The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.

decorated initial 'F' by Thackerayor Elgar's contemporary Hubert Parry, theme and variations was "one of the most attractive and pliable forms [available] to modern composers of feeling and temperament." Indeed, the technique of variation writing was an essential skill for the Romantic composer, its importance attributed by Parry to the "far-reaching divination of artistic possibilities" demonstrated by Beethoven. For Charles Villiers Stanford, too, variations were "the master-key of the whole building. Interesting in themselves to elaborate, they are of still greater service in training the mind to deal easily with the most difficult problems in works of larger proportions." Stanford, who taught Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, and Gustav Holst, among many others, required his students to write variations in order, according to another of his pupils, Eugene Goossens, to teach them "that the supreme test of creative ingenuity lay in extracting the last ounce of variety from a good tune." Variations, implicit or explicit, lie at the center of the composer's art.

All the works on this program were composed within a short time during a period that is often referred to as the "English Musical Renaissance." The earliest to be completed, Parry's Symphonic Variations, dates from 1897, while the last, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, was written just 10 years later. All three composers were at the highest points of their careers but, despite superficial similarities and their shared aspiration to advance British music, they were highly disparate personalities. Parry and Stanford were pillars of the establishment, both teaching composition at London's Royal College of Music, and were also professors of music at Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. Parry, however, was an earnest, agnostic, and politically liberal member of the English landed gentry, while Stanford was a mercurial Anglo-Irish conservative from a professional background; their different temperaments resulted in a stormy relationship. Elgar was, by contrast, an outsider: a Roman Catholic whose father was "in trade," he made his living and reputation in the English Midlands, both resenting the establishment and craving recognition from it. Elgar had the "deepest respect" for Parry as the "head of our art in this country" but mistrusted Stanford; Elgar and Stanford quarreled in 1904 and barely spoke to each other thereafter.

Elgar's concert overture In the South was inspired by a visit to Alassio in Italy, and is one of his most exuberant and substantial works. Elgar wrote,

I was by the side of an old Roman way. A peasant shepherd stood by an old Roman ruin and in a flash it all came to me — the conflict of armies in that very spot long ago, where now I stood — the contrast of the ruin and the shepherd — and then, all of a sudden, I came back to reality. In that time I had "composed" the overture — the rest was merely writing it down.

Successfully premiered in London on March 16, 1904, during the course of a festival devoted to Elgar's music, the score is sometimes redolent of Richard Strauss, not least in the absolute mastery of orchestration; but the individual voice in the music is unmistakable, most especially in the broad sweep of the "Roman" music. Elgar dedicated In the South to his indefatigable patron, Frank Schuster.

Parry's Symphonic Variations were doubtless partly inspired by Dvorák's work of the same name, by Brahms's "Haydn" Variations, and by the passacaglia finale of the German composer's Fourth Symphony. In the concentrated complexity of its motivic development, Parry's work constitutes a historical bridge between Brahms's variation techniques and those of Schoenberg. Commissioned by London's Philharmonic Society, Parry's work was premiered on June 3, 1897. It was well received and Parry, notoriously nervous about — and often unhappy with — performances of his own music, noted that the "band played up like bricks — went capitally." The 27 variations are organized into four "movements" following the pattern of a symphony: the theme and variations 1 through 11 (E major and E minor) form the first "movement"; variations 13 to 18 (C major) constitute a "scherzo"; variations 19 to 23 (A minor) form the "slow movement"; and variations 24 through 27 (back in the main key of E major) make up a "finale" in which the main theme returns to form an eloquent peroration.

Chronologically, Stanford's coruscating Concert Variations on an English Theme ("Down Among the Dead Men") for piano and orchestra, Op. 71, straddle the creation of Elgar's Enigma Variations. Composed in March 1898, some five or six months before Elgar started on his score, the work was not premiered until May 4, 1900 (also by the Philharmonic Society), almost a year after the premiere of the Enigma Variations. The success of Elgar's work almost certainly cast an unfortunate shadow over Stanford's, which is finely wrought and high-spirited. The theme, "Down Among the Dead Men," is a glee that dates from the early eighteenth century, but was popular during the Victorian period. (The text of this rambunctious glee, which begins "Here's a health to the King," is particularly interesting in light of Stanford's fiercely held Tory and Unionist political convictions.) Anticipating the form of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by some three decades, Stanford's set of variations, like Parry's, is laid out like a symphony: the theme and variations 1 through 3 (C minor) form the opening introduction and allegro; variations 4 through 7 (C major and minor) constitute the scherzo; variations 8 and 9 (E flat) create a slow movement, and variations 10 through 12 comprise an exciting finale in ternary form. Stanford was an able pianist, and so the piano writing is an expert exercise in scintillating virtuosity.

Elgar completed five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, a surprisingly varied series of works that explore many facets of the composer's style despite their predominately extroverted character. The Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 was composed in 1907 and is a perfect example of Elgar's ceremonial style, which was developed from Arthur Sullivan and Parry and taken up later by William Walton, John Ireland, and Arthur Bliss; a rhythmically vital and brisk opening subject is contrasted with a broad sweeping trio in clear double binary form.

Three pieces of incidental music were produced by Elgar for the first production in Dublin in 1901 of W. B. Yeats and George Moore's "Celtic Twilight" play Grania and Diarmid, the subject of which has been compared to the legend of Tristan and Isolde. The Funeral March, in a broad ternary form, is the most substantial of these numbers, and was successful subsequently as a concert work.

The success of Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, universally known as the Enigma Variations, transformed his reputation, turning him from a provincial worthy into a composer of international stature. Upon the completion of the score in 1899, Elgar took the daring step of sending the score directly to Hans Richter (18431916), the highly regarded conductor of a long-running and popular annual concert series in London. Richter's premiere of the work, in London on June 19, 1899, was a triumph. Its unusual aspects caught hold of the Victorian imagination. First, the dedication "to my friends pictured within" invited listeners to equate the work with a photograph album, an indispensable possession in middle- and upper-class households. Though the identities of the individuals were not divulged, the illustrative nature of each variation gave audiences the enjoyable task of determining the personality of each friend. Second, by declaring the theme an "enigma," Elgar tapped into the Victorian obsession with puzzles and word-play, even though his program note leaves the nature of the "enigma" unclear. Further curiosity was aroused when Elgar revealed a second puzzle: the existence of a well-known but unstated melody that could be sung as a counterpoint to the theme; a conclusive solution remains inevitably elusive.

Elgar's music, however, gained popularity through its own virtues. As always he showed himself a virtuoso orchestrator, but the variety of musical language — creating vivid miniatures which build to a compelling whole — has proved the work's greatest strength. Unlike Parry and Stanford, Elgar did not impose a classical form on the work, but juxtaposed variations by contrasts of key, tempo, meter, texture, and mood.Variation 1, representing Elgar's wife, Alice, is closest to the original theme, while Variation 9, a portrayal of his close friend, August Jaeger ("Nimrod"), forms the emotional heart of the work. The finale, Variation 14, a portrayal of Elgar himself, is the most extended section. Lengthened after repeated badgering by Jaeger, who was Elgar's editor at Novello, it recalls Variations 1 and 9, before building to a triumphant conclusion.


Elgar and His World. Program for the Bard Music Festival. Anandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2007; pp. 28-31.

Last modified 22 August 2007