Music: Enigma and after

In 1898, Edward Elgar was a little-known provincial figure. That soon changed.

It was, as usual, George Bernard Shaw who put it most trenchantly: "For my part, I expected nothing from any English composer... But when I heard the Variations, I sat up and said: `Whew!' I knew we had got it at last." In other words, tough luck on Stanford, Parry and Co, who had been toiling away nobly for years to redeem this country from its not entirely deserved reputation of the land without music. Their efforts had been sideswiped at a stroke by a little-known, self-taught genius from the provinces.

Though not so little known as all that. In his early 40s, Edward Elgar could take some satisfaction from the success of his choral works around the festival circuit of Birmingham, Leeds and the Three Choirs. But he had yet to achieve a major orchestral break in London. Meanwhile, it irked him that he still had to make up much of his income teaching the violin to young ladies around Malvern - but it was at the end of just such a wearisome day between 20 and 24 October 1898 that deliverance was to come.

Elgar often later recalled how he had arrived home tired and begun doodling abstractedly at the piano, when his wife suddenly asked him to repeat a phrase she found striking, and how, to amuse her, he had then improvised on the phrase to suggest the mannerisms of their various friends. The idea of a kind of musical portrait gallery rapidly took shape, and by the 20 February 1899, Elgar had completed his Variations for Orchestra on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op 36. First performed in London on 19 June 1899 under the great Hans Richter - friend and interpreter of Wagner, Bruckner and Brahms - the work was more or less immediately recognised as a defining masterpiece. Definitive of what? Well, for a start, of a singularly complex musical - and not only musical - personality. What is one to make of a composer behind whose almost every note echoes of other composers are to be detected, yet who never sounds other than himself; whose style, while it is drawn almost entirely from such Continental masters as Schumann, Wagner, Brahms and Dvorak, yet seems so quintessentially English; and whose technical mastery was so deeply dependent on the extra- musical concerns of his daily life?

Given his Schumannesque love of musical puns and cyphers, for instance, it seems possible that what set him off on that fateful October evening was fiddling around with the rhythm of his own name, which fits the first four notes of the original theme - so producing the coded self-reference he duly labelled Enigma. Or was he disconsolately fingering the intervals of the phrase "never, never, never" in Rule Britannia, which has been plausibly suggested as the solution to the claim in Elgar's programme note: "Through and over the whole set, another and larger theme `goes', but is not played" - the work, after all, pictures an emblematic cross- section of British society. Similar musical allusions and extra-musical references are to be found in all the ensuing variations - from the echo of the slow movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata at the beginning of Nimrod to the evocation of the then Hereford organist George Sinclair's bulldog, Dan, tumbling into the River Wye - yet, as the critic of The Athenaeum wrote after the first performance: "As abstract music they fully satisfy."

But what evidently most impressed listeners from the start was not just the "national" scope of Elgar's musical imagery, nor the "European" scope of his style - which, in fact, he shared with Parry and Stanford - or even the professionalism and virtuosity of his orchestral scoring, though this was new in British music, but the complete authority of his utterance. In the upbeat year to a new century, a major master had suddenly declared himself, transforming the possibilities of the tradition from which he had come with a single, talismanic masterpiece. And while subsequent generations of British composers - Vaughan Williams and Holst, Walton and Constant Lambert, Tippett and Britten - were to pursue very different artistic agendas, all sooner or later came to revere the composer of the Enigma Variations as the start of it all. Nor was the work's significance only local. From St Petersburg in 1904, where it delighted Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, to New York in 1910, when it was conducted by Mahler, it served notice on musicians and audiences that British music was once again to be taken seriously, and it has held its place in the international repertoire ever since.

Yet not least of the work's fascinations is its uniqueness in Elgar's output. Before 1899, his efforts had been mainly confined to what the market wanted - lyrical salon pieces and choral cantatas, for which he already showed a characteristic talent. Over the next two decades, by contrast, he was to tackle the forms of oratorio, symphony and concerto on the most elaborate scale, pushing his innovations in structure, harmony and orchestration to far more sophisticated ends than anything in the Variations. Yet it's possible to feel about those later great works a certain strain as Elgar strives to knit the disparate patches of invention that he habitually worked with into seamless continuities - whereas theme and variation form had offered him the possibility of building up a large-scale structure by a balance of contrasts without the need for seamless links. Indeed, with the arguable exception of the grandiose final passage, which Elgar was persuaded to extend after the first performance, one is tempted to hail the Enigma Variations - in its unforced synthesis of public and private manner, of small-scale form and large-scale design, of invention and pacing, colour and expression - as well nigh note-perfect. That the insipiently fevered and fissiparous cultural world of 1899 could throw up a work of such wholeness was already something of a miracle. A century on, anything remotely like it is inconceivable.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness