Elegiac air honours more than lost lives
It is appropriate that Elgar's Nimrod echoes over casualties of war in Iraq, writes Kevin Jones.
As the war in Iraq ends, one of the nation's favourite elegies - Nimrod, from Elgar's Enigma Variations - has once more echoed across the tarmac of RAF Brize Norton and over other commemorative events around the UK. But few will realise its special relevance at this time - the eponymous Nimrod was the biblical founder of Babylon and other ancient Iraqi cities, described in Genesis x as a "mighty hunter".
In 1897, the year before Elgar wrote this work, Hormuzd Rassam, a distinguished archaeologist at the British Museum, published a book about his native Iraq: Asshur and the Land of Nimrod. Rassam, who was born in Mosul, helped excavate the contents of the museum's celebrated Assyrian and Babylonian collection. His book made it clear - Nimrod was a name to celebrate.
Elgar conceived the Enigma Variations in 1898, improvising different versions of an enigmatic melody as he imagined his various friends might have rendered it had they been composers. The resulting work made his reputation. The Nimrod variation, representing his friend A. J. Jaeger, is possibly Elgar's most enduring legacy. Its palindromic rhythms and descending cadential sequences engender dignified repose and serenity.
It is easy to dismiss Elgar as a stuffy Edwardian imperialist, caricatured as the composer of Pomp and Circumstance with its jingoistic Land of Hope and Glory lyrics. But Elgar was a more complex figure. His hirsute features barely disguised a fragile sensitivity that he shielded beneath a veneer of mischievous "japes" and, in later life, the conservative affectations of a country gentleman. Sceptical of the establishment circles he sought to join, he frequently sided with the underdog.
Although he never made it to Iraq, Elgar travelled to Turkey in 1905. A visit to a mosque brought inspiration, and he concluded that providence was "kinder to Muslims than to Christians". Back in London, he went straight to London's East End seeking Eastern food to ease his return to "dreary civilisation".
In 1912, Elgar recycled the Nimrod melody and quotations from other works in The Music Makers with verses by the Irish poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, who, like Rassam, was employed at the British Museum. This work is the source of the fashionable epithet "movers and shakers", now invariably used in a sense contrary to its original claim that poets, musicians and the "dreamers of dreams", and not soldiers, politicians and financiers, are the real "movers and shakers of the world". Nimrod's Babel is overthrown "with prophesying to the old of the new world's worth". The familiar story in Genesis tells how the people built a tower reaching to the heavens. For presuming to become like gods, they were punished with a confusion of languages. A parallel in Iraq's ancient Sumerian literature depicts a land of harmony where people spoke or sang in unison, but the deity changed their voices to bring contention and discord.
In his more overtly patriotic works, Elgar was more follower than leader.
But even in the ostensibly jingoistic Pomp and Circumstance marches, there are teasingly cryptic undercurrents. There is irony in Elgar's title, taken from Shakespeare's Othello, where it actually appears in the context "Farewell... to Pomp and Circumstance".
Arthur Benson added the Land of Hope and Glory lyrics later. After war erupted in 1914, Elgar sent Benson a copy of God's Vengeance, by the US poet John Hay, with whom he had corresponded. Hay, who initiated the Anglo-American "special relationship", was briefly US ambassador in London (1897-98) before becoming secretary of state in the US, where his influence survives:
" Saith the Lord, 'Vengeance is mine;
I will repay,' ...
How shall this vengeance be done?
How, when his purpose is clear?
Must he come down from his throne?
Hath he no instruments here?
Sleep not in imbecile trust
Waiting for God to begin,
While, growing strong in the dust,
Rests the bruised serpent of sin.
Shame! to stand paltering thus,
Tricked by the balancing odds;
Strike! God is waiting for us!
Strike! for the vengeance is God's. "
Benson replied: "I'm not so strong in the Vengeance line... I do feel with all my heart that the bullying must be stopped - but bullying mustn't be met by bullying - and if we only end in being more militaristic than Germany, Je m'y perds. "
Last September, Warren Zimmermann, a distinguished US diplomat and scholar, published The First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made their Country a World Power. Elgar's revered Hay is one of these five, from Theodore Roosevelt's inner circle, who shouldered "The White Man's Burden" to dominate the globe after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Zimmermann astutely uses the Elgar/O'Shaughnessy title The Music Makers for the first part of his book. These five movers and shakers were driven by the same vision: to "fashion an empire's glory" and prophesy "to the old of the new world's worth", but in this case with military "assistance".
At the time, Mark Twain and others opposed imperialistic expansion as contrary to the ideals on which the US was founded, threatening its own freedoms and principles. After arguing with Roosevelt, Kipling wrote his now-notorious poem to stiffen the imperialists' resolve. Its triple-stressed Bush-like phrases are eerily familiar:
" Take up the White Man's burden
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride ;"
Zimmermann observes that today "many in Congress remain wedded to triumphal rhetoric about the primacy of US power without doing much to make that power relevant or acceptable to others".
Military success in Iraq masks tragic loss of innocent life. A scale of suffering that would have aroused horror and indignation a month ago now barely merits passing comment. When words fail, music can speak more eloquently. The compassionate strains of Elgar's Nimrod are particularly appropriate to honour the memory of all victims of this conflict: servicemen, journalists and the innocent of Iraq and the land of Nimrod.
Kevin Jones is professor of music at Kingston University.