Elgar’s Enigma Variations Sir John Eliot Gardiner – conductor • Alice Coote – mezzo-soprano



Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner last joined us at the podium over 20 years ago, and we are delighted to have him back with a handpicked programme of 19th- and 20th-century English music by three composers close to his heart: Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar. We’ll hear from him in an interview during the interval, where he talks to Professor Natasha Loges from the Royal College of Music.

“Commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness,” is how Edward Elgar described the process of composing the ‘Enigma’ Variations, a work that started as a series of portraits of family, friends and colleagues, but gradually has taken a life of its own in the last 100 years to become a firm favourite for audiences around the world, particularly the mighty ‘Nimrod’ variation.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote joins us for the dramatic cantata Phaedra, by Benjamin Britten, a mini-opera of sorts composed originally for Janet Baker, who has been a support and inspiration for Alice throughout her career. You can read about the concise advise Alice got from her in the Q&A below.

We hope you enjoy the concert, and do share your thoughts on social media tagging us @Philharmonia.

Header image: Alice Coote © Jiyang Chen

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Michael Tippett (1905 – 1998): Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953)

Michael Tippett was one of the most significant British composers of the post-war period. He was both a self-confessed sentimentalist and a bold idealist, who served time in prison in 1943 for his uncompromising pacifism.

Tippett’s approach to music was fresh in the extreme, combining an admiration for traditions from the Javanese to the Black American with a technique rooted in elaborate counterpoint – the braiding of separate musical lines in conversation. His own voice shone through with rhythmic verve, tunefulness and a gift for the grand gesture.

In 1953, the Edinburgh Festival marked 300 years since the birth of the Italian violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli and commissioned Tippett to write a piece in celebration.

London edition of Corelli's Concerti Grossi, 1732 (public domain)

The conductor Malcolm Sargent had been booked to conduct the piece, Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. When he saw the score, Sargent withdrew, pouring scorn on the work’s “intellectualism”. Tippett was left to conduct it himself.

The Fantasia is only as intellectual as you want it to be. On the one hand, it toys with tunes, forms and rhetorical devices that come straight from the toolkit of Baroque composers like Corelli and Bach.

On the other hand, the Fantasia is simply a celebration, on Tippett’s terms, of what he loved about 18th-century music. As the conductor Charles Hazlewood has said, “he is looking with great love at an extraordinary work of the past, but through 20th-century spectacles.”

Sir John Eliot Gardiner & Philharmonia © Philharmonia

The dual task Tippett set himself is apparent from the title he chose. The word ‘fantasia’ implies music spooling out freely and imaginatively, while the word ‘concertante’ implies the more ordered rubric of certain forms of Baroque music.

From the latter, Tippett borrowed the idea of an orchestra divided into three (including a group of three ‘concertante’ soloists) as well as actual musical material. His piece is based on two short extracts from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso No. 2 in F: a snippet of its slow Adagio and of its fast Vivace.

Tippett’s approach to music was fresh in the extreme, combining an admiration for traditions from the Javanese to the Black American with a technique rooted in elaborate counterpoint.

Tippett also uses a theme by Bach (who had himself taken it from Corelli) as the basis of a passionate, knotty fugue – an elaborate conversation in which instruments enter, with the same tune, at staggered intervals.

The two Corelli themes are heard at the start: the dark and passionate Adagio theme and the perky Vivace theme on a brilliant-sounding violin. In the variations that follow, both themes are refracted, dissected, skewed and mystified, underlining a broader confrontation between darkness and light that is typical of Tippett’s music.

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976): Phaedra (1975)

  1. Prologue: ‘In May, in brilliant Athens’
  2. Recitative: ‘My lost and dazzled eyes’
  3. Presto: ‘You monster!’
  4. Recitative: ‘O Gods of wrath’
  5. Adagio: ‘My time’s too short’

Benjamin Britten was nearing the end of his life in 1975, when the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker appeared at his festival in Aldeburgh singing Berlioz’s song cycle from 1841, Les nuits d’été. Britten’s response to the performance was to say to Baker, “I want to write you a piece like that.”

