Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations are perhaps one of the best examples of classical music that can evoke strong emotions. Based on a common element, each individual variation inflects upon the theme in a variety of interesting ways, and throughout the overarching work each piece has its own specific role.
At times dark, and at times hopeful, the Enigma Variations are an attempt to capture various moments and individuals and Elgar’s life. Perhaps the greatest strength of the variations is their flexibility: many of the pieces are very short, but can make their identity clear in a minute or less. Others, like the famous Nimrod variation, build upon a single notion and develop it into a larger distinct piece. The sheer versatility is staggering.
Elgar’s variations reflect the entire range of human emotion. They are almost as much a biography of the spirit as they are of his subjects.
I had the pleasure once of attending a performance of the Enigma Variations in concert. The experience of doing nothing but simply listening to music is stunning. I have heard it said that Elgar’s Enigma Variations is for modern British identity what Arne’s Rule Britannia was for Imperial Britain. Not being British myself I cannot vouch for this, but it is worth noting that the Enigma Variations served as a central source for Hans Zimmer’s score of the movie Dunkirk. Indeed, it was Elgar’s work more so than Zimmer’s that carried the film’s soundtrack, and it was well received by modern audiences around the world for its emotional poignancy.
I am rarely captured by music so strongly as to be enraptured by it. The Works of Arvo Pärt are a good example of this, and Elgar manages to achieve the same appeal for me. However, there is something more authentic in Elgar’s work. Much of Pärt’s work is sacred music, and his minimalist style serves itself misses certain elements of the emotional life: they are majestic and transcendental, but much of Part’s work overlooks everyday, common, events.
Elgar leaves no such gap in his work. The Variations can be playful or down to earth as well as being majestic, and as a result a person’s mood can be fitted to one of the Variations at any point. Overall, I would say that the whole collection is playful, but is punctuated by triumphant and somber moments. Listening to the Variations in their entirety as a larger whole is cathartic in the same sense that a play or film written and performed by masters might be. I can think of no other musical work that progresses so elegantly through the entire range of human emotion.
As a layman, I am far from the best person to describe Elgar’s work, but it needs no in-depth description. From the soaring triumphant strains rising from the sorrowful depths of the Nimrod variation, to more playful and cheerful elements (Elgar made one of the variations after being inspired by a dog at play), even without knowledge of the scenes and pictures that they are supposed to represent the Variations provide the essence of their subjects. They are worth listening to individually, even if one does not listen to the whole work: there is something sublime in the collection, but also something beautiful in each individual part of the whole.
Much as an actor or writer may put themselves into the heads of their characters, Elgar seems to jump into each song with audacity. Each movement is honest, and that allows it to be perhaps unparalleled and its ability to form direct connections with the listener.
Explaining why the Enigma Variations are so wonderful is beyond my ability. However, an apt starting point would be to compare them to the works of Montaigne: listening to the Variations is like listening to a friend tell a story in the same way that one reading Montaigne’s essays finds that are they listening to a friend mull over thoughts.