Edward Elgar is one of those composers who has written a piece that would be instantly recognizable to many people who, upon being asked, wouldn’t have the slightest idea of who wrote it. I’m referring to Pomp and Circumstance (official title Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1), heard every May and June at myriad graduation ceremonies here in the United States. (The piece was on an album of marches I enjoyed listening to as a child, and for some reason I read the title as Pomp and Circumference; it was some time before I discovered my error).
But today’s focus is on another work, the one that changed Elgar’s fortunes as a composer. On an autumn evening in 1898, he came home from a day of teaching and began noodling at the piano. One melody he played caught his wife’s ear and she asked what it was. “Nothing,” he replied, “but something might be made of it.” He then began improvising, varying the theme in a number of ways to personify, or represent in some fashion, his and his wife’s circle of friends; he also came up with variations representing himself, his wife Caroline, and a friend’s bulldog (named Dan). The full set of variations, fourteen in all, scored for orchestra, was published in 1899 as Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36. The work has come to be popularly known as the Enigma Variations because the ‘original theme’ of the title is never played. Over the years, there has been much speculation about this ‘hidden theme’: is it a musical phrase? Or perhaps a literary or philosophical reference? Elgar himself never said. Indeed, he wrote, “The ‘Enigma’ I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed…” Musical sleuths have devoted blogs to this mystery.
The ninth variation, ‘Nimrod’, is the emotional core of the piece, and certainly the best known section. It honors Elgar’s good friend, music publisher August Jaeger. (Jaeger is German for ‘hunter’, and Nimrod is described in Genesis as a ‘mighty hunter’). Elgar wrote, “The Variation . . . is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred.”
The performance here, from 1975, is by the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Georg Solti in his first appearance as chief conductor of that ensemble. The strings begin softly and are joined by flutes, clarinets, bassoons and English horns at 0:52; I love the contribution of the winds at this moment…it’s subtle, yet adds real ballast. The music crescendos to what are my favorite moments: three descending chord sequences, at 1:28-1:32, 1:33-1:36 (ah, these 4 seconds in particular), and 1:37-1:40…this truly is glorious music. If you don’t have goose bumps by then, you surely will at 2:15, when the brass and percussion sections join in. This is a gift, and seeing the great Solti in action is icing on the cake.
As is the case for so many works written originally for orchestra, the Enigma Variations has been arranged for solo piano. Here, the Nimrod variation is performed by British pianist, Ashley Wass. It’s obviously a very different sound, but no less beautiful and still profoundly moving.
Finally, for those of you whose curiosity is piqued, and who have just under half an hour to spare, here is a classic recording of the complete work:
Trivia tidbit: The Nimrod variation is included in the memorial ceremony held every year at the Cenotaph, in London, on the second Sunday in November. The day, known as Remembrance Sunday, commemorates “the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts.”