Enigma Variations (1898-99)

"Variations on an Original Theme," more commonly known as "Enigma Variations," is a 14-part composition by the late-Romantic British composer Edward Elgar. Elgar wrote the song for an orchestra, and each variation was dedicated to one of his friends or family members. Although it was not written until 1898, it displays many of the aspects of Romantic music that set the period apart from the Classical Period that preceded it. It is also the product of England's most famous Romantic composer.

First Variation

The first part of Elgar's "Enigma Variations" can be found here. This variation was devoted to Elgar's wife, Alice.

Classical Music Comparison Piece

A piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - A famous classical composer. This piece will serve as a comparison to Elgar's Romantic composition.

Musical Components


One of the defining characteristics of Romantic music (and romanticism in general) is the constantly evolving emotion that the instruments evoke. One way composers accomplish this is by changing the tempo, or beat, of the song. The beginning of the first variation is very slow, which produces a dreamy tone. As the piece advances, it picks up tempo and reaches a climax near the end of the piece. This style is very different from the Classical style that dominated music up until the late 18th century. In Classical music, the tempo rarely changes throughout each composition.


A song's dynamics is its volume, and it is another aspect of music that can be manipulated in combination with tempo and melody to deliver a specific emotion. For most of Elgar's first variation, the instruments are played softly, which is called piano. This, when merged with the melody, achieves a beautiful tune that was meant to represent his wife. Towards the end of the piece, however, there is a massive crescendo (an increase in the power of the song) which achieves a more inspiring presence. Although the dynamics of Classical music also fluctuates, it seems to do so in a much more predictable and unoriginal style.


"Enigma Variations'" melody is soulful and strong, while Classical music usually had a stuck-up, prissy tone. The melody sounds very soulful because every melody has an underlying harmonies that strengthen the phrase and add many depths of emotion. In the areas that sound more soulful, the loud part near the end of the song, for example, there are far more harmonies and even more underlying melodies that offer as much strength as possible to that section. The Classical piece only has one melody and never fluctuated in the number of matching harmonies.


The structure of a song is like its blueprint; each piece's is unique and can follow any pattern. Prior to the rise of Romantic music, almost all songs were confined to strict structural configurations. However, the start of Romanticism brought a fresh look to music as shown in "Enigma Variations". The song follows no set order, but instead starts with flowing violins eventually building up into an intense creciendo of wind and brass instruments. While its structure may seem disorganized and unclear, it was this break from the ordinary that made pieces, such as this one, great successes.


"Enigma Variations" features a constantly changing medley of instruments, which are introduced and removed in erratic patterns to preserve a creative element in the piece. Romantic music broke through the conservative boundaries of earlier classical styles with its dramatic instrumental transitions. During the first few minutes of the piece an oboe emerges periodically with a short melodic solo. Later in the composistion a thundering brass section drives the song forward. This variety of sounds creates a work that is interesting to listen to from beginning to end.