Elgar's Enigma

Program Notes

Coventry: A Meditation for Strings  

Vilém Tauský 
(Born 20 July 1910 in Přerov, Moravia; Died 16 March 2004 in London, England)

Composed: 1941

Instrumentation: strings

Approximate Duration: 10 minutes

The Czech composer and conductor Vilém Tauský was born into a musical family. His mother sang at the Vienna Court Opera under the direction of Gustav Mahler. Leo Fall, composer of the operetta The Dollar Princess, was his uncle. The young Tauský devoted himself to the piano and often accompanied Dvořák’s violinist daughter Magda, who lived in the same village. Later, studying at the Janáček Conservatory in Brno, he came to know the aging composer himself. He was hired as a repetiteur at Brno opera while still in school and assisted with the premiere of Janáček’s final opera, From the House of the Dead. Across the years, he prepared the repertoire for many great singers and conductors, including Richard Strauss. His conducting debut came in 1929, at age 19, filling in at the last minute for an ailing conductor in Puccini’s Turandot. In 1939, Tauský, who was Jewish, was forced to flee Czechoslovakia—first to Paris and then, upon the fall of that city, to England in 1940.

As a product of the prewar central European Kapellmeister tradition, Tauský received musical training that was both wide and deep. It allowed him the versatility to become quickly steeped in all sides of the repertoire—both as a repetiteur and a conductor. Across his career, it is estimated that he conducted more than 125 operas, including the premieres of several British operas. He also introduced many Czech works—such as Smetana’s The Kiss—to England, and conducted all six of Martinů’s symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1955, to mark the composer’s 65th birthday. After becoming conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra in 1956, Tauský made a name for himself as a conductor of “light” music, with creative programs that ranged from Mozart to Gershwin, from Sullivan to Stravinsky.

In England, as a member of the Czech Army in Exile, Tauský was called into Coventry the day after the cathedral was destroyed in November 1940; there, he helped search the ruins for survivors. The beautifully haunting Coventry: A Meditation for Strings was a result of that experience. Originally scored for string quartet, it was premiered by the Menges Quartet at one of Myra Hess’s Lunchtime Concerts at London’s National Gallery. Tauský later arranged the piece for string orchestra and conducted it in concerts in the U.K. Elegaic and profoundly expressive, its shining lyricism is a soft-spoken rebuttal of violence—and a gesture of love to the country that would become the composer’s adopted home.

Recommended Recording: David Parry, English Chamber Orchestra (Gramola)


Clarinet Concerto in C minor, Op. 31

Gerald Finzi
(Born 14 July 1901 in London, England; Died 27 September 1956 in Oxford, England)

Composed: 1948-49

Premiere: 9 September 1949; Hereford, England

Instrumentation: strings

Approximate Duration: 30 minutes

To practitioners of the vocal art—both recitalists and choral singers—Gerald Finzi is a much-loved figure: He penned dozens of solo songs and created a significant body of work for choirs (anthems, partsongs, cantatas). To the general concert-going public, though, he is virtually unknown. He wrote no large-scale orchestral pieces, very little chamber music, and no operas. His largest opus, both in terms of length and performing forces, is the choral/orchestral Intimations of Immortality, an inspired setting of Wordsworth’s famous ode.

The son of a shipbroker, Finzi was educated privately, studying music with Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow, and R.O. Morris. In his early 30s, he taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music, but after marrying artist Joyce Black in 1933, the couple decided to move to the country. In 1937, they found a 16-acre site in the village of Ashmansworth, Hampshire, and built a house in which to both live and work. There, living frugally by the world’s standards, Finzi composed, assembled an impressive library of music (dating from about 1740-1780), and cultivated an orchard of rare apple trees, preserving certain varieties from extinction. (An interesting aside: In 1961, Finzi’s son Christopher, an orchestral conductor, married flutist Hilary du Pré, the sister of legendary cellist Jaqueline du Pré.)

Finzi had a particular empathy for the clarinet. In 1943, he had completed the Five Bagatelles, Op. 23, premired by Pauline Juler. Five years later, when he was commissioned to write a piece for the Three Choirs Festival of 1949, he wanted to compose a concerto for her. Juler’s impending marriage, however, was to shorten her concert career. Finzi turned instead to her teacher, Frederick Thurston, one of England’s foremost clarinetists. The composer led the first performance with Thurston and the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. (The work was dedicated to Juler, however.)

