Build­ing a Li­brary

Mal­colm Hayes se­lects the best record­ings of El­gar’s Enigma Vari­a­tions; plus what to hear next

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The first per­for­mance of Enigma Vari­a­tions, con­ducted by Hans Richter on 19 June 1899 in London, made El­gar’s name vir­tu­ally overnight as Eng­land’s finest com­poser since Pur­cell. He had come up with a unique cre­ation – a se­quence of mu­si­cal por­traits of his wife, his friends and him­self, all based on a melody rep­re­sent­ing, as he later said, ‘the lone­li­ness of the artist’. Although the sub­ti­tle ‘Enigma’ was only added be­fore the pre­miere by El­gar’s pub­lisher, the com­poser sug­gested that ‘over the whole set another and larger “theme” goes, but is not played’. End­less mu­si­co­log­i­cal de­tec­tive work has failed to turn up a counter-melody that ‘fits’. This must be be­cause there isn’t one: as the El­gar au­thor­ity Michael Kennedy sug­gested, the com­poser was think­ing of the work’s broader, ab­stract theme – of friend­ship and love, set amid the so­cial scene in and around his Worces­ter­shire home.

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