Friday, January 21, 2011

Nimrod, Elgar and Wordplay

Nimrod Fortress
He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; that is why it is said, "Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD."

A sublime example of Elgar’s multipronged wordplay hinges on his use of the biblical name Nimrod for Variation IX. That elegiac movement portrays his German friend August Jaeger, a devoted champion of Elgar’s music at Novello & Company. In German Jaeger means hunter, and Nimrod is described in the book of Genesis as "a mighty hunter before the LORD."  At first glance the hunter reference seems sufficient to explain Elgar’s peculiar choice of nickname. However, there is far more to this puzzle to excavate. Are there other plausible explanations for why Elgar would invoke the name Nimrod for one of the Variations? Indeed there are, and they range from the poetic to theological.
The discovery that Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) is the unstated Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations exposes Elgar’s multifaceted wordplay by giving the ninth variation the title Nimrod. The covert theme’s common title is three words long, and the first two are  a mighty. Elgar's obvious scriptural reference conveniently gives in order the first two words of the absent theme's title. Nimrod is mentioned by name in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and by deed in Tasso’s Jerusalem DeliveredElgar makes various allusions to Dante's famous epic poem in the Enigma Variations with Variation IX serving as an excellent example because Nimrod is described by Dante as inhabiting the ninth circle of Hell.  Elgar penned a paraphrase from Tasso's epic poem at the end of the original score. In Jerusalem Delivered, Tasso describes Nimrod as a rebel who spearheaded the construction of the Tower of Babel. In the Old Testament Nimrod is portrayed as an architect of fortified cities – fortresses. His reputation as a builder is so well established that a medieval castle on the northern slope of the Golan Heights is known as Nimrod Fortress. A rather cursory analysis of the meanings attached to the name Nimrod make it relatively easy to cull together the title A Mighty Fortress. Since the movement is dedicated to Elgar's German friend, this calls for translating the English into German from A Mighty Fortress to Ein feste Burg. With one famous title Elgar cleverly hints at another.

Elgar’s Nimrod Wordplay Cipher
“…a mighty hunter before the Lord.
He built fortified cities, i.e., fortresses
The first two words are a mighty
Nimrod Fortress is a famous medieval castle
A Mighty
The combination of these two connotations yield A Mighty Fortress
Variation IX was dedicated to Elgar’s German friend, August Jaeger
A Mighty Fortress translated into German produces Ein feste Burg

As a token of his gratitude, Elgar gave a copy of Longfellow's Hyperion to the conductor Hans Richter following the successful premiere. In the pages of that novel Longfellow mentions Luther and his sublime hymn A Mighty FortressNo wonder Elgar thought the hidden theme would be quickly discovered, for he literally gave away the answer. Just the opposite was the case as the search lingered for 109 years before Ein feste Burg was unmasked as the mysterious missing melody on the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn's birth

The Tower of Babel
There is a theological explanation for why Elgar would employ the name Nimrod in the Enigma Variations. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Nimrod oversaw the construction of the Tower of Babel. At the Tower of Babel, mankind was united by a universal language. As described in the Genesis account, God caused the people to speak a gaggle of languages, prompting them to abandon construction on the tower and disperse to populate the whole earth. That is why it was called Babel. Theologians describe this event as the Confusion of TonguesIn a letter written in 1900 to The Musical Times, Elgar described the Enigma Variations:
…As to myself the following are F A X about me. Just completed a set of Symphonic Variations (theme original) for orchestra – thirteen in number (but I call the finale the fourteenth, because of the ill-luck attaching to the number). I have in the Variations sketched portraits of my friends – a new idea, I think – that is, in each variation I have looked at the theme through the personality (as it were) of another Johnny.
By refracting the Enigma Theme through the personalities of his friends, Elgar generates a musical kaleidoscope of tone colors and textures. Like the confusion of tongues, the Enigma Variations are a metaphorical "confusion of notes" that conceals a hidden source melody and propels each variation off into new styles and directions. Every movement conveys a distinct musical language reflecting some trait of a friend pictured within. In a stunning parallel within the Enigma Variations, Nimrod is followed by Dorabella, a movement in which Elgar pokes fun at a friend's speech impediment, Dora Penny's stutter. Is this not an exquisite musical metaphor for the confusion of tongues symbolically and suitably placed immediately after Nimrod?
The description of Nimrod's most famous architectural project as the Tower of Babel contains a distinctly English element, one at the heart of Elgar's British heritage and enigma wordplay. It concerns the first two words of the phrase, "The Tower of Babel." There is a famous castle in London known as the Tower. Built by William the Conqueror following his successful invasion of England in 1066, it is officially known by the six-word title Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress. For the sake of this analysis the key words are tower and fortress. The  hidden melody to the Enigma Variations is commonly known as A Mighty Fortress, but William F. Bunting translated it as A Strong Tower. Consequently both the words fortress and tower are linked to the missing theme's title. Elgar's ingenious wordplay built around Jaeger's nickname subtly and elegantly implicates Ein feste Burg. To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How wonderful!

About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker, and Rosenker’s pupil, Owen Dunsford. Mr. Padgett studied piano with Sally Magee (a student of Emanuel Bay), and Blanca Uribe, a student of Rosina Lhévinne. He attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Vassar he studied music theory and composition with Richard Wilson. Mr. Padgett has performed for Joseph Silverstein, Van Cliburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Steve Jobs, Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Marcia Davenport, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other prominent public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008 Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry "Fanfare for the Eagles." It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado in May 2008. A member of the Elgar Society, Mr. Padgett is married with five children.