Edward Elgar had little success as a composer until he wrote Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op. 36
When classical music is employed to tell a story, the themes most often explored are predictably dramatic: love, death, love and death (Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde), religion, great heroes (rarely heroines) and war. One subject that almost never comes up is friendship. As far as I know, only one prominent work is dedicated to the topic — Edward Elgar’s magnificent Enigma Variations.
In his 40s when he wrote Enigma, Elgar was seemingly doomed to a life of obscurity. His music had acquired no particular following, and he had abandoned an attempt to make his name in London, returning to Worcestershire, the backwater where he had lived as a young man. He made a modest living there teaching and conducting local bands. But in this provincial community, he had a rich circle of friends. Each of the Enigma Variations (which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Jan. 10-12, under Bramwell Tovey) is a character sketch immortalizing one of them.
Elgar is able to take a seemingly minor detail as a point of departure to give us a vivid sense of the friend under consideration. One of my favorites is the sixth variation, which Elgar titled “Ysobel,” after Isabel Fitton, who studied viola with him. She was clearly no virtuoso, and the opening of the variation has a solo viola executing what seems to have been a string crossing exercise that Elgar had assigned her. In the course of the variation, this rather unpromising figure transforms into a lovely, gentle melody; we can sense why Elgar thought so highly of this woman, despite her musical struggles.
A later variation, “G.R.S.,” turns to his good friend, the organist George Robertson Sinclair. More accurately, it is a portrait of his friend’s pet bulldog. The music is simultaneously diabolic and comical as it depicts the dog furiously struggling up a hill on its short legs; we can all but see the maniacal eyes bulging out of the beast’s head and hear its obsessive panting. In turn we get a good sense of the impetuousness and energy that Elgar treasured in Mr. Sinclair.
The heart of the work, titled “Nimrod,” is the ninth variation, and to my mind, among the most beautiful things ever composed. Nimrod is a biblical character, described in Genesis as “a mighty hunter.” The variation is a depiction of Elgar’s closest friend, Augustus J. Jaeger (“jaeger” is the German word for “hunter”). Jaeger worked with the publishing firm Novello and was Elgar’s earliest and most resolute champion in the British musical world. More than that, he was an unfailingly loyal friend and believed in Elgar’s music, even at times when the composer himself lost faith. It is entirely possible that Elgar would have abandoned hopes of ever succeeding as a composer if not for Jaeger’s support.
“Nimrod” starts with a hushed sustained note in the violins, and a beautiful melody unfolds in an unhurried, elongated arc, first in a whisper and then gaining strength. The story it has to tell is rich and layered; somehow, each note is more deeply felt than the last. There is a glorious peroration with the orchestra in full voice, and then it dies away. We sense in “Nimrod” a sense of “stiff upper lip” British reserve; it never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality. Yet the inherent restraint somehow makes the emotion conveyed all the more moving.
When the CSO appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time after Sir Georg Solti’s death, Maestro Barenboim had us play “Nimrod” in his memory.
Max Raimi has been a violist in the Chicago Symphony since 1984. He is an active chamber musician and a prolific composer. In March 2018, Riccardo Muti and the CSO performed the world-premiere performances of his Three Lisel Mueller Settings, a Chicago Symphony commission.