Longing for encouragement: Elgar

Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is a theme with a set of variations written about various people Elgar knew throughout his life. These people ranged from his wife, (variation 1) to his friend’s dog (variation 11) to a great friend and mentor (variation 9). It is variation number nine, entitled “Nimrod,” that expresses a great sense of longing. You may have heard this piece during the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games.

The names of these variations are meant to mask the person’s real identity, but in this case we know the real name is Augustus Jaeger, an older friend, critic, and a source of great encouragement for Elgar. It is said that when Elgar had many setbacks in his career, or felt depressed and thought about giving up composing, Jaeger was always there to encourage him to take heart and continue writing. Elgar reportedly stated that this movement is not so much of a portrait of Jaeger, but “a story of something that happened.”

I admire Elgar for writing a piece about people who have inspired and encouraged him. It sounds like a good exercise to sit down and write about those who have encouraged me over the years. This variation about the encouragement Edward Elgar received is in itself an encouragement to me. It helps me remember that I would not be the person I am today without the encouragement of my parents, my wife, my friends, clarinet teachers, and various other mentors in my life.

And that’s why I want to tell you about my friend, Jesus Christ.

Just kidding! You thought I was about to get preachy. But seriously, this work does remind me of Jesus. I was at a conference in college when I first heard Variation IX. It was the soundtrack to some powerful scenes from blockbuster movies. A word would appear on the screen, like “courage” and then it would show a scene from Saving Private Ryan, or it would say “true love” and would show the final scene from Sense and Sensibility. Finally, it said “sacrifice” and showed a scene from The Jesus Film with Jesus dying on the cross. I don’t remember the last slides, but the message was about the story of creation and how we have a God that loves us through it all. He has been a source of encouragement since I was very little and heard my first bits of Classical music. When I think about the way Jesus lived his life, the way he encourages me in dark places, and how he is so present in this moment the way this music is, I long for his goodness.

Instead of going into the musical reasons why this piece is so powerful, I have some homework: listen this piece in its entirety, with no distractions, and meditate on someone who has inspired you. Did anyone specific come to mind? Be encouraged and thankful for him or her, and let the longing you feel motivate you to continue doing all of the good things you do.

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Anger in action: Holst

If you’re like me, then anger is an emotion that you feel on a regular basis at varying degrees. I’ve found it to be a very motivating emotion. Usually action is the result of anger, whether positive or negative. When there’s anger, stuff happens. In fact, as far as emotions go, anger seems to involve more action, raw energy and intensity than any other.

anger |ˈaNGgər| – noun – a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility

fury |ˈfyo͝orē| – noun – wild or violent anger

As you can see, fury is anger plus negative action. It’s wild. It’s violent. I picked fury as one of the emotions because Classical music depicts this kind of anger the most, as is the case in Mars from The Planets by English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). This is an incredibly well-known piece that has been heard in commercials, football games, and countless other contexts because of its overt character and memorable, agressive quality. This movement has also been imitated in a number of movie soundtracks by composers like Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer. In a future series, I will explore various movie soundtracks and show how they are influenced by Classical composers.

The subtitle of this movement is “The Bringer of War.” The image above is from the opening battle scene in the movie Gladiator.

It is evident that this music is angry and reminds us of war, but why? First, Holst uses dissonance by using a chord progression that doesn’t function like normal, Western music. It features many power chords that shift from minor to major. This reminds me of the scene in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi when the emperor tells Luke, “your hate has made you powerful.” Second, the time signature is in 5/4 time, which means there are five beats in a measure of time instead of 4. Most music has either 3 beats in a measure or 4 beats, but rarely 5. Subconsciously, the asymmetry of the 5/4 time throws the listener off balance. Third, brass instruments are featured in a big way in this movement. In the history of war, most civilizations used wind instruments to march out on the field and sound the advance, retreat, and otherwise excite the troops and intimidate the enemy. Finally, it is the driving tempo, drums, and dynamic volumes that are played, such as the stark contrast between the subdued, suspenseful beginning and this overtly loud, ominous clip:

I can already feel my blood boiling. And we’re just getting started.