A complete version of Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" (No. 1-8)
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Uploaded on Aug 26, 2008
This new upload may seem a bit out of place next to my belcanto-orientated recent postings, but the piece in question is just too delightful to pass. Most of the description is taken from "allmusic.com", while my commentaries will be mostly my personal impressions of the variations.
"At the end of an overlong day laden with teaching and other duties, Edward Elgar lit a cigar, sat at his piano and began idling over the keys. To amuse his wife, the composer began to improvise a tune and played it several times, turning each reprise into a caricature of the way one of their friends might have played it or of their personal characteristics. "I believe that you are doing something which has never been done before," exclaimed his wife". Thus, as the legend tells us, was born one of music's great works of original conception, and Elgar's greatest large-scale "hit": the Enigma Variations.
The enigma is twofold: each of the 14 variations refers to a friend of Elgar's, who is depicted by the nature of the music, or by sonic imitation of laughs, vocal inflections, or quirks, or by more abstract allusions. The other enigma is the presence of a larger "unheard" theme which is never stated but which according to the composer is very well known. A third enigma formed, when I decided to upload the variations, as I am completely baffled about the identity of either the conductor or the orchestra.
But getting back to the work itself, the work contains some most charming and interesting music.
As the piece is about thirty minutes long, I've divided it into three parts, each one finishing with a furious allegro passage (and, interestingly enough, the variations go well this way).
The main theme (marked andante and starting, of course, at 0:00) itself is hesitating, lean and haunting, and is reprised once. As I'm writing this description and listening to the theme, I'm trying to grasp its' source, as it is familiar to me (it reminds me a bit of Grieg, to be honest), but, quite possibly, it is an archetypal melody which explains why guesses have ranged from "God Save the King" to a simple major scale, so, to put it clear, "impersonal" it is next to the variations which are formed from it. An interesting touch is the fact that the variations, unusual for the form in general, feature no musical bridges, seamlessly floating one into the other.
I. C.A.E. (l'istesso tempo; 1:32), the passionate first variation, represents Caroline, the composer's wife, a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. The variation contains repetitions of a four-note melodic fragment (and one that I'm especially fond of) which Elgar reportedly whistled whenever arriving home to his wife; with a little imagination, something like "Darling, I'm home" forms.
II. H.D.S-P. (allegro; 3:15), Hew Stuart-Powell, a pianist with whom Elgar played chamber music. The music makes an impression of a "Figaro" type of fellow, always running, always busy, with only the ending bringing him to a well-deserved rest.
III. R.B.T. (allegretto, 4:06), Richard Townsend, an amateur actor, whose vocal pitch would rise when excited, a characteristic which the music imitates to full effect.
IV. W.M.B. (allegro di molto; 5:25), William Baker, who after barking out plans for the day would leave the room with a vigorous door-slam. This is the shortest of the variations, perfectly mimicking a man strolling from one corner to the other, making plans and statements, and then running out as fast as he had entered.
V. R.P.A., Richard Arnold (moderato; 5:56), son of the writer Matthew Arnold, who would punctuate serious discourse with a nervous laugh. Another personal favorite for the "laughing portion", wonderfully contrasting with mockingly serious strings before.
VI. Ysobel (andantino; 7:59), Isobel Fitton, a violist, a fact that is represented by a solo viola. A connection is made with the first variation by a gentle portrait, in contrast to the characterful and a bit intimidating gentlemen represented by the variations in between,
VII. Troyte (presto; 9:17), Arthur Griffith, an architect and raucous pianist. The variation good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano.
The next section will appear soon :). Enjoy :).
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