In America, Elgar is best known for a section of his Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 in D Major (1901), which has been played at graduation ceremonies since 1905, when Elgar himself received an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University.
In England, lyrics by A.C. Benson transformed this same tune into “Land of Hope and Glory” a patriotic anthem so popular that it now compares in stature to “God Save the Queen.”
What first launched this remarkable career was Variations on an Original Theme (1899), his orchestral suite of 14 musical sketches based on a single theme, each inspired by an anecdote or personality trait of one of his close friends. The theme is presented in the first six measures of part one, above which appears the composer’s annotation: “Enigma.” The fourteen variations are named as follows.
I. “C.A.E” A four-note melodic fragment repeated here was once whistled by the composer arriving home to see his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar.Elgar created an unsolved puzzle with his “Enigma” annotation, refusing to explain its “dark saying,” and further implied that yet another unrealized theme arches over the entire set of fourteen variations. Many pages have been written in search of solutions to the riddle, based on anagrams, countermelodies, musical quotations, and literary references, but a full explanation remains elusive.
II. “H.D.S-P.” The pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell warmed up his fingers by playing scales on the keyboard, remembered by Elgar in this sketch.
III. “R.B.T” Author Richard Baxter Townshend’s portrayal of an old man character in amateur plays relied on a comedic vocal delivery, parodied here.
IV. “W.M.B.” Like this sketch, William Meath Baker was concise and energetic.
V. “R.P.A.” Richard Penrose Arnold was a pianist and son of the poet Matthew Arnold.
VI. “Ysobel” A crossing-string exercise forms the basis for this sketch, named for Isabel Fitton, one of Elgar’s viola students.
VII. “Troyte” Elgar’s close friend Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and enthusiastic but clumsy piano novice.
VIII. “W.N.” The Worcester Philharmonic Society were gracious musical patrons, and their secretary Winifred Norbury had a memorable and characteristic laugh.
IX. “Nimrod” Elgar’s close friend Augustus Jaeger was a music editor and caring personal critic. Nimrod is a reference to the Biblical hunter, the German word for which is jaeger. This movement, often played by itself on solemn occasions, was inspired by a memory of Jaeger’s encouraging counsel, and his singing of a theme by Beethoven.
X. “Dorabella” Dora Penny was something of a muse for the composer, and her stutter is lovingly echoed by woodwinds. Penny’s biography of Elgar reveals abundant details about the subjects of these sketches.
XI. “G.R.S.” Walking along the river Wye with Elgar, organist George Robertson Sinclair watched his bulldog suddenly tumble into the water, paddle over to the bank and bark. Sinclair challenged Elgar to “set that to music!” and he did.
XII. “B.G.N.” The cello solos here honor the fine amateur cellist Basil G. Nevinson.
XIII. “* * *” Lady Mary Lygon, a local music festival sponsor traveling on a sea voyage in 1899, was the subject of this nautically imagined sketch. The reason for the elided initials, like much of this work’s back story, is the subject of great speculation.
XIV. “E.D.U.” Elgar’s wife nicknamed him “Edu” from the German Eduard, and this sketch is thus a self-portrait. Its original form was lengthened by 100 bars at the suggestion of Augustus Jaeger.
Though regarded among the greatest of British composers, Elgar’s lively and varied material borrows more from diverse elements of continental Eurpoean music, and can’t be summed up by the dignified Pomp and Circumstance, no matter how deeply it inhabits the culture of two nations. In fact, he was an outspoken critic of what he considered to be a passive acceptance of the blandness of English music.
The paradoxes of his life and career would seem to suggest that Elgar might approve of being credited with creating one of the great mischievous mysteries of music history.