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“Music is an abstract art.” Why? Music involves various elements such as melody, form, rhythm and tone colour. These elements cannot all be seen or touched like sculpture, painting or architecture, but can only be perceived by listening. This is why music is called an abstract art. 


Sometimes, in order to let the listener understand the music more fully, composers use simple compositional devices. Theme and Variations is a very good example of one of these devices, and it showcases the different musical abilities of the performer. As its name suggests, Theme and Variations makes use of an easily recognisable melody (the theme), which is then worked on by the composer who decorates it with extra notes, changed rhythms, altered harmonies and different orchestrations and tone colours. It also provides a particularly entertaining aural adventure to the audience. Many composers have written Theme and Variations for orchestra, but they often give it a different title. Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" is an example of a Theme and Variations for orchestra which has become a real classic of the repertory.


Born in 1857, Elgar was the internationally famous English composer since Henry Purcell, who died two hundred years ago. He was a towering figure in the revival of English music. His works achieved worldwide attention, inspired young musicians, and brought English music back into the international arena. As hinted by its title, Elgar’s "Enigma Variations" presents two mysteries for all of us:


Mystery 1:
In the programme notes for the premiere of his Variations on an original theme Enigma, Elgar mentioned that there is an important tune hidden in this work. Many scholars have tried to identify this tune. Is it based on a popular song of the day? Is it based on the National Anthem, God Save the Queen or the folk song Auld Lang Syne? A piece by Mozart, Chopin or Wagner, or, perhaps, it is not a tune at all, but a subtle musical idea? Elgar was sad that nobody had identified the tune, and told its secret to three of his friends, but unfortunately, none revealed to the public what this hidden tune (or "Enigma") was. The best guess is that there is no Enigma at all - it was just one of Elgar's famous jokes. 


Mystery 2:
Elgar also mentioned that the fourteen variations depict fourteen good friends. But he did not reveal their identities. After years of request did Elgar finally publish an explanation to fulfill people's curiosity.