Elgar the Enigma

This is an invitation to revisit two sublimely beautiful and meaningful pieces of Elgar’s music. One is mostly misunderstood, while the other is uniquely revelatory. 

First is “Nimrod” from his ‘Enigma Variations’. Let’s un-attach it, briefly, from the November Cenotaph observance, where It seems ‘custom-built’ to fit the remembrance of Great Britain’s part in two World Wars, at the cost of more than a million deaths of servicemen and women. It’s thereby become associated with war, grief and loss, with a gradual rise to a fortissimo climax which transcends that suffering, and honours the self-sacrifice of so many, before instantly quietening to a concluding pianissimo. This, however, is far removed from the music’s original meaning. 

Elgar’s variations portray various friends, mostly identified by their initials, one exception being “Nimrod”, the name of a Biblical ‘mighty hunter’. Hunter is ‘Jaeger’ in German, and August Jaeger was one of Elgar’s closest and deepest friends. Both men were able to be totally themselves with one another, sharing positive and negative thoughts and feelings without fear of misunderstanding or disapproval. “Nimrod”, then, expresses the unconditional love, acceptance and support that people can grow to experience from one another. So I invite you, for a moment, to lay aside its association with war and death, and re-listen to this piece of music as one of the greatest love songs ever written. If you have, or have had, such a relationship, re-experience and celebrate it here and now …..

The other piece is “Sospiri(Sighs), which Elgar regretted having written, not because it was second-rate (it isn’t) but because in it, he felt he had ‘given too much away’. Sir Edward paid much attention to his public image. The carefully posed photo above suggests a highborn gentleman, successful and self-assured, a model of traditional morality and patriotic support for the British monarch and empire, a knight of the realm. And he did write several ‘sacred’ Oratorios, as well as ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and other ‘Imperial’ marches. In reality, he experienced the ongoing insecurity and self-doubt of an ‘outsider’. His family origins were humble; he was a Catholic in a staunchly Anglican England; and had no academic musical qualifications. 

His projected images had much to do with compensation and ‘cover-up’. He married ‘above himself’ to an older woman with ‘connections’, who gave him self-less support, but on whom he ‘cheated’ with various others. There’s even evidence that he fathered a child with one of them (https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/elgars-enigma-love-child-named-pearl). Among her papers, his late wife left a heart-breaking poem lamenting his betrayals (note the change at line 6) ….

Elgar seems to have lived a variety of lives, which inevitably clashed with psychological, emotional, relational and musical repercussions. Here, however, is a piece of music with no ‘pomp and circumstance’, nor any effort to impress. It’s heart on sleeve, quietly telling to whoever has ears, how things were, within his troubled soul …..

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