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A Guide to ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations

All you need to know about Elgar's 'Nimrod' and why it was played at the funeral of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Elgar 'Nimrod' guide

Who composed ‘Nimrod’ and why?

‘Nimrod’ is the name given to the ninth and best-known variation in Edward Elgar‘s Enigma Variations, an orchestral work of 14 variations on an original theme composed between 1898 and 1899. Each variation is also a portrait of one of 14 members of Elgar’s family and circle of friends. A celebrated work in its own right, ‘Nimrod’ is a portrait of Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar’s editor and publisher.

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This serene variation portrays a story, rather than personifies Jaeger, representing the years of advice and encouragement given to Elgar by his friend. Supporting Elgar throughout depressive episodes and lack of confidence in his work, Jaeger once reminded him of Beethoven‘s music, which only increased in beauty, despite the composer’s similar anxieties. In tribute to this moment, ‘Nimrod’s opening moments evoke a subtle hint of the second moment theme from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathétique’, which Jaeger had sung to him for inspiration.

Why is it called ‘Nimrod’?

Because of their portraiture, each variation is titled with a name or initials that identify the person being captured by the music. Biblically, Nimrod is a great hunter of the Old Testament, therefore representing its muse through a play on words: Jäger in German means ‘hunter’.

When is ‘Nimrod’ performed?

‘Nimrod’ is a work that many will recognise from its repeated patriotic performances, such as at royal events, in the opening ceremony of the London’s Olympic Games in 2012 and at the Last Night of the Proms. Every year, it is performed at the Cenotaph in Whitehall for the annual National Service of Remembrance, in which we remember those in British service who lost their lives in the two world wars and subsequent conflicts.

The sombre nature of this variation means it is also a widely popular choice for funerals. It was performed by Martin Baker, sub-organist at Westminster Abbey, at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral in 1997 and is due to be played at the upcoming funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Its military associations mean this choice is especially appropriate for the Duke, due to his long history of naval service

An adaptation of the variation was also used by Hans Zimmer when composing the final moments of the 2017 film Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan).

Why is it played at funerals?

Similar to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, ‘Nimrod’ achieves tearjerker status through long phrases of swelling dynamics and undulating melody, building slowly to an emotional climax. The peaks of the work are signalled by timpani rolls, heightening the anticipation of its spine-tingling moments of impact. Moments of dissonance are resolved quickly, but remain just long enough to make its presence felt, therefore intensifying the sense of emotional relief in its dissipation. Solemn and evocative, ‘Nimrod’ has everyone reaching for their hankies.

Recommended recording: Elgar: Enigma Variations/Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder

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