I’m sitting in a Punjabi restaurant on my favorite block of Indian restaurants at Lexington and 26th. I’ve ordered the Royal Special (vegetarian), and while I wait for my food I open a pocket score of the Enigma Variations.
It’s a warm May evening and all the windows and doors are open. Out on the noisy sidewalk only a few feet away from my table two young women in high heels and short skirts with bare, gym-hardened legs are standing in the quintessential city pose: what the Italian sculptors called “contraposto” (with one hip slightly jutted out and the other relaxed) while one hand dangles a cigarette and the other holds a cell phone to the ear. They are “networking.”
Edward Elgar, that shy, difficult and moody Worcestershire composer, also had his network of friends, although one suspects his was smaller and far more intimate in those days long before iPhones, Facebook and chat groups. As anyone who knows symphonic music is aware, Elgar’s blandly titled “Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36,” is a fondly sketched testament to the personalities, quirks and eccentricities of thirteen of his dearest friends plus a final self-portrait of himself. Well—not exactly. Let’s say twelve plus a dog, as one of the rowdier variations describes an exceptionally aerobic English bulldog careening across a lawn, hurling himself into a river and returning with a stick in his mouth.
The “Enigma Variations,” as everyone now calls them, composed in the last year of the nineteenth century when Elgar was forty two, are so famous and have been the subject of so much speculation about the characters portrayed within, that it’s sometimes hard to stand back and contemplate the piece for what it is musically. They (the variations) constitute historically the first piece of British symphonic music of any quality—ever. And it’s hard to think of anything written since, including by Elgar himself, that equals them.
Why there was a perfect drought of good composers for nearly the entire eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England is one of music’s great, well, enigmas. England seems to have been so absorbed with grooming its empire and urging on the hectic Industrial Revolution that for some reason it could not produce a single composition of world-class status between the death of Purcell in 1695 and the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899. That’s two hundred years, a mind-boggling musical creative black hole.
I can identify with Elgar. He came from a relatively small town, learned music from his father, was a “practical” musician, played several instruments, but was always ambivalent about his place in society. Although he lived in London later in his life, he always pined for the solitude of the rural regions where he grew up, not far from the Welsh border. He struggled hard as a young man, and he and his wife, even after the stunning success of the Enigma Variations made him an overnight sensation, often didn’t have enough money to heat their house in winter.
Eventually though—and this is where the changes in musical tastes between then and now really show—Elgar became a deeply revered figure, one of the major figures in English cultural life. His Symphony No. 1, written eight years later, was performed over a hundred times in the first year after its premiere. Such excitement and adulation from a grateful public for a classical composer is unthinkable in 2010. It is the kind of fame that only a Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash might be accorded in our time and country.
The Enigma Variations is one of those very rare specimens in the arts, an absolutely perfect creation on all levels. On the larger scale it forms a beautifully modulated emotional arch, with slow, pensive and melancholy passages deftly intertwined with short, explosive and brilliantly scored set pieces—like the bulldog variation. The “theme” itself is a simple tune of Mozartean perfection, an A-B-A structure of six plus four plus bars with a final cadential bar on the tonic of G.
The melody has three sets of two-bar statements, with the second bar of each pair being a rhythmic retrograde of the first. Harmonically it is beautifully articulated by a strategically positioned secondary dominant (a first inversion V7 of the subdominant) that occurs exactly at the midpoint of the theme, an auditory “signpost” that keeps the listener oriented throughout the remaining thirty-five minutes of music.
Studying and performing the Variations is a pleasure that never seems to grow stale. Elgar’s powers of invention are such that he makes of the theme and its harmonic implications a kind of treasure hunt that continues to reveal unsuspected nuggets of pleasure and meaning. The detail of his orchestration is on a level with Mahler and Debussy. His string writing in particular is richly imagined, with a special focus on the intensely lyric potential of the celli and violas. The sound is deep and burnished, a musical mahogany that fills the musical space with emotion and the kinds of colors you might experience in a Rembrandt or a Vermeer. The violins play frequently down in the lower tenor range. Some of the most effective moments in the orchestration involve them high up on the G string where the sound is taut and expressively stressed.
The Enigma Variations could not have existed without certain predecessors, and I expect Elgar would be the first to admit that. The final passacaglia variations movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and of course Brahms’ own “Haydn Variations” set the model of a Romantic backward look at the classical variations form. But there is also a lot of late Wagner here—Meistersinger in the convivial final “E.D.U.” variation, and Parsifal in the second variation, the loving portrait of the composer’s wife, “C.A.E.”
Elgar devoted much of the remainder of his life to works that are not often heard outside the UK. The oratorio “Dream of Gerontius,” a huge work with moments of true visionary writing and a wealth of late Romantic musical images, is marred by what nowadays feels like an exceptionally archaic and at times times turgid text by Cardinal Newman, a 19th century Catholic poet and philosopher. But say this to any music loving Brit and you’ll get a look of indignation, or possibly even a bloody nose if you’re in the neighborhood of a pub that’s just closed for the night. They love this piece more than they love their queen. I think Elgar’s Achilles Heel was his unsophisticated literary tastes. He expended a huge amount of time and energy during the prime of his composing career on two other Christian oratorios, “The Kingdom” and “The Apostles,” that are hardly if ever heard today, even in England. He really felt that these big religious choral and orchestral works were the pinnacle of his achievement. How a great composer could make such a momentous miscalculation of his own strengths and weaknesses is a great mystery, but he was not alone in that department.
Elgar was the first composer to understand the historical value of conducting and recording his own orchestral works. In his seventies, at the height of his fame, he several times went into the studio—the famous Abbey Road in one case—to record his major compositions. There is a recording of the Enigma Variations made in the late 1920’s. Any conductor today taking the piece up must listen carefully to this recording, for it reveals a kind of approach to orchestral performance that has all but disappeared in the intervening years. The string playing is full of rich, drooping portamenti, a kind of melodic slipping and sliding that listeners today only associate with corny old movie music from the silent film era. But in the context of Elgar’s music it sounds warm and deeply expressive.
What to do about the radical divergence between Elgar’s notated tempi in the score and what he actually did in performance is the subject for a whole other posting.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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