Last weekend, I dived back into Orchestra World for a performance of British orchestral music, the centerpiece of which was Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Even if you’ve never heard of Elgar, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve heard one of his pieces, especially if you’ve ever been to a high school graduation ceremony. That stately, quasi-repetitive piece the band always plows its way through while the graduates file in is his “Pomp and Circumstance” march. That is not necessarily my favorite of Elgar’s works, but his cello concerto and his Enigma Variations most certainly are.
The story of the Enigma Variations is a fun one. Tired after a long day of teaching violin lessons, Elgar sat down at the piano and started fooling around with a melody. His wife, Alice, liked the tune and asked what it was. “Nothing,” he replied. “But something might be made of it.” He began then trying to characterize various of their friends by playing the tune in different ways, and before long, the Enigma Variations were born, a set of fourteen variations on this tune that portray people important or memorable to Elgar: fellow musicians, his wife, and even a friend’s bulldog.
But the most famous, most beautiful, and most stirring of these variations is the ninth one. In fact, even if you’ve never heard of Elgar or the Enigma Variations, you’ve likely heard this one. Performed frequently at British state funerals and other occasions, and having appeared in films and TV shows such as Homeland, Elizabeth,and Dunkirk, it bears the seemingly unelegant nickname of “Nimrod.”
Now when I was a kid, “nimrod” was a slang term for someone who was nerdy, geeky, or socially awkward, but as a teenager I was surprised to learn that Nimrod was a real person. A Biblical one, in fact. The great-grandson of Noah, Nimrod is described in Genesis 10:9 as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The title of the movement is a play on the last name of Augustus Jaeger, Elgar’s close friend and the subject of this variation, which, in German, means “hunter.”
As Elgar’s editor, Jaeger sometimes delivered severe critiques of his work, but as his friend, Jaeger was a stalwart encourager. The variation centers around a night when Elgar was in his forties. He’d been composing for a while, with modest success, but he’d yet to truly establish himself as a composer. He’d hit a low point, depressed about his lack of progress, despairing over the future of his compositional career, and debating quitting composing altogether. I can picture Jaeger sitting quietly by Elgar’s side while his friend poured his heart out, nodding and sympathizing, and then crossing to the piano and playing the opening of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” piano sonata. Jaeger reminded Elgar that Beethoven had his share of problems and setbacks—his deafness being but one of those—and yet he kept on composing, gracing the world with stunning works such as the famous Ninth Symphony. “And that is what you must do,” Jaeger told his friend.
The variation itself, its soaring melody and deep emotion, the fact that it brings pretty much everyone who listens to it to tears, is a testament to the importance of this moment in Elgar’s life, and the finale, which quotes both the variation potraying Elgar’s wife and the Nimrod variation, cements Jaeger’s importance, both personally and professionally, to the composer.
The story of “Nimrod” is of the necessity of enduring creative setbacks and dry spells, but it also speaks clearly of how crucial it is for us creative types to have stalwarts in our corner. People who endure our mood swings and our threats to quit, calmly listen to our rants, and then tell us, “Okay. Now keep going. Don’t quit.”
Who is that person for you? Is it a friend? Your spouse? Your critique partner? Your agent? Your editor? Who has refused to let you quit when every other voice was shrieking for you to do exactly that? Perhaps you can’t write a gorgeous symphonic movement for that person, but there might be some way to express your appreciation. At the very least, listen to this gorgeous wor and take a moment to thank God for how He used that person in your life.
A little postscript: The Enigma Variations premiered in 1899 and proved to be Elgar’s big break. This piece established his career as a composer. In the ensuing years, Elgar would receive countless awards and honorary degrees. He would be knighted in 1904, named Master of the King’s Musick in 1924, and appointed a Baronet in 1931. His music is regularly performed all over the world, and he remains one of Britain’s best known composers.
All because of the encouragement of a friend.
So who is your Nimrod?
Who would consider you theirs?