Britten had long considered making an opera based on Racine’s five-act verse play Phèdre. At the time of Baker’s Berlioz performance, a new translation of the play by Robert Lowell had recently been published. Naturally, Britten obtained a copy.

Janet Baker at the Grande Gala du Disque in 1967 (Ron Kroon, public domain)

Britten conceived a piece that reimagined a Baroque cantata using its structural model, not unlike Tippett’s treatment of the Baroque concerto grosso. Illness meant Britten had limited use of his hands, so he wrote the piece straight into full score with no sketches.

It called for a small orchestra with percussion, harpsichord and a mezzo-soprano voice. Racine’s cast list was reduced to one. His narrative was confined to Phaedra’s lust for her husband Theseus’s son Hippolytus, and her subsequent confession and suicide.

All this is delivered over an extended monologue in five parts. After a prologue and first ‘recitative’ – a hybrid of song and speech – Phaedra addresses Hippolytus in the fast aria (‘You monster!’), her nurse Oenone in the next recitative (‘Oh Gods of wrath’) before confessing to her husband Theseus in the slow aria (‘My time’s too short’).

Fresco of Phaedra, c.20–c.60 BC, British Museum (public domain)

Much of the music seizes upon the cascading violin tune that opens the piece and becomes a motto. Britten’s biographer Paul Kildea has observed how this same music becomes notably spiky as Phaedra confesses to her husband, and how the tension increases as the poison Phaedra ingests takes hold.

The piece is, says Kildea, “a compelling picture of desire, jealousy, betrayal, honour and just a touch of madness”.

Notes by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor

Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934): Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’, Op. 36 (1899)

  • Theme (Andante)
  1. L’istesso tempo: ‘C.A.E.
  2. Allegro: ‘H.D.S-P.
  3. Allegretto: ‘R.B.T.
  4. Allegro di molto: ‘W.M.B.
  5. Moderato: ‘R.P.A.
  6. Andantino: ‘Ysobel
  7. Presto: ‘Troyte
  8. Allegretto: ‘W.N.
  9. Adagio: ‘Nimrod
  10. IntermezzoAllegretto: ‘Dorabella
  11. Allegro di molto: ‘G.R.S.
  12. Andante: ‘B.G.N.
  13. RomanzaModerato: ‘* * *
  14. FinaleAllegro Presto: ‘E.D.U.

Elgar composed his Variations on an Original Theme between October 1898 and February 1899, recalling in his programme note of 1911 that he had begun writing “in a spirit of humour” but that work progressed “in deep seriousness”. The result would have been enough to ensure the work’s enduring popularity, but its fame has been elevated to even greater heights by the “enigma” contained within the music. As Elgar put it: “these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a ‘piece of music’ apart from any extraneous consideration.”

Elgar remained tight-lipped about the mystery: “The Enigma 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”. This second theme, if it truly exists, has never been conclusively found. Initially Elgar seems to have wanted people to guess the conundrum, but later distanced himself from it, simply referring to “my Variations”.

Nimrod by David Scott, c. 1832 (public domain)

The word ‘Enigma’ was added to the manuscript by Augustus J. Jaeger of Novello – the man portrayed in the noble ‘Nimrod’ variation. In German, Jäger means hunter, and Elgar sought to conjure up the Old Testament figure of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before the Lord”. Jaeger had helped Elgar out of a period of depression by pointing out that Beethoven had suffered but continued to compose, singing to his friend the tune from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata. Jaeger, along with Elgar’s wife, Alice, may have been the only people in whom Elgar confided his secret.

