Edward Elgar’s Enigma

View from the top of the Malvern Hills
Edward Elgar’s English music rings out over these Malvern Hills. His playful and moving Enigma Variations still delight us. England’s classical music was re-born here.

The Malvern Hills

These small volcanic hills stand proud at the heart of England. From their tops are impressive views of the Welsh Border country, the Shropshire hills, the Cotswolds, also the Bristol Channel, and the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford.

View from the Malvern Hills looking East.

Malvern and Elgar are inseparable. Few can walk these hills without hearing Elgar’s music wafting in the wind. Lilting folk songs drift in the breeze coming from the Welsh borders. Dramatic music reminds of the early Britons under Caractacus taking their tragic last stand against the Romans on these very hills. Quiet tuneful English rural melodies rise up from the homely towns and villages around Malvern, Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Ledbury and Hereford. The spirit of English patriotism is never far away here. 

Phot of Sir Edward Elgar

Enigma -English Music is Re-born

Elgar grew up in the pleasant Cathedral city of Worcester, beside the Severn River and in the shadow of the Malvern Hills. His father ran a music shop in Worcester. As a small boy he dreamt of becoming famous and receiving one day a letter addressed to – ‘Edward Elgar, England’! But his future seemed to be in a much more mundane music world as teacher or church organist like his father.

Before Elgar, Britain was known as ‘the land without music’. Apart from the works of Hubert Parry, under whom Elgar studied music, there had been no major English composer since the days of Purcell. But things were about to change. The break came when another ‘E’ burst into Elgar’s life and then on to the world classical scene. Here he describes how it happened:

Coming home from a tiring day of music teaching he sat down at the piano and began to improvise:

“ I began to play, and suddenly my wife interrupted by saying: ‘Edward, that’s a good tune.’ I awoke from the dream. ‘Eh! Tune, what tune!’ And she said, ‘Play it again, I like that tune.’ I played and strummed, and played, then she exclaimed: ‘That’s the tune.’ ……‘What is that?’ I answered, ‘Nothing – but something might be made of it.’”

And something was indeed made of it! The Enigma Variations became the beginning of a musical re-birth in England. Now, at last, England had a composer of worldwide status and reputation, to be followed later by Vaughan Williams, Walton, Benjamin Britten and others.

View of Worcester Cathedral across the river Severn

Worcester Cathedral beside the river Severn

Following the success of the Enigma Variations Elgar’s next great work was the Dream of Gerontius. It, also, was received with loud acclaim by critics and public alike. My parents who often went to the Three Choirs Festival (held alternately at Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford Cathedrals) made the performance of the ‘Dream‘ the highlight of their visit.

The arched grandeur of the cathedrals echoes with the solemn, emotional depth of the Dream of Gerontius. The music marks the end of ‘the busy beat of time‘ in judgement, mingling with the uplifting refrain from the hymn Praise to the Holiest.  To be here for such a choral feast is a very moving experience.

Writing to a friend Elgar confided:

“I think you will find Gerontius far beyond anything I’ve yet done – I like it – I have written my own heart’s blood into the score.”

The Edward Elgar museum mural

But there was yet another side to Elgar, as this mural at the Elgar Museum in Malvern reflects. His sense of humour shows in the playful Enigma where he makes musical caricatures of some of his friends and in his pieces for children, which are full of fun. Some people who knew him said that:

‘He liked to give the impression of a country gentleman who, after a round of golf, or a cycle ride, would come home and just happen to write some of the greatest music ever to be produced in this country.’

But the triumphant optimism of the pre-war Edwardian age was about to vanish in the horrors of the First World War and, apart from the beautiful, melancholic cello concerto, Elgar’s creativity faded. We now only sing of this ‘ land of hope and glory‘ at the last night of the BBC Prom Concerts !

But the music stays on and we love it.

In 1933 Elgar said this of the opening tune of his Cello Concerto:

If ever, after I’m dead, you should hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed it’s only me.

Elgar is one of my favourite composers. I expect I have inherited my father’s love of this so very English music. He was at school at Malvern College which probably gave him a sense of affinity with Elgar’s Worcestershire countryside and a lifelong love of his music.

Watch David Norris beautifully illustrating the background to the Enigma Variations on the piano.



7 thoughts on “Edward Elgar’s Enigma

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful post, Richard! I too, love Elgar’s music and remember an early concert outing with my dearest friend Wendy when we were both fourteen-year-old schoolgirls, at which we listened to a performance of The Dream of Gerontius. I enjoyed David Norris’s exposition of the Enigma Variations and how it came to be written.
    In about 1952/3 my uncle tried to organise a trip to Germany to visit the grave of his pilot friend who went down with his plane while giving the rest of the crew time to bail out. He wasn’t able to get permission to do this but having made arrangements to go to Germany, where he had spent some years as a prisoner of war he decided to go through with it despite not being able to pay his respects to his friend. Both his sisters went with him. He was 28 years old, mum was 21 and in the police force and my aunt was 15. Before they set out they all had German lessons and Mum’s teacher was a Miss Hunter (the family changed their name), the daughter of Elgar’s friend.


    1. Glad to hear you’re another Elgar fan, Clare. For two 14 year-olds to sit through a performance of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ must have been a remarkable experience! Thank you for the interesting story and link with Elgar.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Richard I really enjoyed your post.
    I love the music of Elgar and your post has prompted me to listen more often to his work.
    Thank you
    Ina Cahill


    1. Thank you, Ina. Enjoy listening. The BBC Proms featured Elgar’s Cello Concerto on Monday. If you missed it you can hear the recording on BBC Sounds. It seems to be one of Elgar’s most often performed works – and justifiably so.


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