An enigma: How did Elgar manuscript turn up on ‘Antiques Roadshow’?

The latest riddle prompted by Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations: How did the manuscript of this iconic British orchestral work turn up on “Antiques Roadshow UK”?

In 2018, a manuscript containing the original drafts and revisions of the Enigma Variations, signed by the composer, was featured on the popular British television series. (The show was launched in the United Kingdom, then PBS created an American version.) During the segment, specialist Justin Croft estimated the manuscript’s value at £80,000-£100,000 (approximately $104,880/$131,100 U.S. dollars). The person who brought in the work, said on the air: “I thought maybe Elgar’s autograph might be worth something.”

However, music historians later pointed out that Elgar’s daughter, Carice, had bequeathed the manuscript to the Elgar Birthplace Museum. From there it went to the Elgar Foundation, where it was reported missing in 1994. The foundation asked for the manuscript to be returned to the Elgar archive, now based at the British Library. David Mellor, chairman of the Elgar Foundation, told the press: “I don’t know how this unique manuscript left the possession of the Elgar Foundation or got into this lady’s hands.”

Completed in 1899, Elgar’s work consists of 14 variations on an original theme. He dedicated the piece “to my friends pictured within,” with each variation a musical sketch of one of his friends. In a program note for the work, Elgar wrote: “It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. … Each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people.”

Musicologists have long speculated that Elgar set out a challenge for listeners to find a hidden melody within the work. Maybe the secret of the misplaced manuscript is in there as well. See for yourself when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs the Enigma Variations, under guest conductor Marin Alsop, in concerts Feb. 10 and 12.

This article was originally published on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.

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