Program Notes

Enigma Variations & Bryan’s Sanctum

January 20th, 2022

Courtney Bryan’s Sanctum, an artistic response to police brutality, is the heart of a program to celebrate strength and pride along with works by Barber and Elgar.


Carlos Miguel Prieto

LPO Musicians


Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934) – Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), Opus 36

Composed for 2 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, optional organ, and strings.

First performed by the LPO on February 2-4, 1995

Most recently performed April 20-21, 2017

There may not be another work in the canon of classical literature that has been shrouded in as much mystery and conjecture as to the composer’s meaning and intention. Even though the well-known and often-performed work has celebrated its 123rd birthday (Elgar composed the work in 1899), the precise nature of the enigma that the composer alludes to has remained a mystery. Is the mystery melodic? Structural? No one has really been able to provide a clear argument for “decoding Elgar’s musical cipher. 

Thankfully, one of the mysteries that has been answered surrounding this work are the personalities Elgar depicts with his cryptic movement titles. Ultimately a musical work of friendship and personality, the “Enigma” variations are a wonderful example of musical alliteration, as each movement depicts the personality and quirks of those close to the composer. 

After the opening statement of the haunting theme upon which the entire composition is based, we are introduced to the composer’s wife Caroline Alice Elgar (C.A.E.,) followed by a depiction of Elgar’s friend Hew David Steuart-Powell, (H.D.S.-P.), an amateur pianist and chamber musician whose familiar keyboard warm-up routine is depicted in the scampering figure played by the violins and woodwinds.  Variation Three (R.B.T.) shows us Richard Baxter Townshend, the author of the Tenderfoot book series. This is followed by William Meath Baker (W.M.B.), squire of Hasfield (and brother-in-law to Variation Three’s R.B.T.), who is said to have expressed himself in energetic bursts, reflected in Elgar’s writing. (This is the shortest of all fourteen variations.)

Variation Five (R.P.A.) depicts Richard Penrose Arnold, an amateur pianist. This variation leads without pause into the sixth variation (Ysobel), depicting Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar. The opening of this variation features a string crossing exercise that Ms. Fitton would have practiced that, while difficult for the beginning student, has become a well-known moment in the literature for violists. 

Troyte (Variation Seven) depicts the architect Arthur Troyte Griffith. The spirited movement is said to capture Griffith’s “enthusiastic incompetence” at the piano and is a good-natured poke at one of Elgar’s closest friends. The next variation (W.N.) is in honor of Worcester Philharmonic Society secretary Winifred Newbury. A single note is held by the violins that leads us from this variation into the most well-known music from this entire composition.

Variation Nine (Nimrod) is by Elgar’s own account not so much a portrait of the music publisher Augustus J. Jaeger but a recounting of Jaeger’s support and encouragement when Elgar was tempted to give up all composing. In this low moment, Jaeger visited Elgar’s home and persuaded him not to give up creating music. This variation has gone on to be used as a stand-alone musical work, often used in memorial and commemorative instances. 

Variation Ten (Dorabella) depicts Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter is depicted in the woodwinds throughout the entirety of this variation. Following this is a depiction of George Robertson Sinclair (G.R.S.), organist of Hereford Cathedral. This variation actually has very little to do with Mr. Sinclair and much more to do with his bulldog, Dan. The events depicted by this movement include the bulldog stumbling down a riverbank and his joyous barking upon paddling himself out of the water.

Variation Twelve is a portrait of Basil George Nevinson (B.G.N.), an amateur cellist. This movement begins and concludes solo cello playing the melody. This variation leads directly into the thirteenth variation, “***” – the only unnamed variation in the entire composition. It is thought that this variation refers to Lady Mary Lygon, a longtime supporter of a local music festival near Elgar’s home. It is believed that Lady Lygon requested to have her initials withheld from the variation due to superstition surrounding the number thirteen. 

The finale (Variation Fourteen) is dubbed E.D.U., which is Elgar’s self-portrait (he was nicknamed Eduard by his wife). The composer cites both the Nimrod theme as well as the opening C.A.E. theme, referring to the influence that both his wife Caroline Elgar and Augustus J. Jaeger had in his life and work.

Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981) – Second Essay for Orchestra, Opus 17

Composed for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings

First performed by the LPO on May 9-11, 2002

Most recently performed May 9-11, 2002

Samuel Barber entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924 at the age of 14 and soon thereafter began garnering worldwide attention for his compositions, including his cello sonata (1932), his first string quartet (1935), and his first essay for orchestra (1938.) By the time he finished his education, he was a composer that had attracted the attention of such world-renowned conductors such as Arturo Toscanini (for whom Barber had arranged the slow movement of his string quartet into what has since become his most well-known work, the Adagio for Strings.) 

This burgeoning reputation as a composer led the New York Philharmonic music director Bruno Walter to commission Barber to write a work in honor of the Philharmonic Society’s one hundredth anniversary season in 1942. Barber had already returned to the idea of a “symphonic essay” and showed Walter sketches he had begun for a second essay that used thematic material that he had initially written for his violin concerto (1939). Walter loved the idea, so Barber set to work finishing this 10-minute-long work that, while it has not become as well-known as his Adagio or his violin concerto, is no less an incredible example of Barber’s lyrical American romanticism that was in vogue for a brief period in the early 20th century.

The Essay begins with a sprawling theme introduced by the flute with the stark contrast of bass drum and low brass in accompaniment. Barber’s masterful use of orchestral colors is on full display throughout this work as he demonstrates an uncommon understanding of when, where, and how to add texture and color to achieve his characteristic orchestral color. 

Courtney Bryan (1982 – ) – Sanctum

Composed for flute (including piccolo), oboe, clarinet (including bass clarinet), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, two percussionists, strings, and recorded sound.

This is the premiere performance of Sanctum by the LPO.

Composer and LPO creative partner Courtney Bryan has the following to say regarding Sanctum:

Sanctum, for orchestra and recorded sound, explores the sound of improvisation in Holiness-preaching traditions. I drew inspiration from recorded sermons: The Praying Slave Lady by Pastor Shirley Caesar, The Eagle Stirs Her Nest by Reverend C. L. Franklin, and Reverend Charles Albert Tindley’s hymn, Stand By Me. Included are the voices of Marlene Pinnock and of activists in Ferguson, Missouri from 2014. Sanctum is my artistic response to recent events of police brutality. By employing techniques of layered repetition, rhythmic intensity, sounds of moaning and whooping, and voices of the past and present, Sanctum invokes solace found in the midst of persecution and tribulation.”Sanctum was commissioned and premiered by American Composers Orchestra with the generous support of The Jerome Foundation and The Peter Heller Fund. This evening’s chamber version was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta.

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