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29. Elgar: the Missing Enigma Variations



It is universally acknowledged that Elgar originally wrote 17 variations on his Enigma theme. But when he showed the score to his old friend, August Jaeger, Jaeger persuaded him to discard three in order to keep the work to manageable length. Fortunately for us he didn't destroy the surplus movements, for they are of equal quality to the rest. By a further piece of good fortune he also kept the descriptive sketches he wrote about these three discarded 'Friends Pictures Within', and these are incorporated in the notes appended below:

  1. 'Great Aunt E. E.'. This must be Elgar's Great Aunt Ethel who 'did so much to encourage my youthful composing efforts'. Indeed, she was no mean composer herself, vide her full-length opera The Smugglers of Penzance (1878). She was also a talented amateur bassoonist and would often join her nephew for duets during her frequent visits to Broadheath. 'Her characteristic whole-tone runs over the keys to "warm up" are humorously burlesqued in the introductory bars' (E.E.)
  2. 'B.M.W.' Bertie Wilson was one of Elgar's oldest friends and a fellow-member of the Broadheath Morris Team. Hence the quotation from 'Shepherd's Hey', which is skilfully counterpointed with the 'Enigma' theme in bar 25. (This may also have influenced Elgar's decision to incorporate sleigh-bells and a klaxon in the percussion section.)
  3. 'E.S.' Eric Satie was, in Elgar's characteristic phrase, 'my old Froggie friend from Montmartre'. They first met in 1892 when Satie made a special journey to Worcester for the premiere of Elgar's The Black Knight. The two men soon discovered they had much in common, including a love for writing facetious letters (see Elgar and Satie: A Life in Letters, 3 vols., 1998) and quickly established a friendship which lasted until Satie's death. Elgar himself describes the variation thus: 'I have attempted to portray Eric's droll personality, translating the verbal commentaries with which he besprinkles his scores into musical terms: hence (bar 3) 'I appear to have lost my pince nez' is answered (bar 5) by 'Ah! Here they are!'


Copyright © 30 November 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK



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