The music of Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) has come to embody the very soul of Britishness is in the Edwardian era. Works such as his Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches, Enigma Variations, two symphonies, and concertos for both cello and violin have cemented his legacy as the primary exponent of serious British music for that time – that he was considered “old-fashioned” immediately after his death further seals his place as the musical voice of his age. His rise, though, was hardly inevitable. He was born in Broadheath, Worcestershire, England, and raised as a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Protestant society. His father was a professional violinist and keyboardist, so Elgar and his six siblings all had musical upbringings. Yet Elgar never received formal training in composition, and toiled in obscurity for many years. His break came with the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op. 36, for orchestra, which premiered in June 1899, when he was 42. Subsequently, he began to collect honors by the dozens, including several honorary degrees, knighthood in 1904, appointment as Master of the King’s Musick in 1924, and creation as Baronet of Broadheath in 1931. He was also a master cryptologist who loved puzzles and word play, which is important in understanding his music. This lives on today in the repertoire of bands and orchestras around the world. (More: Wikipedia, Elgar website, Encyclopedia Brittanica)
“Nimrod” is the ninth of the Enigma Variations. Each variation in the set is inspired by an important person from Elgar’s life. The subject of “Nimrod” is Augustus Jaeger, a music editor and close friend of Elgar who encouraged him to continue composing at a particularly low point in his early career. The name “Nimrod” comes from a heroic biblical hunter, and hunter is Jäger in German. This somewhat convoluted connection gives a small insight into Elgar’s cryptographic mind, which apparently concocted the Enigma Variations based on “a counterpoint on some well-known melody that is never heard.” (from Robert Buckley’s biography on the composer). Elgar never revealed which well-known melody he had in mind, so the riddle of this piece has occupied music scholars for over a century. See the following sources for a glimpse at some of the guesses that have arisen over the decades: Wikipedia, Elgar’s website, Classic FM, and an astonishing recent solution at the New Republic.
“Nimrod” has been transcribed for band multiple times. This is Alfred Reed’s version:
And here is a newer one by Jay Bocook:
This rendition of the orchestral version features Daniel Barenboim, one of my favorite minimalist conductors:
Finally, here is the entire Variations led by Elgar himself in 1926: