Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Elgar's Enigma

I've been re-reading Patrick Turner's scholarly book on Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op. 36 [1]. He explains how the piece acquired its title and also puts forward an explanation of the enigma – that the variations originated with the French folk melody to which we sing the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. As Elgar never explained the origin of the Variations we will never know whether Turner is correct, but we do know that Elgar played a tune to his wife, Alice, in the manner of several of his friends and that this led to the dedication of the Variations by Elgar "to my friends pictured within".

The link below is to the acclaimed interpretation of the work by Toscanini.

Even if one knows little of the origins of the piece, the Enigma Variations are certainly popular and "Nimrod", the variation based on Elgar's friend August Jaeger of the music publisher Novello, is the best known. I knew it before I knew the rest of the piece, largely from hearing "Nimrod" many times on radio programmes of music requests. We didn't have a record player (this must sound so odd to readers brought up in the modern era) and it wasn't until I was a student that I was able to buy an LP of the Enigma Variations and that began my exploration of Elgar's beautiful and inspiring music.

I have already written about Elgar and soul, complete with a tease that neuroscientists will never understand how music affects the emotions [2], but I wanted to write more after reading quotes in Turner's book [1]. The first came from the conductor Leopold Stokowski after he conducted the Variations in Philadelphia and New York in 1929:

We had not played them for four seasons, and the impression I received from them was of such depth of feeling and beauty that I was stirred by this music far more profoundly than I can express in words. Often when we play a work after not having heard it for several seasons, we have the impression of its being the expression of another period and of being alien to the life of today. But your Variations gave me the most powerful impression of eternal vitality and architectural design – and also something very difficult to express, a floating upward into a mystical level where time and space seem to cease.

The other quote is from Turner himself:

..I never cease to wonder what it was about Elgar that enabled him to produce music which succeeds in moving me in a way in which no other music does. What is the strange alchemy that draws people to his music and, once drawn, traps them?

Both quotes imply that Elgar had a special quality that enabled him to communicate something deep and intimate. I alluded to this in the earlier post [2], yet I have no idea whether the moving feelings that I have when listening to the piece are the same as those that Stokowski, Turner and many others describe. The imagery that I have must be personal, yet the result is the same for all of us – almost being in contact with a higher sense. What is the rational explanation of that and why is Elgar so good at creating that feeling? It's another enigma.

[1] Patrick Turner (1999) Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations – a centenary celebration. London, Thames Publishing.

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