Conductor, Musicologist, Keyboard player

Christopher's edition of Elgar's Enigma reviewed in Early Music Review

February 5, 2009


Christopher’s Urtext edition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations has attracted attention from an unexpected source, Early Music Review, in which Clifford Bartlett both reviews the edition (‘Rather more modern than we usually review!’ he admits) and features it in his editorial on performance practice. The reason for this special notice is the edition’s unusually rich pool of evidence relating to the performance of the work, evidence (such as contemporaneous annotations and recordings) that is as pertinent — and, arguably, more useful — to performers as the composer’s markings in the score. You can read Christopher’s introduction, in which such issues are discussed, here, and Clifford Bartlett’s editorial and review below.


Editorial and review by Clifford Bartlett from Early Music Review 129 (February 2009):

Editorial, p. 1

Are you one of those people who always have a sharpened pencil at the ready at rehearsal (with a spare in pocket or handbag), and smother your music with squiggles? Or do you concentrate on what the conductor says and try to remember it (as well as your own unmentioned mistakes)? Whatever one’s inclination, one should follow the expectation of the conductor. With an ad hoc ensemble and a rushed rehearsal, there is no alternative but to keep the pencil busy. But for an ensemble of any sort working regularly with a director, there should be a stylistic understanding that only requires the unexpected to be marked. The less the music has to be looked at, the more the performers can communicate with each other and the audience.

Those who have studied performance material from the ‘early’ period (let’s say before 1800) will affirm that the sort of pencil markings that we make didn’t exist. Furthermore, performance instructions such as those given by more modern composers for dynamics, phrasing, etc. rarely exist either, and certainly not in such profusion as in some editions of early music or in more recent music. I’ve been looking recently at Bärenreiter’s fascinating new edition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (see below). In the first six bars of the violin 1 part there are 24 notes (each bar begins with a rest, followed in alternate bars by 2 quavers and 2 crotchets or 2 crotchets and 2 quavers). Every pair of crotchets is slurred, each quaver has a horizontal accent line. There are 5 dynamic marks and 2 ten[utos]. There is also an Andante at the beginning plus legato e sostenuto and p molto espress specifically for vln 1. Any well-used orchestral part will also have some bowings. Does all this tell players unfamiliar with Elgar much about how to play it? Probably not. And does repeating the information each time the phrase comes help? Wouldn’t we like to have metronome marks to give us Bach’s tempos! But beware, Nimrod initially varied between crotchet = 66 and 72, the 1902 reprint of the score slowed it to 52, but in 1920 Elgar started his recording at 48, in 1926 at 46 (so early recording were taken fast to fit on a side of a disc!) speeding up to 56. Do what I say, or do what I do? For Bach, we don’t have many examples of the latter. Ultimately what matters is the performers’ understanding of the music, which is achieved by study, experience, insight and fashion.

Review, p. 6

Elgar Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra Op. 36 »Enigma« Edited by Christopher Hogwood Bärenreiter (BA 9042), 2007. xxxiv + 142pp, £68.00

Rather more modern than we usually review! However, I mentioned this in my editorial, and it is worth considering further. This is a completely new score (the editor reckons there are 3,000 amendments to the old one), and the expiration of the copyright under the 70-year rule enables the parts to be sold as well (they have only been available on hire for the last sixty years). Sensibly, the pagination and rehearsal numbers are the same, though the inclusion of the original ending on p. 117 displaces the remaining pages.[1] (This ending was used for Ashton’s ballet.) A useful addition is that the variation number is shown in Roman numbers at the top of every page: why do scores not normally have running titles?

Elgar was lucky to have a good editor at Novello, Jaeger (Nimrod), and was himself a more thorough proof-reader than many composers. But the thorough critical commentary shows that some details were missed, and one merit of the edition is that it sorts out so many minor inconsistencies between score and parts. The introduction points out some ways in which the understanding of some of the notational symbols have changed in the last century — the meaning of the accent signs, for instance. But with a work performed and recorded for over thirty years by the composer, there are developments that undermine the idea of a fixed text. The tempi, for instance, changed; perhaps now it was a classic, they could be exaggerated a bit, just as they tend to become more extreme in competing recordings of baroque classics. The footnote added to Variation VIII (WN) in 1949 suggesting that Elgar reached the metronome mark by dividing by two rather than by three is questioned in the introduction, though I don’t quite follow the argument.

The introduction focuses more than usual on evidence related to performing the work. Trying to reconstruct a tradition after a century of gradual changes is hazardous, but with a well-known and greatly-loved work like this, I suspect that there is still a lot of evidence around; the introduction itself quotes a publication of 1975. The scores of older conductors and old sets of parts should be checked (the BBC must have useful evidence, if any scholar can get at it), and there are surely individual enthusiasts who annotated their copies, though the value of such evidence must be carefully weighed.[2]

[1] There is no indication on p. 116 that to perform the usual ending, p. 117 is omitted. (We know from ‘He shall feed his flock’ that, however well you know a piece, skipping a page can cause problems.) Conductors are likely to smother p.117 with pencil crossings so are unlikely to give the original ending an occasional hearing; the Introduction suggests that Elgar had reservations about the extended version.

[2] For instance, I've pencilled into my miniature score a [p] at the beginning of the last chord of No. IV, though don't know why. A quarter-century ago, I bought from Brian Jordan a group of miniature scores that had belonged to Dorabella (Variation X). Sadly the Enigma Variations score was a late printing and quite unmarked; her copy of contemporary Verklärte Nacht contained a list of performances she had heard.


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