"... these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality..." Edward Elgar

Elgar’s variations were inspired by 14 people (and one dog): Elgar’s wife, Alice, with what he described as “romantic and delicate additions” to the main theme, then amateur pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell in an affectionate parody of his piano exercises. The excitable Oxford don Richard Baxter Townshend and his energetic brother-in-law, William Meath Baker, follow. There is a dignified tribute to poet Matthew Arnold’s son, Richard Penrose Arnold, and of the ‘Ysobel’ variation for Elgar’s viola student, Isabel Fitton, he explained: “It may be noticed that the opening bar, a phrase made use of throughout the variation, is an ‘exercise’ for crossing the strings – a difficulty for beginners; on this is built a pensive and, for a moment, romantic movement.”

Arthur Troyte Griffith’s amateurish attempts at piano-playing are sent up in the boisterous seventh variation, which may also allude to an occasion when Elgar and Griffith were caught in a thunderstorm and took shelter in the house of Worcester Philharmonic Society stalwart Winifred Norbury. Winifred’s laugh is conjured up in the next variation, followed by ‘Nimrod’. Dora Penny’s stutter is gently mimicked by the woodwinds, before Dan the dog bursts in, inspired by organist George Robertson Sinclair and his bulldog, Dan. A solo cello begins and ends the next variation, a reference to amateur cellist Basil George Nevinson.

Alice Elgar (public domain)

Musical patron Lady Mary Lygon was on a sea voyage when Elgar wrote this work, so in the penultimate variation he quoted Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage on the clarinet. This variation may also refer to Helen Weaver, who broke her engagement to Elgar in 1884 before sailing away to live in New Zealand. In Elgar’s own, triumphant variation he intertwines music from those for Alice and Jaeger to pay tribute to the “two great influences on the life and art of the composer”.

Notes by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld

Sir John Eliot Gardiner & Alice Coote © Philharmonia

Meet Alice Coote

"Janet Baker has always been an incredibly generous support to me for more than 30 years and so I thought I would ask her what 'Ben' said to her about Phaedra. Funnily enough it seems he trusted her just to use what he wrote in the score and her own imagination..."

Can you describe your interpretive work with this piece? How deep do you go into the text; do you study French tragedy, or go back to the Greek myth, or do you just stick to what’s on the page and shape the character from there?

I try to find he human behind the story, the reality behind the myths. I find out what I can about a character or a real historical figure and its context, but I try to live more presently in the mind and heart of the human I am giving voice to, or the ideas and feelings the composer or poet felt compelled to communicate. Phaedra is a figure upon whom many stories are pinned but Britten just shows her to be the passionate, fearful, lonely, courageous human being we are capable of being.

You come from an artistic family. When and how did you start to sing, and did you know straight away that this would be your career?

Music was always around and playing night and day before I even left the womb! I am sure the Mahler vinyl LPs that my father used to play to my mother in the 1950s, when they first met, went into my DNA somehow. I sang in many choirs in school while also playing the oboe in the Cheshire Youth Orchestra. Despite shyness I felt envious of pupils chosen to sing solo in school concerts and even though it terrified me I felt compelled to try. I felt a voice in my body that I needed to use. When I was 17 my parents took me to the BBC Proms where I heard the great Jessye Norman sing the last song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde... and I knew I had to try and do that.

Phaedra was written for Janet Baker, who was a support and inspiration to you. Did she have any words of advice on this work? What is your history with it?

It’s very unusual, strange and a huge privilege to be able to ask a performer for whom the work was written what the composer said to them. Janet Baker has always been an incredibly generous support to me for more than 30 years and so I thought I would ask her what “Ben” said to her about Phaedra. Funnily enough it seems he trusted her just to use what he wrote in the score and her own imagination...

What are some of the challenges presented by this piece for you as a performer?

Phaedra is hugely challenging as a musician and as a performer. Britten makes a vocal line that is often completely at odds harmonically and rhythmically with the orchestra. Phaedra’s own lines of music shift key and sense of gravity or balance almost every musical bar of the work. Technically, and emotionally, this is an intense, rewarding, profoundly affecting challenge.

You’ve described being a singer as “the most vulnerable thing that you can do”. What do you mean by that?

