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Program Notes: Elgar's Enigma Variations (April 15-16, 2023)

Updated: Apr 12, 2023


April 15-16, 2023

Samuel Barber

Second Essay for Orchestra (1942)

Frédéric Chopin

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, op.21 (1829)



Allegro vivace

Lise de la Salle, piano


Edward Elgar

Enigma Variations (Variations on an Original Theme), op. 36 (1899)

Enigma: Andante

Variation I. "C.A.E.": L'istesso tempo

Variation II. "H.D.S-P": Allegro

Variation III. "R.B.T.": Allegretto

Variation IV. "W.M.B.": Allegro di molto

Variation V. "R.P.A.": Moderato-

Variation VI. "Ysobel": Andantino

Variation VII. "Troyte": Presto

Variation VIII. "W.N.": Allegretto-

Variation IX. "Nimrod": Moderato

Variation X. "Dorabella": Intermezzo: Allegretto

Variation XI. "G.R.S.": Allegro di molto

Variation XII. "B.G.N.": Andante-

Variation XIII. "***" Romanza: Moderato

Variation XIV. "E.D.U." Finale: Allegro


Program Notes

by Benjamin Pesetsky

Both Samuel Barber and Frédéric Chopin bend and inflect the harmonic world of F minor to create distinctive personal sounds. Their pieces also challenge simplistic notions of style and era—Chopin was a Romantic, but his concerto looked back 50 years to Classicism. And Barber put a modern mark on a Romantic ethos that many of his 20th-century peers completely abandoned.

Barber’s Second Essay also explores an innovative orchestral form, much like Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. And while Elgar’s Variations may be the grandest work of musical portraiture on record, it has a predecessor in the slow movement of the Chopin concerto, which was inspired by a woman the young composer loved.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber

Second Essay

Samuel Barber

Born 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died 1981, New York, New York

Admittedly the title is a bit dry, bringing to mind high school homework and college term papers. But consider the full breadth of what an essay can be—from a personal essay to a political op-ed. And think of the long history of American essays in particular—from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joan Didion and beyond.

Samuel Barber is perhaps our only orchestral essayist: he wrote three between 1937 and 1978. The Second Essay is his peak Jimmy Stewart-era entry, written in 1942. Like some of the actor’s most iconic roles (see It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the piece develops personal convictions into a common-sense argument, and then an impassioned speech. It suggests a kind of civic-minded idealism without an ounce of jingoism.

“My music has been going so well that it seems incongruous for times such as these,” Barber wrote a friend, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I’ve taken the attitude that it is better to continue in one’s job tutta forza [full force] until one’s draft board decides otherwise.” He offered the Second Essay to Bruno Walter who premiered it at Carnegie Hall on April 16, 1942. Shortly thereafter, Barber joined the Army Air Corps (same as Jimmy Stewart) and was commissioned to write a symphony as part of his service.

Though musical essays are unusual, the connection between music and rhetoric goes back at least to 18th-century sonatas, which may have been influenced by classical oratory. Barber brings the American essay genre into a one-movement orchestral form: a piece that otherwise might have been an overture becomes something else—it’s abstract (not programmatic) yet rooted in an extra-musical idea.

The opening is pensive, like inward thoughts before spilling them onto a page. One paragraph generates the next—the flute and clarinet bloom into a broody, lyrical theme in the strings. Thumping timpani becomes a recurring element, the ominous drumbeat of war.

The middle section is a fugue (beginning between clarinet and bassoon)—a brilliant stretch of logical argument. Then Barber turns visceral again, landing with the gravitas of a chorale. Like many good essays, this one balances reason with emotion, all while paying attention to the beauty and clarity of the language itself.

First performance: April 16, 1942, by the New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter conducting

First SLSO performance: March 9, 1969, Leonard Slatkin conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 28, 2009, Ward Stare conducting

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 10 minutes

Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin

Piano Concerto No. 2

Frédéric Chopin

Born 1810, Żelazowa Wola, Poland

Died 1849, Paris, France

In 1829 Frédéric Chopin was still Fryderyk—a 19-year-old Polish pianist of some acclaim. On November 1 of the following year, he would leave for a concert tour to Vienna and end up exiled after a rebellion against the Russian Empire failed, making a return home untenable. Both his piano concertos were written in his last years in Poland, becoming passports to success in Western Europe.

The Second Piano Concerto was in fact the first written, but second published. He premiered it at his first major public concert on March 17, 1830, at the National Theater in Warsaw, before an audience of 800 or 900 enthusiastic listeners. But Chopin’s own piano had to be carted in for the performance, and he was unhappy with its small domestic sound in the large hall. Five days later he repeated the concerto, this time borrowing a Viennese concert grand. He was met with an even more triumphant reception, but this was followed by a factional debate in the musical press. It almost didn’t matter—Chopin was uncomfortable with both criticism and praise. After establishing himself briefly on the touring circuit, he reduced his concert appearances to about one a year, preferring to play in intimate salons among friends. And for that reason, he pursued no more orchestral music after 1831.

A Closer Listen

The first movement of the concerto is reminiscent of late Mozart with all its stormy elegance. It’s as if Chopin skipped backwards over Beethoven and picked up a dropped thread. But he sews it with his own fabric, a nearly continuous bolt of decorative borders and ruffles. The orchestra acts as an extension of the piano, adding colors, layers, and halos.

The Larghetto moves to the relative key of A-flat major and finds Chopin in nocturne mode. The movement was inspired by Konstancja Gładkowska, a young soprano Chopin said he was in love with, but was too shy to tell. The music’s lyricism reflects her voice, while the yearning restlessness of the middle section might express Chopin’s feelings.

