Everyone (even if at first they don’t know they know it), knows the ninth variation in Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma”. It’s played every November, on Remembrance Sunday, at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in London. It has therefore become associated ‘in the public mind’, (assuming there is such a thing), with remembrance of those who gave their lives for our country, and is therefore associated with death and grief.
I wouldn’t suggest for a moment, that there’s anything ‘wrong’ about this. It’s a heartfelt melody that’s unquestionably entirely in keeping with the emotional impact of that remembrance occasion. The fact remains, however, that none of the above bears any relation to the original inspiration for, and meaning enshrined in, the piece itself. It seems to me that we do a disservice, not only to Elgar, but also to ourselves, if we lose sight of this.
One evening in October 1898, Elgar was improvising on his piano, when a melody ‘turned up’ that caught the attention of his wife. Elgar agreed that ‘something might be made of it’, and it was. He composed 14 variations on this theme, and later told us that, “each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality”, these ‘personalities’ being close friends of the composer.
Elgar had a liking for puzzles or “enigmas”, and so the 9th variation is called “Nimrod”, which is the first clue to the particular friend’s identity. If we should happen to glance at Genesis 10:9, we’d discover that Nimrod “was a mighty hunter”. If it’s the case that we have at least a smattering of German, we might recall that the German word for hunter is “Jaeger”. If we then just happen to have a list of Elgar’s friend to hand, eureka! – one of his friends was August Johannes Jaeger – in English, Mr. A.J. Hunter!
August Jaeger was very far, however, from being ‘just another friend’. He was one of the very closest. He worked for the music publishing firm of Novello, was himself musical, and was Elgar’s earliest champion when the composer was struggling to get his music played and known. He was someone with whom Elgar shared intimately his hopes and fears, doubts and disappointments, and who, unfailingly believing in him, gave him encouragement and support, including the editing of his music. Elgar is said to have trusted his judgement more than anyone else’s.
So what then is the 9th variation, Nimrod, actually and originally ‘about’? It expresses the love felt between two very close friends, who share not only their thoughts, but their deepest feelings with each other, with complete trust, mutual respect and unwavering support. “Nimrod”, in other words, wasn’t originally to do with death and grief, but with friendship and love, and it surely deserves, now and again, to be listened to in that light.
As a help to trying to hear it in a new way, here’s a YouTube video in which Nimrod isn’t played by a symphony orchestra in the concert hall, but in the more intimate context of a chamber ensemble. If you’re fortunate enough to have such a friend as Mr (or Ms) A.J. Hunter, then think of them, as you listen …..