Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Enigma Variations

The Enigma Variations are a set of variations for orchestra written by the composer Edward Elgar in 1898-99. The full title is Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma). It is probably Elgar's best known full length piece.

The story of the composition of the work is that one day, after a tiring day of teaching, Elgar sat at the piano and began to play a melody. Then, to entertain his wife, he began to improvise variations on it, each one a caricature of one of their friends or in the style they might have composed it in. Over time, the piece was worked on, expanded and orchestrated to become the well known piece it is today.

It is unusual for a set of variations in that the theme all the variations are based on is never heard. Instead, the piece starts straight away with the first variation. Elgar said that the unheard theme was itself a variation on some well known tune. Many guesses have been made as to what this might be, but nobody has ever solved this puzzle, the enigma which gives the piece its name. One of the more often heard guesses is that it is the British national anthem, God Save the King. In the opinion of some, the unheard "main theme" is actually a counter-melody to some other tune: in other words it would fit in with it, but does not necessarily contain any of its characteristics other than the most general harmonic outline.

Elgar dedicated the piece to "my friends pictured within", and at the head of each variation, Elgar wrote the nickname or initials corresponding to the friend he was depicting. They are:

The piece was premiered at the St. James Hall in London on June 19, 1899, conducted by Hans Richter, and has remained popular since.