Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All Hail The Mighty Hunter

It was magnificent. Friday’s spectacular opening ceremony of the London Olympics, complete with its historical chronology and self-deprecating humour, surely made most Brits proud of their nation. The show starred, among thousands, Sir Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel; fellow Wirralian Daniel Craig as ‘007’ James Bond; Her Majesty the Queen as herself; and Rowan Atkinson as dopey Mr Bean ‘playing’ a keyboard with an umbrella. There has never been a curtain-raiser like it. Moreover, being devoid of pomposity and jingoism, it was palatable to the rest of the world. Director Danny Boyle deserves all the accolades which are currently dropping into his lap.

I admit, I was ‘on-side’ from the start. The first piece of music, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (Figure 45.1), is one of the most beautiful ever composed by an Englishman – or, indeed, anyone else. Variation IX (Adagio), taken from Op. 36, the so-called ‘Enigma Variations’, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is known simply as ‘Nimrod’. To most, it probably seemed an inspired choice; to me, an absolute no-brainer.

Figure 45.1: On the evening of Friday, 27th July, 2012, a worldwide audience of more than a billion watched the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympiad in London.

Copyright © 2012 BBC

Each variation of Elgar’s celebrated composition was dedicated to one of his friends. ‘Nimrod’ affectionately portrays his valued critic, Augustus Jaeger (1860-1909), who helped to restore the composer’s self-confidence. The eponymous ‘Enigma’ refers to an ingeniously hidden theme which Elgar never disclosed and has been the subject of intricate debate ever since his death almost eighty years ago (Figure 45.2).

Figure 45.2: Elgar is quoted as having said: ‘The Enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played.... So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on the stage.’

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As an Elgar enthusiast (Figure 45.3), I have always been keen to witness any level of appreciation of his musical genius. In 1999, his portrait was incorporated on the back of the £20 Bank of England note (Figure 45.4). Long overdue, I thought. Being honoured in this way, he joined the likes of Shakespeare, Newton, Faraday and Dickens.

Figure 45.3: Shaking hands with Sir Edward. This statue of Elgar, along with the ‘Enigma Fountain’, stands on Bellevue Terrace in Malvern, England, having been unveiled by the Duke of York in May 2000.

Copyright © 2010 Paul Spradbery

Figure 45.4:  I was appalled when, in 2010, Elgar’s image was removed from the £20 note in favour of that of Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-90). Without intending to diminish Smith’s status – and I accept that the appearance of bank notes must change periodically for security reasons – it must be pointed out that Scotland has its own bank notes, none of which has ever borne the picture of an Englishman.

Copyright © 2010 Telegraph Media Group Limited

‘Nimrod’ is played frequently at solemn occasions. At the present age of 46, I have – to my shame – yet to attend a funeral, but I am certain Elgar’s masterpiece will have moved to tears many who were saying farewell to a loved one. Although originally an orchestral composition, it is equally emotive when played on a pipe organ. American organist and composer Diane Bish recorded a superb rendition at the Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. It can be heard online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WljqH_YvLzI

It remains an ambition of mine, perhaps self-indulgent, and also morbid, to play ‘Nimrod’ at a funeral service. The music itself is not especially difficult to master (Figure 45.5), although a pipe organ might well be. I would be nowhere near as impressive as Diane Bish, but certainly more proficient than Mr Bean.

Figure 45.5: A piano arrangement for the opening nine bars of ‘Nimrod’

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Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

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