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One theme – endlessly talked about – and fourteen variations on it. Each variation was the result of a parlour game between Elgar and his wife, Alice.
He’d played the theme to her, which he described as ‘nothing much, but something might be made of it’. He then proceeded to improvise how it might sound played either in the style of – or in tribute to – their closest friends. Between then and publication in 1899, the ‘enigma’ legend was added. Scholars have long since decoded the half-disguises to the various ‘friends within’ each movement, but the name and indeed the very nature of the central enigma itself endures.
Every year sees a new tune suggested as the ‘hidden theme’: the Prague Symphony, ‘Rule, Britannia’, The Art of Fugue, they’re all contenders, so it would seem. Yet it is in the light of Elgar’s penchant for puzzling and trickery in the first place – the very reason there is an enigma – that might suggest Elgar was having us all on. He never publicly disclosed the secret – and maybe that’s the best way.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Yehudi Menuhin (conductor). Regis: RRC1219.
Illustration: Mark Millington