VI (Andantino) “Ysobel”, C major
  7. 11:25 – Variation VII (Presto) “Troyte”, C major
  8. 12:37 – Variation VIII (Allegretto) “W.N.”, G major
  9. 14:48 – Variation IX (Adagio) “Nimrod”, Eb major
  10. 19:38 – Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) “Dorabella”, G major
  11. 22:03 – Variation XI (Allegro di molto) “G.R.S.”, G minor
  12. 23:09 – Variation XII (Andante) “B.G.N.”, G minor
  13. 26:48 Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) ” * * * “, G major
  14. 30:20 – Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) “E.D.U.”, G major


  • Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
  • 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, side drum, triangle, bass drum, cymbals
  • organ (ad lib)
  • strings


This is popularly known as the Enigma Variations, and Elgar wrote it between October 1898 and February 1899, so he completed it at age 42. There is no greater example of one piece of music being absolutely identified with a composer, and he wrote it right at the end of the 19th century. There are fourteen variations on an original theme.

It is in my mind easily one of the 10 most stunning orchestral works ever written. It’s a miracle of structure, inspiration and orchestration. It’s also the work of a wonderful human being, writing about friendship, and in mind there is nothing more important in this world than our friends.

I’ve never heard this played so slowly, and before hearing it I would have said it can’t be played this slowly. It can’t work. It can’t be sustained without more pace. I’ve never been more wrong. As always here you experience that playing slower is harder, and you just have to know what you are doing. The architecture has to planned out, and it’s a nearly impossible combination of careful planning and a deep, emotional commitment to the music. These are to me not only a few minutes of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard but also absolutely genius conducting, and these Polish players, play their hearts out.

The sound is magnificent and the camera work is wonderful. I was won over by the detail and the lyrical expressiveness. The miking is amazing. The interpretation is longer, more thoughtful, but it has wonderful peaks. The soloists are amazing, and although I put in time stamps, the video does a perfect job of showing where each variation starts.

Sir Adrian Cedric Boult

This is a wonderful recording, and I used to have time stamps for this, but I put them in the above recording. Boult was an amazing conductor, and his interpretation of this is legendary. The conducting is crisp, clean, and there are knifelike attacks. It’s a very bombastic performance. He was known for a miraculously clear conducting technique.

Boult has an amazing story. Here is just one fact: he was forcibly retired at the age of 60, and that was in 1950. The man who forced him out was Steuart Wilson – read about him HERE. Wilson was in every way a toxic jackass, but fortunately he didn’t stop Boult one little bit, because he walked immediately into a better job. This is just one of many of Boult’s amazing recordings, from around 1970, and he went on recording until 1978)

Theme (Enigma: Andante)

G minor – G major: It’s a bit odd that that people make such a big deal about the keys that a symphony are in but don’t make it important to talk about the key of other music. This is a haunting, wandering, complicated theme in G minor, and it sets out everything that will happen next. It moves back and forth from minor to major and finally ends in G major.

Variation I (L’istesso tempo) “C.A.E.”

G minor – Eb major – G minor – G major: Caroline, the composer’s wife, a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. “L’istesso” tempo means “same tempo. It is basically the theme but richer. I would think his wife must have been quite touched by this.

Variation II (Allegro) “H.D.S-P.”

G minor: Hew Stuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar played chamber music. What I get from this is a kind of amusing chaos. But let’s pay attention to the key. Elgar is back G minor, and it’s a scherzo. Now, about his friend:

“Hew David Steuart-Powell was a well-known amateur pianist and a great player of chamber music. He was associated with B.G.N. (cello) and the composer (violin) for many years in this playing. His characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play is here humorously travestied in the semiquaver passages; these should suggest a Toccata, but chromatic beyond H.D.S-P.’s liking.”

Variation III (Allegretto) “R.B.T.”

G minor: Richard Townsend, whose vocal pitch would rise when excited. He moves to G major in a waltz, slips down to F# or Gb major, settles in C#/Db major for second, then D major, then Eb major then back to G major. Then it’s simply repeated. It’s a little heavy and yet very light, all at the same time.

Variation IV (Allegro di molto) “W.M.B.”

G minor – G major: William Baker, who after barking out plans for the day would leave the room with a vigorous door-slam. He “expressed himself somewhat energetically”. This is the shortest of the variations, and it’s very fast in a mixture of G minor and G major, with incredible boisterous energy.

Variation V (Moderato) “R.P.A.”

C minor – C major – C minor: Richard Arnold, son of the writer Matthew Arnold, who would punctuate serious discourse with a nervous laugh. He moves to C minor, then playfully moves to C major, then more or less repeats the same harmonic ideas but with more development. Back to C minor one more time to finish. This variation leads into the next without pause.

Variation VI (Andantino) “Ysobel”

C major: Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. Back to C major, so he is using Variation V and VI as a key change, much as the 2nd movement of a symphony would move to the IV chord Elgar said:

“It may be noticed that the opening bar, a phrase made use of throughout the variation, is an ‘exercise’ for crossing the strings – a difficulty for beginners; on this is built a pensive and, for a moment, romantic movement.”

Variation VII (Presto) “Troyte”

C major: Arthur Griffith, an architect and raucous pianist. The variation, with a time signature of 1/1 good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano. It may also refer to an occasion when Griffith and Elgar were out walking and got caught in a thunderstorm. It stays in C major and is totally manic, with percussion and trombones.

Variation VIII (Allegretto) “W.N.”

G major: Winifred Norbury, a gracious and gentle friend. Back to G major, and the whole thing is very gracious and charming.

Variation IX (Adagio) “Nimrod”

Eb major: Augustus Jaeger, Elgar’s close friend. The most beautiful and famous of the variations, this music describes a nighttime walk when Jaeger gave verbal encouragement to the composer, recalling Beethoven’s determination in adversity. “Jaeger” means “hunter” in German, and Nimrod was a biblical hunter. Huge key change to Eb major, very slow, very noble, and the most famous part of the whole thing. The move to Eb is very important. G major to Eb major is a double morph, very powerful.

Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) “Dorabella”

G major: Dorabella – Dora Penny, whose infectious laugh is depicted in the woodwinds, and perhaps her nervous stutterwhen agitated. It morphs back to G major. It’s a light waltz with a great viola solo. In the middle there is some really nice chromatic movement getting to places like F# major. Then lots of slithering to a G half diminished chord, then back to G major. The same kind of sliding happens again, but varied, then back to G major again. Great wind parts.

Variation XI (Allegro di molto) “G.R.S.”

G minor: George Sinclair, an organist depicted frolicking with his bulldog, Dan. Back to G minor, and again this is boisterous. It explodes with energy, lots of trombones, and then it finishes in G minor with a loud tympani stroke.

Variation XII (Andante) “B.G.N.”

G minor: Basil George Nevinson, an accomplished amateur cellist who played chamber music with Elgar. The variation is introduced and concluded by a solo cello. It has very much of the feel of the opening theme and Variation I. It moves briefly to Bb major before settling back into G minor. This variation leads into the next without pause.

Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) ” * * * “

G major: The identity of this person is not known, but she is thought to have been on an ocean voyage at the time – this divined from a musical quote from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.” This is back to G major. It’s light, graceful. It somehow slips to Ab major and morphs to C minor, then to F minor, then back G major, a hint of C major, C minor, ending on G major.

Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) “E.D.U.”

G major: Elgar himself, nicknamed Edu by his wife, from the German Eduard. The themes from two variations are echoed: “Nimrod” and “C.A.E.”, referring to Jaeger and Elgar’s wife Alice, “two great influences on the life and art of the composer”. He settles into G major, but there are some fine modulations to places like Eb major. The finish is powerful, joyful and full of passion.

The Dvorak connection…

His music HERE channeled Dvorak, right HERE. I guarantee that Elgar knew Dvorak’s 6th symphony. He stole his trombone idea!

He lived a long life for those times…

Elgar lived from June 2, 1857 to February 23, 1934, so he lived to be 76 years old and almost to 77. So he was born before our Civil War but lived past WWI, well into the 20th century.

No stuffy aristocrat…

Elgar was the exact opposite of the typical English aristocrat of his time. He was very largely self taught, although he did have musical instruction from his father. He struggled for many years for recognition but was unable to earn enough money to support himself without taking all sorts of odd musical jobs on the side.

He played many instruments…

He played several instruments well – piano, violin and bassoon – but most of what he learned about conducting, orchestration and composition he acquired on his own.

Suddenly famous…

Then almost overnight he was famous, and it was through his Enigma Variations (1899) , which quickly became popular throughout the world. These variations started out with a theme, and then he used this theme to create a musical portrait of close friends. The “enigma” part comes from his claim that there is another theme, uniting all the variations, that no one has been able to figure out.

One variation is most famous…

The most famous variation is called “Nimrod”,  in honor of his close friend and publisher, Augustus J. Jaeger,  who had encouraged him  him to continue composing despite lack of fame and near bankruptcy.

(Nimrod is the name of an Old Testament patriarch described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord”.  Jäger is a german word for  “hunter”.)

Nimrod is  very special today…

Today there is no greater musical honor than hearing Nimrod played in memory of someone very famous and much loved. It is only about four minutes long, about the same length as may popular tunes written right now.

10 thoughts on “1899: Elgar: Enigma Variations in G minor, age 42

  1. It’s fantastic to come back to a new recording and new experience. I just popped over to the William Baker one, the friend who barked out orders and slammed doors and could hear it – what fun! I wonder what it was like to be one of those friends seeing themselves “sketched out” that way! 😀

    I did not know until just now that Nimrod was played at the handover of Hong Kong. I came here from the tuba-euphonium version posted one day later than this, also movingly historical at least in a future sense.

  2. This is delightful. Each variation is unique. His friends must have felt honored.

    I found it interesting that he played several instruments, one from each of 3 musical families, percussion, string, and woodwind.

  3. I really like the soft tone of Nimrod, it sounds very nice and is relaxing. I also think its amazing the whole “enigma”. I think its really cool that no one has been able to figure out the uniting theme.

  4. Glad Edward Elgar had such a supportive friend or else we might have never been given Nimrod and Enigma Variations. Two very amazing pieces, but my favorite has to be Nimrod for it being made for a friend who supported Edward even with odds not being high.

  5. I find Nimrod very beautiful. It makes me feel peaceful inside. I’ve started listening to the whole thing and they are interesting because they are so different from each other. I would like to be better at hearing the theme that binds them together.

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