The finale conjures a Mazurka—the iconic Polish dance with a little rhythmic skip. He breezes through a medley of lively salon styles before a “signal horn” calls for a flashy coda. An early example of col legno strings (batted with the wood of the bow) hints at an orchestrational inventiveness Chopin never developed any farther, but Berlioz stole the effect and ran with it in Symphonie fantastique a year later.

First performance: March 17, 1830, Karol Kurpinski conducting, with the composer as soloist

First SLSO performance: January 19, 1912, Max Zach conducting, with Helena Lewyn as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: October 3, 2015, Vassily Sinaisky conducting with Ingrid Fliter as soloist Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, bass trombone, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 32 minutes


Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar

Enigma Variations

Edward Elgar

Born 1857, Broadheath, England

Died 1934, Worcester, England

It’s not the Enigma that has made Edward Elgar’s Variations endure for more than a century. It’s the warmth and sincerity with which he portrays real people who were important to him. Friendship, after all, is a fundamental human need, but it ranks far behind romantic love in terms of musical tributes.

Elgar stumbled on the theme on October 21, 1898, while improvising at the piano. His wife, Alice, was listening, and called out that it was a good melody. He began to vary it, imagining how his friends might write it “if they were asses enough to compose.” At first it was just a parlor trick, but then he began to wonder if it could be the framework for a real piece. Years later, he described the variations as “begun in a spirit of humor and continued in deep seriousness.”

The “Enigma” arises from the word being scrawled on the first page of Elgar’s manuscript, above the theme. It was jotted there by August Jaeger, Elgar’s best friend and the subject of the “Nimrod” variation. Early performances were simply labeled “Variations on an Original Theme,” but soon “Enigma” became part of the accepted title. Elgar stated:

The Enigma I will not explain—its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes,” but is not played. So the principal Theme never appears . . . the chief character is never on the stage.

Taken literally, this suggests there’s a secret musical theme that can be played over the music. “The theme is so well known that it is extraordinary that no one has spotted it,” Elgar later added. But the fact is, nobody in 125 years has ever found a very compelling, let alone definitive, solution. Another possibility is that there is no hidden tune, just an abstract “theme”: perhaps something as anticlimactic as “friendship,” “death,” or some kind of inside joke. (More elaborate theories based on mathematics, biblical codes, or Shakespearian texts should be approached with skepticism.)

Elgar was 41 when he began the variations. He already had a publishing deal with Novello and had written a number of successful choral works but was hardly a household name. The Enigma Variations made him suddenly famous after their premiere led by Hans Richter at St. James Hall in London on June 18, 1899. It is not an exaggeration to call it the most sensational piece of British orchestral music ever heard up to that time.

The Variations

The piece unfolds as a theme and 14 short variations. Most are labeled with initials, lending an even more enigmatic appearance—but the subjects were easily identified and confirmed by Elgar. The theme itself is cool and gray.

C.A.E. This is Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. They were happy together, and he relied on her: when she died in 1920, he mostly stopped composing.

H.D.S.-P. Hew David Steuart-Powell was a pianist Elgar often played chamber music with. His variation is perky and excited.

R.B.T. Richard Baxter Townshend was an Oxford classicist who also performed in amateur theater productions and rode a bicycle around town. Here he seems a little pompous, in a good-natured way—the picture of an eccentric professor.

W.M.B Here we have William Meath Baker, a country squire, in a brief, bombastic variation.

R.P.A. Richard Penrose Arnold was the son of the poet Matthew Arnold and also a pianist. “His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks,” Elgar recalled.

Ysobel This time Elgar offers a respelling instead of initials for Isabel Fitton, an amateur violist he played chamber music with. Naturally the viola section takes the starring role with an easy-going attitude.

Troyte was the middle name of Arthur Griffith, an architect and watercolorist. He was apparently profoundly unmusical, and this noisy variation imagines Elgar attempting to teach him to play the piano in vain.

W.N. is Winifred Norbury, an upper-class woman who lived in a grand Georgian-era house. The movement reflects her stately demeanor and environment.

Nimrod is a character from Genesis, “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” In a translation pun, Elgar uses it to refer to August Jaeger, whose last name means “hunter” in German. This is the most substantial movement and the centerpiece ofthe set. Jaeger worked in the office of Elgar’s publisher, Novello, and became a close confidante who supported the composer through stretches of depression.

Dorabella (Intermezzo) This is Dora Penny, whose stepmother was friends with Alice. Elgar grew close to the young woman, and probably found her attractive. The variation suggests a little bit of flirting. A few years later he would send her the “Dorabella Cipher,” a letter with three lines of curlicues containing another uncracked message.

G.R.S. George Robertson Sinclair was the organist at Hereford Cathedral, but Elgar’s music portrays his dog, Dan. “The first few bars were suggested by a great bulldog . . . falling down the steep bank into the RiverWye; his paddling up stream to find a landing place; and his rejoicing bark on landing.”

B.G.N. Basil Nevinson was a scientist and artist. This lyrical variation captures someone sensitive and a bit sad.

***Romanza is a portrait of Lady Mary Lygon, who was sailing to Australia as Elgar wrote the Variations. He quotes from Felix Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and you can hear the churning of the ocean liner and surrounding waves.

E.D.U. This is not a friend at all, but rather Elgar himself. The regal, march-like music recalls the English festival pieces he had written earlier in his career. At the end of the score, he wrote a quote from Tasso, the Italian Renaissance poet: “Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio.” “I long for much, hope for little, and ask for nothing.”

First performance: June 19, 1899, at Saint James’ Hall in London, Hans Richter conducting

First SLSO performance: March 15, 1912, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 15, 2018, Gemma New conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 29 minutes


Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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