The Story Behind Elgar's Enigma Variations

On 21 October 1898, Edward Elgar returned to his wife and their home in Malvern after a long day teaching (which he described as “like turning a grinding-stone with a dislocated shoulder”). Dispirited, despite the recent success of Caractacus at the Leeds Festival, he finished dinner, lit a cigar and sat down at the piano to doodle. Elgar later recalled what happened next.

“In a little while, soothed and feeling rested, I began to play, and suddenly my wife interrupted by saying: ‘Edward, that’s a good tune.’ I awoke from the dream. ‘Eh! Tune, what tune!’ And she said, ‘Play it again, I like that tune.’ I played and strummed, and played, then she exclaimed: ‘That’s the tune.’ The voice of [my wife] asked with a sound of approval, ‘What is that?’ I answered, ‘Nothing – but something might be made of it.’”

But for Alice Elgar’s interruption, we might never have had one of the greatest of all English orchestral works. Elgar called the tune, which he had not recognised as anything worthwhile, “Enigma”, not in the sense of a riddle to be solved, but, he said, a “dark saying [that] must be left unguessed”, expressing the “nothingness” from which it came.

In fact, the theme, which dips between G minor and G major, is loosely derived from two figures in the slow movement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony, which Elgar had recently heard in Leeds.

Simply for fun, Elgar began toying with the tune, adapting it to make musical caricatures of some of his friends. He’d try the different treatments on Alice, asking her to guess the subject, and within no time, the serious idea of a set of orchestral variations had taken shape.

Each section was headed by the initials of the friend portrayed, beginning with “C.A.E.” (Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice) and closing with “E.D.U.” (Variation XIV), a self-portrait of the composer himself, the three letters short for Eduard, Alice’s pet name for her husband.

The Variations were scored between 5 and 19 February 1899, dedicated “ my friends pictured within” and entitled Variations on an original theme, Op.36 – no mention of “Enigma”, though the word appears in pencil on Elgar’s autograph score.

The first performance, conducted in London by Hans Richter, took place on 19 June 1899 in a concert that concluded with Mozart’s Prague Symphony. It was not until 13 September in Worcester, however, that the Variations were heard in their final form after Elgar had added a further 100 bars to the end of “E.D.U.” to make a more powerful conclusion. 

Elgar was 42, and the work finally sealed his fame.