Lesson #267: Elgar’s Friends

There are two things I like in classical music, Romanticism and the Russians. I love the Russians. I think if I had to make a list of my top 10 favourite pieces of classical music probably nine of them would be Romantic and/or Russian. The notable exception likely being Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite. He was neither a Romantic composer, nor a Russian — though he *was* a Soviet and there are very definite Russian influences in his work. Both the Romance (the fourth movement) and more, the Nocturne (the second movement) are very, very Russian.

I suspect the reason I like the Romantic period so much is that it commands emotion, which is something in which I fail as a musician. My greatest disappointment is that I am a skilled musician with no sense of feeling. Romanticism, at its very best, is refined rawness. It’s not tidy like Baroque and Classical; instead, it takes all these things that are happening simultaneously and refines them just until the point where it’s not chaos. And you can’t listen to the Romantics the way you listen to Mozart. Mozart made music that demands to be heard; the Romantics made music that demands to be felt. If you listen to something like, say, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, it creates this ever-growing surge, a musical crashing of waves  and it builds and builds and you just have to go along for the ride. Handel? He made pretty music, but he never took anyone for a ride.

Anyway…Elgar, who is best known for Pomp and Circumstance, which is apparently played at every graduation ever, was a Romantic Era composer and he wrote a piece of music called the Enigma Variations. That part, I knew. What I didn’t know was that the Enigma Variations are collectively dedicated to his friends and family and each movement is meant to represent one friend. I think that’s cool. Best known of these is the Nimrod variation, which you can listen to here.

As an aside unrelated to a lesson, but having everything to do with music — particularly during the Romantic Era — the idea of the leitmotif has come up twice today. Once in relation to Elgar and once in a discussion with a friend about Milan Kundera.  Personally, I love the leitmotif. Wagner was a master at it (Siegfried’s leitmotif is actually one of my favourite things in all of music — Siegfried’s Funeral March is a stunning piece of music), but so is John Williams.   For a really good explanation of the leitmotif, I just found this clip from PBS by accident while looking for a link to Siegfried’s Funeral March. It brings in both Siegfried and Star Wars.  And if you listen closely, you’ll hear a snippet that Bernstein stole for West Side Story.

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