Enigma Variations

When I was in high school, I played the lead role in a play about the life of Lawrence of Arabia. The music we used to start and end the performance was the ninth and most famous of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – the Nimrod variation. I often become attached to the music I use for a play (to this day I cannot listen to the Sibelius we used for Arms and the Man without crying). In my mind the music blends and becomes irrevocably associated with the story of the play, with the life of my character, and with the joyous, fleeting camaraderie amongst the cast. The inner life of the music is exposed; it becomes heavy, rich with meaning and memory.

I heard Nimrod on the radio a couple of days ago, played on the organ, and I remembered how beautiful it was. Each of Elgar’s fourteen variations was inspired by a different person he knew; Nimrod was inspired by a close friend of the composer’s, whose last name – Jaeger (“hunter”) – lends the variation its title. When Elgar was beginning to despair of his ability to compose, and was wallowing in the idea of quitting composition altogether, Jaeger gently but forcefully encouraged his friend not to give up. You can hear it. You can hear in the music the stirring lift of encouragement, but it is not an idealistic encouragement; its melancholy speaks of there being no easy answers, only a choice, the better choice courageous but hardly certain. I can hear in the music the two friends contemplating the act of composition as something that will occupy Elgar for the remainder of his life. It constitutes the journey towards the end. Even more clearly, now that I know what to look for, I can hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, which Jaeger apparently hummed to Elgar during their pivotal discussion. You can listen to a beautiful version of Nimrod here, and a lovely rendition of the famous sonata movement here. The former is conducted and the latter played by Daniel Barenboim, which is why I chose that particular version of the Beethoven even though the video is preceded by an ad.

This is the kind of thing that fascinates me about literature and all art: the rich interconnectedness of it all. Beethoven’s delicate creation re-emerges in a different era, in a different human’s personal world, to capture a different plight. Inter-textual references in literature are (for the most part) more than just an author’s attempt to look erudite; they are a mark of our shared existence. I find it endlessly fascinating that if Homer had never written his great epic, there would have been no Aeneid; if Virgil had never written the Aeneid, Bernard Shaw’s delightful play Arms and the Man would not exist; and if I had not performed that play in my final year of high school, I would not be the person I am now. Art shapes our world, and it connects human experience. Without it, I imagine, we would be wandering solipsistic creatures, far lonelier than we are now.

About A Book and a Half

I'm a teacher based in Melbourne, Australia. I blog about reading, writing, teaching, learning, and exploring.
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