Label: TSO LIVE
Toronto Symphony Orchestra - Peter Oundjian, Conductor
Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations
Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition
Contrary to the popular perception of Sir Edward Elgar as a reserved, often tormented soul, he was by private accounts something of a prankster, with a childlike love of trickery (musical and otherwise).
The Enigma Variations, which would become arguably the best-loved work of the English symphonic repertoire, grew out of a musical game: one October evening in 1898, while Elgar was improvising at the piano, he stumbled upon a tune that piqued his wife’s interest. She wondered how certain of their friends might play it, and coaxed Elgar into a string of impromptu variations that captured, in witty detail, the peculiarities of their closest friends. He completed the Enigma Variations soon after, and dedicated them to “my friends pictured within.” The première took place in London on June 19, 1899; within a few years, its success had propelled Elgar from a provincial talent to a composer of international renown.
Elgar’s “enigma” is twofold: first, the identity of each variation’s “subject”, which he only revealed by way of initials. They are an eclectic mix of friends and acquaintances, including Richard Baxter Townshend (Var. III), a hard-of-hearing actor who rode his bicycle around town, ringing the bell furiously to warn others of his approach; the organist George Robertson Sinclair (Var. XI) – or rather his dog, Dan, who once fell into the River Wye and then scrambled up the bank with a relieved “woof” (all of which Elgar expertly sets to music);
Isabel Fitton (Var. VI), an amateur violist whose variation features a tricky little exercise for crossing the strings; and “***” (Var. XIII), whose identity Elgar never revealed, although a brief quote from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage suggests either the noblewoman Lady Mary Lygon, who was on her way to Australia in the spring of 1899, or Helen Weaver, Elgar’s first love, who had emigrated to New Zealand a few years before. The other “enigma” is a theme that Elgar insisted, in a cryptic interview, is never actually heard, but “goes” through the whole work; “it is so well known,” he once remarked, “that I am surprised nobody has spotted it yet, ” prompting generations of music scholars to try (postulating everything from Rule Britannia to Pop Goes the Weasel). While this “other enigma” remains a mystery, there is nevertheless one “unheard theme” that is impossible to miss: Elgar’s deep sense of love and gratitude for those closest to his heart, particularly his beloved wife Alice, portrayed in the poignant first variation, and his loyal friend A.J. Jaeger, whom he depicts in the enduring Nimrod. “It is a good likeness of you,” Elgar wrote to Jaeger, “you solemn, wholesome, hearty old dear.”
Modest Mussorgsky/orch. Ravel, Pictures at an Exhibition 33:59
Had it not been for Mussorgsky’s brilliant piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), the man who inspired it may very well have been ordained to obscurity. Mussorgsky met the architect and artist Victor Hartmann in 1870, and they became close friends bound by a common artistic goal; Hartmann was at the helm of an architectural movement that aimed to reinterpret the Russian aesthetic in a modern way, and
Mussorgsky was one of “The Five,” a group of composers who sought to do the same in music. Hartmann died suddenly, at the age of 39, and Mussorgsky sought to assuage his grief by attending an exhibition of his work the next year. Wandering through the gallery, he was overcome with inspiration: “Hartmann,” he wrote, “is bubbling over, just like Boris [Godunov] did…..ideas, melodies, come to me of their own accord, and I cannot put them down on paper fast enough.” Pictures at an Exhibition was published five years after Mussorgsky’s death, but it was more than a quarter-century later that Ravel’s remarkable orchestration would secure the work a prominent place in the orchestral repertoire. The ten Pictures are linked by interludes (Promenade) depicting Mussorgsky strolling – sometimes purposefully, sometimes sadly – through the exhibition. He interpreted his friend’s images with a healthy dose of artistic license: Gnomus, a toy nutcracker, is cast as an impish creature scurrying about, in contrast to the melancholy, water-colour haze of The Old Castle. Tuileries is a deserted Parisian garden, which Mussorgsky fills with frolicking children, and he sets Hartmann’s Polish country landscape as Bydlo, a cart pulled by oxen, with slow-moving chords and an imposing euphonium melody. The Ballet of the Chicks, a witty musical depiction of a sketch for a ballet costume, is followed by Hartmann’s Two Polish Jews: the wealthy “Goldenberg” (pompous, extravagant strings) and the poor “Schmuÿle” (high, wheedling brass). In Limoges, women quarrel and gossip at the market, while Catacombs is a ghostly depiction of a lantern-led journey beneath the streets of Paris; Mussorgsky called its ominous, minor-key postlude Cum mortuis in lingua mortua – “with the dead in a dead language. ” The Hut on Fowl’ s Legs represents Baba-Yaga, the forest witch of Russian folklore; and The Great Gate of Kiev, Hartmann’s splendid design for a gate to commemorate the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II, brings the suite to a close.
Alas, that gate was never built, but Hartmann still considered it his crowning achievement – fittingly, it was in Mussorgsky’s that it came to life.
~ Heather Slater