Musings On Composer Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations

Courtesy of discogs.com
Courtesy of discogs.com

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the Tempe Symphony Orchestra (before you mock me for being so high-brow, let me mention that it was free, and graduate students love anything that is free). And as an aside, classical music in person sounds so much better than in recordings (in my humble opinion), and I would invite you to become more familiar with the genre if you haven’t done so yet.

As their final piece, the orchestra played the Enigma Variations by English composer Sir Edward Elgar (more formally, for those who care: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36). Musical variations can take several forms, such as an opening melody changing its rhythm or chord structure at a later moment. The “enigma” enters into the equation because Elgar never exactly revealed the source of the underlying tune in this set of music (there are theories, of course). Even so, Elgar drew inspiration from his personal life in order to shape what would become a very famous musical work.

English Composer Sir Edward Elgar. Gotta love that mustache. Courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Elgar named each of the 14 variations in Enigma after someone close to him. Apparently Elgar was improvising on his home piano one evening, not really aware of the notes he was producing, when his wife Alice remarked that she liked the tune. Elgar continued to play around with the notes and decided to create variations that served as “musical caricatures” of some friends. By February 1899, Elgar was scoring the work for orchestra and it was performed publicly soon thereafter.

While pondering on my night of high-culture last week, I am still struck by how Enigma serves as a powerful tribute to Elgar’s professional capacity as a composer. Think of that. Elgar is, for all intents and purposes, immortalized through his music. But given what we know about the origin of Enigma, we also have in this musical work a record of Elgar’s life. And while any one of the variations from Enigma might take on a life of its own as successive generations hear it and repurpose it for their own uses (such as playing the Nimrod variation for World War I remembrance), the variations still serve as a small window into Elgar’s private world.

I am sure that there are interesting back stories to any number of musical compositions. But Elgar’s piece really reminded me of the human factor that underlies the creation of such a work. And we can, of course, look beyond the realm of music. We have myriad examples of famous figures whose accomplishments were but one layer (the public one) in their otherwise nuanced lives. After all, when someone runs for office, it’s not their accomplishments that the press loves to cover, but the skeletons in their closet. It’s not the number of home runs a baseball player has achieved that matters if they’re also dealing with some sort of family problem. And an actor’s body of work might garner less attention than their current dating status.

Anecdotally, Elgar was not a very good conductor. I guess we won’t hold it against him. Courtesy of classicfm.com

These are generalizations, to be sure. But I suppose I am trying to make the case that even though we as humans are complex, multifaceted creatures, it’s easy to characterize people unfairly based on one or two factors. I’ve given examples of those most clearly in the public eye, but let’s think about the people with whom we interact on any given day. For example, I know something about several of my fellow classmates, but that doesn’t mean I know all of their hopes, dreams, challenges and life circumstances. I may have a colleague who has a difficult personality in the workplace and judge them negatively as a result, and never know that they are actually active in giving service to their community and are viewed quite positively by others in that context.

This is my point: if we recognize in ourselves that we are nuanced, complex beings with a broad range of emotions, professional ambitions and personal trials, then we should recognize that that is likely the case in others. When the media tends to reduce people to single characteristics (Republican versus Democrat, urbanite versus town-dweller, young versus old), it is helpful to remember the humanity that is common to all of us. And if we recognize that humanity, I think that might go a long way in helping soothe the tensions that plague our world today.

Don’t fool me for an idealistic utopian. It’s not realistic to think we have to mesh well with everyone in every social or professional situation. And history has certainly taught us that some humans are capable of heinous acts of evil (for which we are right to judge them). But I am an optimist. And I think, if anything, the sweeping emotions in Elgar’s Enigma Variations have at the very least reminded me that life, for all of its difficulties, is also a time of great possibilities. So let’s live authentically (i.e., get off of Instagram), cultivate meaningful human relationships, and try to reserve judgment when we don’t have the full picture before us. In my mind, we recognize the humanity in others when we allow others to make mistakes just as we know we will surely err at some point in our path.

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