As infants most of us cry (and laugh) freely, conveying our needs, our unhappiness and our vulnerability. It’s our elemental method of connection. Singers just carry on doing that. There is little more expressive of our collective frailties and needs than the human voice. I try to stay true to my own real voice. I feel singing should never just be sound – beautiful or otherwise. There is something to be said to each other, and for us all.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner stands as an international leader in today’s musical life, respected as one of the world’s most innovative and dynamic musicians. His work as Artistic Director of his Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has marked him out as a central figure in the early music revival and a pioneer of historically informed performance. As a regular guest of the world’s leading symphony orchestras, such as the Philharmonia, London Symphony Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, Gardiner conducts repertoire from the 17th to the 20th century.

The extent of Gardiner's repertoire is illustrated in the extensive catalogue of award-winning recordings with his own ensembles and leading orchestras on major labels. Since 2005 the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras have recorded on their independent label, Soli Deo Gloria, established to release the live recordings made during Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, for which he received Gramophone’s 2011 Special Achievement Award and a Diapason d’or de l’année 2012. His many recording accolades include two GRAMMY awards and he has received more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist.

Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras perform regularly at the world’s major venues and festivals, including Salzburg, Berlin and Lucerne Festivals, Lincoln Center and the BBC Proms where Gardiner has performed over 60 times since his debut in 1968. In 2017 they celebrated the 450th anniversary of the birth of Monteverdi, for which they were awarded the RPS Music Award and Gardiner named Conductor of the Year at the Opernwelt Awards. Gardiner has conducted opera at the Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Opéra national de Paris and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. From 1983 to 1988 he was artistic director of Opéra de Lyon, where he founded its new orchestra.

Gardiner’s book, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, was published in October 2013 by Allen Lane, leading to the Prix des Muses award (Singer-Polignac). From 2014 to 2017 Gardiner was the first ever President of the BachArchiv Leipzig. Among numerous awards in recognition of his work, Sir John Eliot Gardiner holds honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Music, New England Conservatory of Music, the universities of Lyon, Cremona, St Andrews and King’s College, Cambridge where he himself studied and is now an Honorary Fellow; he is also an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London and the British Academy, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, who awarded him their prestigious Bach Prize in 2008.

He became the inaugural Christoph Wolff Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in 2014/15 and was awarded the Concertgebouw Prize in January 2016. Gardiner was made Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2011 and was given the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2005. In the UK, he was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1990 and awarded a knighthood for his services to music in the 1998 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Alice Coote © Jiyang Chen

Alice Coote

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is regarded as one of the great artists of our day. Equally famed on operatic stages as in concert and recital, she has been named the “superlative British mezzo” (San Francisco Chronicle). Her performances have been described as “breathtaking in [its] sheer conviction and subtlety of perception” (The Times) and her voice as “beautiful, to be sure, but, more importantly, it thrills you to the marrow” (The Daily Telegraph).

The recital platform is central to her musical life, and she performs throughout the UK, Europe and the US, at the Wigmore Hall (where she has been a resident artist), the BBC Proms, Concertgebouw, Vienna Konzerthaus, Lincoln Centre NY and Carnegie Hall, among many others. She has also performed Schubert’s Winterreise at “The Stars of the White Nights” Mariinsky Festival in St Petersburg.

She is acclaimed in particular for Strauss, Mahler, Berlioz, Mozart, Handel and Bach with orchestras such as the Philharmonia, London Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, OAE, The English Concert, Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Hallé and Concertgebouw.

In her operatic engagements Coote spends a large part of her time interpreting male and female roles such as Dejanira in Hercules, Carmen, Dorabella in Così fan Tutte, Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia, Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, both Poppea and Nerone in L’incoronazione di Poppea, Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel, Le Prince Charmant in Cendrillon and the title role in Ariodante.

She has performed these and other roles at Opera North, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House. In Europe she has appeared at opera houses in Paris, Amsterdam, Geneva, Munich, Frankfurt and Salzburg. USA and Canadian appearances include the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and the Metropolitan Opera New York. Her many recordings and DVD appearances feature many of these operatic roles alongside art song recitals.

