written and prepared in html by Eric Spierings
The first introduction will contain excerpts of the text written by Stephen Banfield, included to the CD by the Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Giuseppe Sinopoli, Deutsche Grammophon GmbH. It gives a good view at the character of Sir Elgar and maybe at his reasons to write the Enigma variations. The original text will be in italics. My comments and explanations will be in normal text.
Equally worthy of consideration, however, are Elgar's stylistic decisions. During the long years before he reached his maturity, he cannot have been unaware of the impressive hegemony exerted by German culture, in the philosophical and social sciences as well as music, to which they were becoming a weighty background. If, as was the case, almost every musician in the later 19th century agreed that it had all come together with Beethoven, then what was mattered was not whether Wagner or Brahms was considered the way forward but that the line of succession, the mainstream, was an Austro-German one. In the same way a hundred years later a young composer was under immense pressure to accept the international avant-garde, be it represented by Boulez or Stockhausen, as the only possible starting-point. Even Verdi could be seen (and still is) as a political necessity for stability amongst the musical great powers.
It is extraordinary, therefore, that the Enigma Variations, judged by Michael Kennedy "Elgar's orchestral masterpiece and ... in my opinion, the greatest orchestral work yet written by an Englishman", should offer in its stylistic matrix no acknowledgement of this mainstream beyond Beethoven (whose incomparable slow movements, and Elgar's conversation with Jaeger about them, are of coarse one of the reference points in "Nimrod"). In the following decade Elgar was to lean heavily on both Wagner and Brahms, not to mention Richard Strauss in In the South, but in 1899 his horizons were fixed on altogether flatter terrain, not, as might have been expected, English but French or possibly Franco-Russian. The aesthetic world of the Enigma is that of Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Massenet, Bizet and Saint-Saens. Unwittingly, Elgar was following the precept of Nietzsche and creating music which "approaches lightly, lithely, politely ... It constructs, organizes, finishes ...". He eschewed four-part counterpoint and chromatic voice-leading (the return for some spiritual purposes to Gerontius), relying instead on textures developed from the initial presentation of the theme: continuo-like bass and tune, counter melody in an enriched middle part economizing the functions of alto and tenor, and parallel melodic thirds and sixths. Thumbnail sketches succeeded one another with the poise of ballet numbers, encouraged by the rithmic ease of the theme itself, with its insouciant pairs of quavers (eight-notes) and crotchets (quarter notes) (originally planned as alternating pizzicato and arco); "Dorabella" even replicated some of the shape and harmony of Ponchielli's "Dance of the hours". In all, he never lost sight of the dimensions of the suite of divertissement until persuaded against his will to lengthen the finale.
But then Elgar had always excellent at the tidy, imaginative miniature, and it is characteristic that years after he had put together three he had written for the Worcestershire Musical Union in 1888 to form the Serenade for Strings he still referred to it as his favourite work.