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At a Party with Elgar: The Enigma Variations

January 31st, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The Enigma Variations is one of the most enjoyable set of variations that classical music can boast. What makes them particularly interesting is that Elgar wrote a variation for each of his friends, making the reconstruction of their personalities a fun exercise for any music novice. Join the party, then, and meet the guests. And say thanks to your guide Wikipedia, as it will come in handy along the way.

The Theme: You swear you have heard this before, somewhere. And then it hits you: the opening of The Matrix, the first notes of the film before the techno kicks in. You try to forget it, but this haunting melody will follow you the rest of the night.

Caroline Alice Elgar: The first person you meet is (appropriately) Mrs. Elgar. A pleasant lady, Mrs. Elgar is easy going but has a passionately romantic side that comes out if you stick around long enough. Of course, it is quickly submitted to a powerful gentility is befitting this eminently graceful women.

Hew David Steuart-Powell: A pianist friend of Elgar’s, Steuart-Powell apparently never sits still. Always fidgeting, always nervous, he isn’t able to converse long, nor stay on one topic for longer than a moment. You listen politely before he flits along to the next conversation.

Richard Baxter Townsend: You knew from Wikipedia that he is capable of extreme changes in his voice, and as you meet him, you see that it is true. Light hearted and full of dancing, all the world is Baxter Townsend’s stage. He imitates, he plays at magic, he laughs–he is the consumate vaudevillian, if, that is, Vaudeville were in England.

William Meath Baker: Think Tasmanian Devil. Enough said.

Richard P. Arnold: With a father like Matthew Arnold, we would be sullen too. Of course, when he forgets himself, Richard Arnold turns out to be witty and lighthearted, reminding us of sunshine and running through the fields. Such moments don’t last long tonight, as the clouds and gloominess overtake this young man.

Isabel Fitton: Fitton, a violist who is Elgar’s pupil, is smooth, demure, and appropriately modest for her station. A graceful young lady who moves as though she were waltzing, Fitton charms the more you listen to her alluring voice.

Arthur Troyte Griffiths: Griffiths is all thumbs. He is a white man trying to make it in MoTown, an 85 pound weakling trying out for the sumo wrestling team. He tries to play the piano tonight, fails, and in frustration, he storms, he bangs, he rails against the keyboard. Griffiths is a fireball, and more suited to sport than high society. Move along.

Winifred Norbury: Norbury can talk to anyone. Reserved when appropriate, gay when it suits him, and sufficiently serious to attract and keep any woman, Norbury provides delightful company. His honesty, lack of pretentiousness, and sincere mildness are profoundly disarming, especially on an evening of extremes.

Augustus J. Jaeger: The most famous of the members of the party, you come in knowing (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Jaeger is German for “hunter.” Hence, “Nimrod,” who “was a might hunter before the Lord.” Strong, solemn and subtle, Jaeger is also refined enough to allude to the master Beethoven. He reminds of sturm und drang, as his powerful emotions build and eventually take over. But then, before you know it, the wave recedes and all is peace.

Dora Penny: The quintessential daydreamer, poor Miss Penny stutters. As she introduces herself, she can’t seem to get a word out. And then, she finds her groove. Though memories of the stutters linger, she waxes eloquent as she drifts to the edges of her consciousness. With a startle, she reverts to her stuttering ways as she attempts to manage her embarrassment ofgetting lost in her own world. This process repeats itself all night.

George Robertson Sinclair: Or is it his bulldog? The two look and sound so similar, it is hard to tell them apart. An elderly man, Sinclair is John Bull if anyone is. With a “harrumph” and a flurry, he storms around the room opining on all things political, only to slam the door on his way to the smoking room.

George Robertson Sinclair: Ever the studious type, Sinclair is the hopeless romantic of the group. Still single, Sinclair is wont to spend his time fanatasizing about the death of princesses he has never met, or the departure of the women he has. Sinclair finds the cello a fittingly melancholy outlet for his pinings and longings.

Romanza: You don’t know here name, but she is so full of life, so vibrant. Your eyes lock and for a long moment you forget where you are. All you know is her. The suspense builds, and builds, and then dies away as she returns to her conversation, only somehow more vivacious than before. And then you meet: and all is silent.

Elgar: Finally, you meet the host of the party. Elgar is appropriately ceremonial, full of the pomp and circumstance that would make him more famous than these pieces. Despite Jaeger and his wife making their mark on his personality, Elgar is still very much his own person. A consummate conversationalist, Elgar jumps from theme to theme with the adeptness of a schoolboy jumping from one bank of a stream to the other. Lively and energetic, Elgar is entertaining, yet has that enigmatic ability to make you forget yourself and hear only the words, only the music. It is a skill only the great conversationalists have, and Elgar is at his finest tonight.

*For this listening, I recommend Daniel Barenboim’s excellent rendition with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.