Highlights of the 2019/20 season include: the title role in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice at English National Opera; Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliet with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; Mary Magdalene/Narrator in Elgar’s The Apostles with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Coote was the Hallé Associate Artist for the 2019/20 season.

Coote’s 2020/21 season will include: Berlioz, La Mort de Cléopâtre with Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid; Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle; Baba The Turk in The Rake’s Progress with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the title role in Agrippina at the Staatsoper Hamburg.

In 2018 she was awarded an OBE for services to music.

The Orchestra

First Violins

  • Benjamin Marquise Gilmore
  • Rebecca Chan
  • Eugene Lee
  • Eleanor Wilkinson
  • Victoria Irish
  • Soong Choo
  • Karin Tilch
  • Eunsley Park – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
  • Lulu Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
  • Adrián Varela

Second Violins

  • Annabelle Meare
  • Emily Davis – No. 2 Second Violin Chair is endowed by Nick and Camilla Bishop
  • Fiona Cornall – No. 3 Second Violin Chair is endowed anonymously
  • Paula Clifton-Everest
  • Sophie Cameron
  • Gideon Robinson
  • Jan Regulski
  • Julian Milone – Chair endowed by Julia Zilberman


  • Yukiko Ogura – The Principal Viola Chair is endowed by The Tertis Foundation
  • William Bender – No. 3 Viola Chair is endowed by Gillian and Lionel Frumkin
  • Sylvain Séailles – No. 4 Viola Chair is endowed by Ruth and Henry Amar
  • Michael Turner – Chair endowed by Naomi and Christophe Kasolowsky
  • Cheremie Hamilton-Miller – The Philharmonia Orchestra Deputy President’s Chair is endowed by The Fernside Trust
  • Carol Hultmark


  • Timothy Walden – The Principal Cello Chair is endowed in memory of Amaryllis Fleming (1925–1999) by the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and Fleming Family and Partners Ltd
  • Ella Rundle – Yaroslava Trofymchuk Chair endowed by Manuela Ribadeneira
  • Deirdre Cooper – Alexander Rolton Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
  • Anne Baker

Double Basses

  • Tim Gibbs – The Principal Double Bass Chair is endowed by Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth in memory of Bertrand Lipworth
  • Michael Fuller – Chair endowed anonymously
  • Simon Oliver – Chair endowed by Saul Nathan
  • Owen Nicolaou
  • Samuel Rice


  • Charlotte Ashton – The Principal Flute Chair is endowed by Norbert and Sabine Reis
  • Daniel Shao


  • Timothy Rundle – The Principal Oboe Chair is endowed by Elizabeth Aitken
  • Lauren Weavers


  • Mark van de Wiel
  • Laurent Ben Slimane – The Principal Bass Clarinet Chair is endowed by Philip and Judy Green


  • Robin ONeill – The Principal Bassoon Chair is endowed by Penny and Nigel Turnbull
  • Shelly Organ


  • Luke Whitehead The Principal Contrabassoon Chair is endowed by David and Penny Stern


  • Nigel Black – The Principal Horn Chair is endowed by John and Carol Wates in memory of Dennis Brain
  • Kira Doherty – The President’s Chair is endowed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in honour of Sir Sydney Lipworth QC and Lady Lipworth CBE
  • Alexander Wide
  • Daniel Curzon
  • Carsten Williams


  • Jason Evans – The Principal Trumpet Chair is endowed by Daan and Maggie Knottenbelt
  • Robin Totterdell
  • Catherine Knight


  • Byron Fulcher – The Principal Trombone Chair is endowed by the National Friends Council
  • Philip White

Bass Trombone

  • James Buckle


  • Antoine Siguré


  • The Percussion Section is endowed by Patrick and Sule Dewilde
  • Paul Stoneman
  • James Bower
  • Peter Fry


  • Richard Pearce


  • Catherine Edwards