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13 December 2007

Elgar’s Enigma – new solution to musical mystery

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A groundbreaking solution to one of classical music’s most enduring mysteries - the source of Sir Edward Elgar’s theme for the ‘Enigma’ Variations – has been proposed by an academic at the University of Leeds.

The work was first performed in 1899 and marked a watershed both in Elgar's career and in the renaissance of English music at the turn of the century. Ever since, music lovers across the world have puzzled and speculated about which piece of well-known music inspired one of his most famous works.

Now Dr Clive McClelland in the School of Music believes he has a new solution, based on the melody of the popular hymn ‘Now the day is over’. His article appears in the winter volume of the Musical Times - one of the world of music’s most respected journals.

Elgar’s Variations for Orchestra Op 36, commonly known as the ‘Enigma’ Variations, comprises 14 variations on an original theme and contains two ‘hidden’ puzzles, or enigmas. The first is the identity of the 14 ‘friends pictured within’ – or the characters on whom the 14 variations are based. Elgar himself identified these people later in his life. The second, and more contentious, is the identity of the piece of music that is supposed to be a counterpoint to the main theme.

Many solutions have been proposed since the work was first performed, but Dr McClelland believes his idea is the best to date because unlike most others, it accounts for all 24 notes of the theme.

He says: “It is extraordinary that so many of the well-known solutions, such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and the National Anthem, simply do not fit very well with Elgar’s theme. Nearly all of the previous ideas either don’t account for some of the notes, or have dissonances if they do. Elgar loved a good puzzle, and in setting one he definitely would not have left any anomalies. Of the 24 notes, I have identified 12 precise matches, and the other 12 are all harmonious intervals (11 thirds and a fifth).

“There have been a lot of rather silly suggestions around in recent years, but I have come up with an idea that ticks all the boxes.”

Both the words and music for 'Now the day is over' were written by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest, novelist and hymn writer, who also wrote the words for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. The hymn was first published in 1867 and remains one of the best-known works of Baring-Gould, who died in 1924.

The idea that the ‘Enigma’ variations could be based on the hymn came to Dr McClelland in unlikely circumstances. He said: “I suddenly came up with the first few notes of a promising tune in bed at 4am. It was a genuine ‘Eureka!’ moment! By 5.30 I had it all worked out and was too excited to go back to bed.

“The ‘Enigma’ theme is a very strange tune – it has the feel of something that has been worked out rather than composed in a moment of inspiration. I had been thinking about it on and off for a few years, and having heard the ‘Enigma’ Variations on the BBC Proms earlier in the week, I had the music in my mind and thought: ‘I should have another go at solving that puzzle’. This year is the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth, so the timing couldn’t be better!”

The true identity of the music will probably never be known for certain as Elgar died without revealing the source of his inspiration. Dr McClelland says: “I think it is a genuinely plausible solution, and I am offering it in order to further the debate on the subject.”

Notes to editors

The School of Music at the University of Leeds is one of the UK’s foremost centres for learning and research in music. Research interests among the school’s academic and teaching staff incorporate several areas of historical, critical and analytical musicology, popular and world musics, ethnomusicology, composition, music psychology, performance and performing practice.

Sir Edward Elgar is one of Britain’s best-known composers. He was born in Broadheath, a village near Worcester, in 1857 and, after learning violin and piano, went on to compose some of our best-loved pieces, including the 'Enigma' Variations, 'Pomp and Circumstance', 'The Dream of Gerontius' and his Cello Concerto. He was knighted in 1904, appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1924 and died in Worcester in February 1934. 2007 is the 150th anniversary of his birth.

For further information:

Dr Clive McClelland is available for interview.

Dr Clive McClelland's blog

Contact: Guy Dixon, University of Leeds Media Relations
T: 0113 343 4031
E: g.dixon@leeds.ac.uk

Audio samples (MP3 files)

Download icon Hymn theme - Now the Day is Over

Download icon Enigma theme original

Download icon Comparison of themes in free rhythm

Download icon Comparison of themes in hymn rhythm

 

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Page owner: webcomms@leeds.ac.uk | Updated: 13/12/07