Enigma. Variations


What do we know of others?

We have the senses: we can hear him; see her; feel her; taste her; smell him. All these are experiences: my sight and hearing can be measured; I know if the shirt is rough or smooth; I can taste food; I can smell the land and the sea. We live in the world of the senses. Someone we know comes in through the door; we see him as taller than we thought; we shake his hand; it is rough and we realize that he earns his living as a joiner. 

We hear the sound of a person’s voice. It has level, pitch and tempo, all of which are part of the world of the senses, and can be measured. But he is a friend. Can you measure ‘friend’? You know him through the senses, by the unique way the sense-data go together. You recognize the configurations of his face, the shape of his body, the way he walks, the gestures he makes with his hands: these existences you have experienced many times before; they are recognized as belonging to this one unique being. He is not only known to you but he is special to you.

The pattern of properties of the body stays with you. In strangers, they come and go. But when invested in the body of the known being, they exist time and time again the same. Through and behind these properties, the friend emerges and exists. The sound of the voice, the movement of the hand, the flicker across the mouth mark the friend. In some the quality is this; in some the quality is that. But they remain. The friend is identified through the senses – sometimes it is a rhythm, sometimes a pitch, sometimes a shape in the air.

Personality is greater than the sum of the bodily parts: Edward Elgar had fourteen friends whom he portrays in music. The enigma that he presents us with is the puzzle of personality: how does a parcel of qualities, of attributes, combine in the same way to make an identifiable ‘friend’? We listen to the First Variation, that to his wife Alice, and we get an impression of her. There is a kind of alchemy here.

When a friend comes to your door, you respond to the sound of his/her voice more than to seeing his shape in the air, or the touch of his hand. Music can replicate the voice of a friend. And it can do more; it can cheer one up. Elgar, being human, was sometimes depressed. The worst state to be depressed in is silence, without the presence of another human being, with no sound of the human voice.

Pomp and Circumstance (No. 1, 1901 to No. 5, 1930) are extreme in their assertion of conviction and belief; they are a strong way out of depression and timidness. In a smaller, more authentic way, the voice of a friend can lift one out of depression. Each of these Variations, riddled with meaning, contains a musical echo of the personality of a friend, particularly his voice; this person has been special to Elgar, cheering him up, invigorating him, changing his mood and making him happier. This, essentially, is what I believe Elgar put in at the core of his great fourteen pieces. It is the human being and voice as therapy, as a route to happiness.

The first short piece is distinctive (Enigma:Andante). It begins with a voice, asking ‘Who are you?’ played by the first violins. The dialogue continues with an answer: ‘It is me’. This theme continues through the work. A friend is addressed; the friend answers.

The First Variation is a portrait of Alice, Elgar’s wife. It stands on its own, as if Alice was in the room. She speaks and moves. She is portrayed. You can sense her presence. She is celebrated, wrapped in melody. She establishes a high-level beauty which never leaves these Variations.

Liverpool, January 22nd 2014.

Vasili Petrenko is mesmeric: a slim young man with the appearance of President Putin, his body moves to the rhythm, arms twisting and hands coaxing, caressing, pointing. He is emphatically in control.

He takes the Enigma at a fast pace, as if galloping on Ken Russell’s horse over the Malvern Hills. He brings out the drama and plays down the sweetness. The audience sit forward in their seats, as if saying ‘what is this man doing with our music?’

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is the jewel in the City’s crown.