Enigma Program Notes

Program Notes

Adams, John
(b Worcester, MA, 15 Feb 1947), American.
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)


John Adams studied clarinet, composition, and conducting at a very early age and is nowadays one of the most performed American living composers. The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) was composed in 1985 as an orchestral piece inspired from the opera Nixon in China that Adams was composing at the same time. This opera was first conceived by Peter Sellars in 1982 on the subject of Richard Nixon’s six-days visit to Mao Zedong’s China in 1972. Sellars later convinced John Adams and Alice Goodman to join the creative team as respectively the composer and the librettist. The opera was premiered in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera and won an Emmy and a Grammy award.

John Adams has been attached to the minimalist group of composers including Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, as using repetitive and hypnotic patterns and pulses, slow and seldom modulations, as well as high levels of energy. Nevertheless, Adams clearly broadened the rather dry minimalist writing by adding tonal emotional centers, a variety of tempi, a very rich expressive, passionate, and sometimes dramatic use of the orchestra. Adams is also grounded in the American tradition to embrace and celebrate the vernacular music (as Copland and Bernstein) by using fox-trots, jazz, and big band music.

The foxtrot was first danced by Harry Fox in 1914 in a dancing act with his company, as he started trotting steps to ragtime music. It became an American social dance of the 20th century and was standardized as using long, gliding and smooth steps to give the dance its casual and unhurried look. In The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra), Chiang Ch’ing (Mao’s wife) dances the foxtrot, crashing the official banquet, and evoking the couple’s simple and innocent youth.

The piece is in a tripartite from quick, slow, quick, with a floating and dreamy middle section surrounded by the two quicker paced sections using a strong motoric pulsation. The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) is an American classic and one of the most performed pieces by John Adams.

Ravel, Maurice
(b Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenees, 7 March 1875; d Paris, 28 Dec 1937), French.
Piano Concerto in G major

I. Allegramente
II. Adagio assai

The Piano Concerto in G is a piece of maturity completed by Ravel at age 55, right after his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. He wrote the G Concerto with the intention of performing the piano part during the tour he had planned to the USA in 1928. Time ran out as he had to finish two other pieces at the same time, and the concerto was not ready on time for his American tour. Two years later, once the concerto was finished, Ravel practiced relentlessly his piano technique to premiere it, which alas probably kept him away from composing other pieces. Once he accepted he would not be at the level of performing it, he asked Marguerite Long to première the concerto, and dedicated it to her. However, Ravel was at the baton on January 14, 1932 for the creation of the piece.

This piece highlights the lightness and virtuosity of the pianist, as well as the virtuosity of the winds as France had [and to some extent still possesses] a high level school for winds, in a tradition coming from the French Revolution and the kiosk/band/military music played at this time.

As Ravel explained, ‘the concerto is written in Mozart or Saint-Saëns’ spirit, … as I indeed believe that a concerto can be brilliant and cheerful without aiming at being deep with dramatic effects.’

The first movement in a sonata form exposes a popular-like and joyful theme at the piccolo followed by the trumpet, pushing the piano into the role of an accompanist. The piano enters as the soloist on the next slower, jazzier, and more lyrical theme leading to a dreamy section that will be played in the recapitulation by the harp glissandi and harmonics creating an ethereal translucent atmosphere.

The second movement is one of the jewels of the history of music, simple, pure, flowing, and yet lyrical and expressive. As much as it seems natural and perfect to our ears, Ravel greatly suffered composing it, ‘That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me’! The piano plays the first theme alone for about three minutes, a slowly paced and long theme accompanied by a delicate slow waltz at the left hand. The orchestra enters on the second theme, leading to the middle section of the ternary form. The return of the first theme is no more featuring the piano, but instead exposes the most beautiful English horn solo ever written.

The finale abruptly cuts this dreamy atmosphere with the jazz big band-like orchestra stating a chorus’s seven chords. This ‘jazz chorus’ is used by Ravel during the entire movement to start it, to begin new sections, as if they were improvisations, and to finally end the movement. The piano runs seemingly frantically-but actually with control- the fastest the pianist can perform (Presto). This movement is daunting for the soloist, as well as many sections of the orchestra who have to run sixteenth complicated note patterns.

Elgar, Edward
(b Broadheath, nr Worcester, 2 June 1857; d Worcester, 23 Feb 1934), English.

