I was getting ready this morning when Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations came over my computer stream. Variation IX “Nimrod” is expressive, melodic, and the kind of music that touches your soul. Every time I hear it, I think I really ought to add it to my music collection. It’s one of those pieces that’s fitting for a wedding or a memorial service.
As I am wont to do, I wondered why he called it Nimrod. I figured he was some sort of historical figure, but couldn’t place him. Also back in the deep, dark recesses of my memory was an inkling that nimrod wasn’t a kind reference.
What I love about the internet, is all sorts of information and knowledge is available at our fingertips. I don’t have to find a dictionary I don’t have or wait for the library to open. In our rural area, our library doesn’t even have a reference desk anyway. If you need some sort of specialized information, the library is not your answer!
Nimrod was, indeed, an historical figure. He was the great-grandson of Noah! He was a great hunter and very rebellious toward God. There aren’t vary many biblical references of him and Talmudic (I know I have now lost you) and other references are based on heresy. Hmm. That certainly was not matching with my experience of Elgar’s Variation.
The Oxford English Dictionary does confirm that nimrod is not complimentary. Bugs Bunny cartoons and Elmer Fudd have further confirmed its meaning as an inept person. Strike 2 for validating my experience of this music.
So who did Elgar have in mind when he wrote this variation? Each variation is a private tribute to special people in his life. Each of the variations is an enigma because it’s not about identifying who that person is, but because it’s a hidden theme of that person.
Variation IX “Nimrod” is the adagio movement. It’s slow, melodic and a deeply personal theme of London music editor Augustus Jaeger. Jaeger was a close, personal friend of Elgar’s giving him both advice and criticism, which Elgar welcomed. Elgar wrote this variation as a story of what actually occurred. At one point in his composing career, he was extremely depressed and was entertaining thoughts of no longer composing. His good friend Jaegar encouraged him to continuing composing, reminding him that when Beethoven was at his lowest he wrote more and more beautiful music. Elgar accepted the encouragement of his friend. He also incorporated hints of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Pathétique in this Variation.
Just when you think you have all the information, often there is another unaccounted for piece that may change the perspective of everything. The historical figure Nimrod and the common definition nimrod did not match my experience of the music. But the backstory of this Nimrod connected with my experience. In fact, my experience was further enriched because I knew the backstory.
In the eternal scheme of things, another lesson of not judging lest we miss out on a blessing.
What do you think?
Daniel Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, opening the 1997 season at Carnegie Hall. Turn up your speakers!
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