In the opening movement, passages of angular dissonance in the strings provide a vigorous contrast to the clarinet’s Baroque-influenced, pastoral melodies. The achingly beautiful Adagio is Finzi at his finest. Here, the string writing is especially colorful, and the composer’s debt to the melodic and harmonic influences of Elgar and Vaughan Williams is readily apparent. The folk-inspired Rondo theme is jaunty and carefree, but there are subtler episodes before a brief reference back to the opening movement leads to the concerto’s playful close.

Recommended Recording: Thea King; Philharmonia Orchestra, Alun Francis (Hyperion)


Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 “Enigma Variations”

Edward Elgar
(Born 2 June 1857 in Broadheath, England; Died 23 February 1934 in Worcester, England)

Composed: 1898-99

Premiere: 19 June 1899; London, England

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo); 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; percussion (bass drum, cymbals; snare drum; triangle); organ; strings

Approximate Duration: 29 minutes

In 1889, Edward Elgar and his new wife Alice moved to London from provincial Malvern. His goal was to establish himself as a composer, but his music went largely unperformed. No students came. He felt defeated and somewhat humiliated. In June 1891 they retreated to Malvern, where he began to make a reputation more steadily with choral/orchestral works such as The Black Knight, The Light of Life, King Olaf, and Caractacus. His steady growth as a composer across the 1890s paved the way to his fully formed original style, finding its voice in the Enigma Variations, one of the most remarkable English orchestral works to that date. In his Op. 36, Elgar found not only his maturity as a composer, but international fame as well: the Variations achieved immediate popularity upon their premiere.

Elgar’s melancholy theme in G minor is the “enigma” upon which the Variations are based. Years later, the composer confided that the melody “expressed when written my sense of the loneliness of the artist ... and to me, it still embodies that sense.” Each of the 14 variations is a portrait identified by initials or code words. For 30 years, the names of the “friends pictured within” remained an enigma, too, but in 1929 Elgar identified them in the notes he wrote for a set of player-piano rolls of the piece.

The names of Elgar’s friends are given below, but three variations deserve special attention. Variation I (“C.A.E.”) is a loving portrait of the composer’s wife. After Alice’s death, he wrote, “the variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who knew C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration.”

Variation IX (“Nimrod”) is the best-known segment of the work, often excerpted and played on solemn occasions. It is an emotional tribute to A.J. Jaeger, a music editor at Novello & Co. (The book of Genesis tells us Nimrod was “a mighty hunter before the Lord;” Jäger is the German word for hunter.) According to Elgar, this musical vignette is “the record of a long summer evening’s talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven.” And the Finale (“E.D.U.”) is a robust depiction of the man himself, one that incorporates references to Alice and Jaeger, “two great influences on the life and art of the composer” (Elgar, 1927).

Hans Richter—a great champion of the music of Brahms, Dvořák, and Wagner—was on the podium for the first performance of the Enigma Variations in London, 19 June 1899. The warm reception afforded the work gave Elgar the confidence he needed. The following decade alone saw the composition of, among others, his great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the Cockaigne and In the South overtures, and two noble symphonies.

Variation I (C.A.E.): Caroline Alice Elgar, Elgar’s wife

Variation II (H.D.S.-P.): Hew David Stewart-Powell, a well-known amateur pianist

Variation III (R.B.T): Richard Baxter Townshend, an Oxford professor

Variation IV (W.M.B.): William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire; the shortest variation

Variation V (R.P.A.): Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold and an amateur pianist

Variation VI (Ysobel): Isabel Fitton, a viola student of Elgar

Variation VII (Troyte): Arthus Troyte Griffith, a Malvern architect and one of Elgar’s best friends

Variation VIII (W.N.): Winifred Norbury, a secretary of the Worcester Philharmonic Society

Variation IX (Nimrod): Augustus J. Jaeger, an editor for the London music firm Novello & Co.

Variation X (Dorabella): Dora Penny, a younger friend of the Elgars; her stutter is gently parodied by the woodwinds

Variation XI (G.R.S.): George Robertson Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral; the variation depicts Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan

Variation XII (B.G.N): Basil G. Nevinson, an accomplished amateur cellist who played chamber music with Elgar

Variation XIII (***): [Lady Mary Lygon] of Madresfield Court, near Malvern; sponsor of a local music festival. There is also credible evidence—according to several musicologists—that this is a covert tribute to Helen Weaver, who broke off her engagement to Elgar in 1884.

Variation XIV (E.D.U.): Edward Elgar himself, nicknamed “Edu,” from the German “Eduard,” by his wife

Recommended Recording: Sir John Barbirolli, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.