Variations on an Original Theme: “Enigma Variations”, op. 36

The Enigma Variations, Salut d’amour, and Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 are the most famous compositions by the English composer Edward Elgar. It is interesting to notice that Elgar started music at an early age (violin, bassoon, composition, and conducting), but he never studied composition with a teacher. He learned his skill through the reading of other composers’ scores, going to concerts, as well as playing and conducting diverse pieces. Elgar experienced many significant setbacks as a composer, and he only became famous while already in his forties.

The Variations on an Original Theme depict some of Elgar’s close friends, and as he stated, they were begun ‘in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness’. Furthermore, he explains that ‘The Enigma [affixed to the title] I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed…further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played’. No one-nor many musicologists-ever convincingly figured out what is the larger theme Elgar refers to.
Below is a listening guide to the piece.

Enigma: Andante
Exposition of the short theme, tripartite going from G minor to major, back to minor. The change of mode allows a great opportunity for contrasts and creativity in the following variations. The theme is attacca (musical term meaning linked to) to the first variation. Very expressive theme, mostly using the string family.

Var.I. "C.A.E." L'istesso tempo
Caroline Alice Elgar, the wife of the composer with whom he had a very strong and mature relationship. Elgar’s mother had educated her son in the distrust of ‘modern young women’, and she was eight years older than him. Delicate variation, almost as lace in music, with a very romantic explosion as its center, expressing Elgar’s feelings for his wife.

II. "H.D.S.- P." Allegro
Hew David Steuart-Powell who was Elgar’s chamber music partner. He played the piano and Elgar makes fun of his habit of quick runs as warm up on the keyboard. This variation is daunting for the violins.

III. "R.B.T." Allegretto
Richard Baxter Townshend was the brother-in-law of W.M.B. depicted in the next variation. He is represented performing in a play as an old man jumping from a very low and comical voice to a high register.

IV. "W.M.B." Allegro di molto
William Meath Baker was a powerful public figure with a strong character who expressed himself energetically, as pictured through a fast tempo, a loud and rhythmical writing.

V. "R.P.A." Moderato
Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of a poet, lyrical and expressive variation very contrasting from the previous one. This variation is attacca to the next one.

VI. "Ysobel" Andantino
Isabel Fitton was a viola student of Elgar’s and this variation highlights the viola section and principal viola of the orchestra in a very balanced yet charming and melodious variation.

VII. "Troyte" Presto
Arthur Troyte Griffith, architect and amateur pianist was a close friend of Edward’s. This variation might depict the rumbling of the thunderstorm they were caught into while walking in their neighborhood. Some other sources say it depicts Arthur’s enthusiastic incompetency on the piano, which seems less likely given the virtuosity of the variation.

VIII. "W.N." Allegretto
Winifred Norbury was working for the Worcester Philharmonic Society and Elgar depicts her laughter and the atmosphere of her house.

IX. "Nimrod" Moderato
The most famous variation, often performed separately for commemoration, funeral, and solemn occasions.
Augustus J. Jaeger was a music editor and greatly helped Elgar with advice and encouragement during his times of doubt and setbacks. Nimrod refers to the biblical figure of the Old Testament, a “mighty hunter before the Lord”, as Jaeger (Jäger) in German means hunter. Later, Elgar stated that Jaeger and himself were discussing the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata by Beethoven. The theme is clearly inspired from Beethoven’s, mostly in the interval of ascending fourth.

X. "Dorabella - Intermezzo" Allegretto,
Dora Penny was a close family friend whose stutter Elgar depicts with a dash of British humour through the woodwinds’ writing.

XI. "G.R.S." Allegro di molto
George Robertson Sinclair was an organist but here, his colorful bulldog is described as he fell into a steep river and strongly paddled back to the river bank.

XII. "B.G.N." Andante
Basil George Nevinson, a very accomplished amateur cellist who played with Elgar. The principal cellist starts and ends this extremely romantic variation.

XIII. " *** - Romanza" Moderato
Elgar stated that “the asterisks take the place of the name of a Lady, who was at the time of the composition on a sea voyage.” The music quotes Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and the Lady might have been Mary Ligon who had sailed to Australia, or Helen Weaver, the former fiancée of Elgar in 1883/84 who had earlier sailed to New Zealand.

XIV. "E.D.U." – Finale
This is the self-portrait of the composer nicknamed Edu by his wife. In this final variation we hear the two themes of the two persons who influenced him the most, his wife Alice, and Jaeger. The triumphant ending in G major will be echoed as the Enigma Variations became Elgar’s first and biggest success.

Notes by Mélisse Brunet