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Elgar’s “Nimrod”: Sir Colin Davis and the LSO

Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, completed in 1899, are the musical embodiment of the idea that our lives are all shaped by a close circle of friends and acquaintances. Elgar offered the following description in 1911:

This work, commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a ‘piece of music’ apart from any extraneous consideration.

Fourteen variations emerge from a solemn, mysterious opening theme in G minor which comes to life in short, increasingly expansive fragments. The final chord rests on a quietly sunny major. The variations are filled with characters, some comic and charming, others darker in tone. Then comes Variation No. IX, “Nimrod,” and we’re immediately aware that something new and transcendent is taking place. It’s simultaneously majestic and sad. It was written in honor of August Jaeger, Elgar’s close friend and editor at London’s Novello & Co publishing house. In Elgar’s deepest moments of artistic doubt, it was Jaeger who urged him to continue. The title refers to an an Old Testament patriarch described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (In German, Jäger translates as “hunter.”)

Here is a live concert performance, played as a stand-alone encore, by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

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