One of the most interesting aspects of music is how it makes the audience feel. Whenever I listen to Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” I can’t help but feel hopelessly sad and joyful at the same time.
When I hear Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” I always experience a sense of triumph and exultation.
Or when I hear the Vitali “Chaconne in G minor,” I’m apprehensive until about halfway through, when I start to feel empowered in a way.
Even more interesting than these experiences is when you know the intentional story behind the piece, what the composer was trying to convey through the notes on the page.
My best-loved example of this is the “Enigma Variations” by Edward Elgar. Each variation refers to a different person in Elgar’s life.
The melody and feelings of each movement clearly reflect the story being told, making the listening even more enjoyable and entertaining.
The theme doesn’t have any known story behind it, but is nonetheless beautiful, going from a haunting minor melody to a seemingly optimistic major passage and then back to the original melody.
The first variation is a continuation of the theme in many ways, and is dedicated to C.A.E. (Caroline Alice Elgar, Elgar’s wife). This movement is intricate and elegant and features a four-note fragment that is supposed to be the tune Elgar whistled every day as he came home.
The second variation is dedicated to H.D.S-P. (Hew David Steuart-Powell, a well-known pianist and chamber music player at the time) and is filled with fast, spiccato eighth-note runs that are passed off between various sections of the orchestra (which, trust me, are as hard as they sound).
Next comes the movement attributed to R.B.T. (Richard Baxter Townshend, an actor at the time), then the fourth variation for W.M.B. (William Meath Baker, a squire who was known to express himself very energetically—apparent in the very bold melody of this short movement).
Next up is R.P.A., or Richard Penrose Arnold, an amateur pianist.
Then comes the viola section’s shining moment with the sixth variation for Ysobel, one of Elgar’s viola students. The beginning of this section resembles a string-crossing etude for violas that Ysobel might have learned.
Perhaps my favorite movement to play is next, a variation dedicated to Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect and failed piano student. The hectic and tumultuous runs up and down in practically every string section refer to a time when Troyte and Elgar were caught in a thunderstorm.
Next is variation eight for W.N. (Winifred Norbury), a friend of Elgar’s, whose easygoing nature is present in the loping style of the music.
And then comes Nimrod’s variation, one of the most beautiful and emotional pieces of music ever written. It refers to one of Elgar’s dearest friends (Augustus J. Jaegar) who would sit with Elgar on the porch and discuss Beethoven. This movement is supposed to depict the soft sounds of many of Beethoven’s creations.
Then comes variation 10 for Dorabella (Dora Penny, a friend with a stutter represented in the woodwind section), variation 11 for G.R.S. (George Roberston Sinclair, and the absurdity of his pet bulldog’s falling down a hill into a stream is drawn upon in this movement) and variation 12 for B.G.N. (Basil G. Nevinson, a famous cellist who is the reason that every principal cellist hopes to play the Enigma Variations).
The next variation is suspicious in the score, as it is dedicated to “***.” But the movement is, in fact, meant for Lady Mary Lygon, who was yet another great friend of Elgar and his wife. When Elgar was writing the piece, she was traveling to Australia, so Elgar was unable to get permission to use her initials. Hence, ***.
Interestingly, her music contains a clue to her travels with a section from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” concerto overture.
Finally, the last variation is given to E.D.U. (the nickname that Elgar’s wife gave to him) and contains fittingly strong influences from the Nimrod and C.A.E. variations, seeing as those two were very important and significant people in Elgar’s life.
I find such musical stories interesting because they add such a depth to an audience member’s understanding and enjoyment of a piece, as well as a musician’s interpretation of the notes on the page.
Not only are the Enigma Variations always worth listening to, but they are also an interesting example of how a composer and orchestra communicate to an audience.