“Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op.36
My first encounter with the work…
I discovered this work when I was 14 or 15 and was studying at the Conservatoire de musique de Hull (now Gatineau), the region I hail from. We studied it in my musical literature course and I fell head over heals in love with it. Sometimes I had to wait for my dear dad to pick me up after music lessons. If I happened to have time on my hands, I’d go to the Conservatoire’s music library to get a head start on my homework while listening to music that made me feel good and helped me concentrate. I had a few favourite selections that I enjoyed listening to, especially the movement titled “Nimrod” in Elgar’s suite of Enigma Variations. Wonderful memories of that very happy time of my life come flooding back.
My favourite passage…
I’d say the ninth of the 14 variations that make up the work: “Nimrod,” probably the best known tune of the bunch. Though Elgar never officially confirmed It, the Enigma Variations appear to be based on a hidden melody. This movement is sometimes performed at funeral ceremonies but, personally, I find the work’s message to be one of great hope and peace.
In my opinion, “Nimrod’ is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. We had the opportunity to perform it several times in 2017 during our European tour under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It was moving to rediscover the work and realize I was now living my dream of performing it professionally with top-flight musicians under the baton of a conductor I adore. That is also one of the incredible things about music, how it brings back very specific memories tied to certain moments in our lives.
To be honest, I love the whole movement. I actually think it’s too short. It’s filled with gentleness, power and intensity – you feel every emotion when listening to this music. The structure is pretty simple but oh, so effective. The main theme is repeated three, almost four times, organized into a huge crescendo that starts soft and ends very loud. The first round, intimate and gentle, is played by the full string section alone. Then the winds join the strings for the return of the theme, playing sustained notes. The harmonies intensify and you feel a shiver of ecstasy coming on.
Listen to this recording by the OM:
The oboe and flute solo brings hope and a moment of calm before giving way to the inexorable crescendo with the whole orchestra. You’ll hear my favourite moment when the full orchestra plays the theme for the third time, stately but nuanced and so sincere. That’s when my heat literally wants to burst out of my chest – and only great music can spark intense feelings like that. A few seconds before the end, the brass in all their splendor make a noble contribution to a short fourth and incomplete return of the theme. The movement ends on a note of great tenderness in a major chord filled with hope. In the difficult times we’re living through these days, this music brings me great comfort.