Jeremy HerigstadCultural Confidential Contributor

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October 18, 2012
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A cipher wrapped in an enigma smothered in secret sauce

At the end of a long day, Edward Elgar lit a cigar, sat at his piano and began to idle over the keys. To amuse his wife, the composer began to improvise a tune and played it several times, turning each reprise into a caricature of the way one of their friends might have played it. Thus was one born one of music's great works of original conception and Elgar's greatest hit: "Enigma Variations."Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m., the Grand Junction Symphony presents "Across The Pond," an all-English composer concert featuring "Enigma Variations" and works by Mendelssohn and Walton. The evening also features 2011-2012 Young Artist Competition Winner Dan Fellows on viola performing Walton's "Viola Concerto."After its 1899 London premiere, "Enigma Variations" achieved popularity and was given international performances. The people portrayed in the variations include his wife, Alice, close friend and composer, Augustus J. Jaeger, and even Elgar himself. It has been arranged for various instruments. The enigma is not the identity of the persons portrayed, as those are known, but rather a hidden theme that is, in Elgar's words, "not played.""Variations" comprises of 14 small pieces ranging from a 33-second movement titled "W.M.B." about an English squire named William Meath Baker to a 3 1/2-minute movement titled "Nimrod" about his friend, Jaeger. Once, when Elgar had been very depressed and was about to give it all up and write no more music, Jaeger visited him and encouraged him to continue composing. He referred to Beethoven, who had a lot of worries, but wrote more and more beautiful music. "And that is what you must do," Jaeger said, and he sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 "Pathtique." Elgar disclosed to a friend that the opening bars of "Nimrod" were made to suggest that particular sonata.Music scholars have attempted to explain the musical themes within "Variations" to varied success. This hidden theme has been the subject of much speculation, and various musicians have proposed theories for what melody it could be, although Elgar did not say that it was a melody. The enigma could be something else, such as a symbol or a literary theme. Elgar accepted none of the solutions that were put forward in his lifetime, and, pleased with his little joke, took the secret with him to the grave. In 2007, a Dutch lexicographer claimed to have found a connection between the enigma and the Jaeger-Beethoven story above. In short, a constant theme consists throughout the entire piece of a nine-note rhythm of Edward Elgar's own name now usually referred to as the Elgar theme. So, like some works of Elgar's contemporaries Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, the "Enigma Variations," it seems, are about the artist himself.Although it can never be determined if "Enigma Variations" was composed with the sole intent of immortalizing his friends and loved ones or as a tribute to his own genius, it makes for a riveting background to a well-loved piece of English music.Prior to the Oct. 30 concert, the Grand Junction Symphony Guild is hosting a Wine & Tapas pre-concert event at 5:30 p.m. Enjoy appetizers and local wines all for $20 across the street from the Grand Junction High School auditorium at the First Congregational Church. And as a special treat Maestro Kirk Gustafson will present the first Classical Conversations lecture of the 35th season beginning at 6:30 p.m. in a room adjacent to the Wine & Tapas event.


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The Post Independent Updated Oct 18, 2012 03:45PM Published Oct 18, 2012 03:44PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.