On Air Now
The Full Works Concert with Catherine Bott 8pm - 10pm
7 December 2017, 16:19
It's all in the fluctuating dynamics, the unresolved tension and the cracking timpani rolls: here’s a reasoned explanation of why the English composer’s tune is super overwhelming.
The beginning is laden with anticipation
Elgar knows that starting quietly and getting louder is the easiest way to build expectation. The strings come in almost hesitantly, whispering away at pianississimo until the theme arrives and we gently crescendo into the second entrance of the main theme.
It’s the classic quiet-to-loud move, and it’s basically the oldest trick in the book – but it gets us every time without fail.
He creates and resolves tension
Elgar’s main theme is harmonised using variously dissonant chords, taking us away from that comfy tonic. Each time, however, any dissonance is literally always resolved in one of the chords that follow. That’s why we love the theme so much – it undulates, but it’s the sound of all things coming together as one. Lovely.
Then, there’s this timpani roll
As we reach (what seems like) the final theme, there’s a long roll on the timpani which takes us gloriously back to the tonic (see, we always end up there), and the main theme. Daniel Barenboim makes it all swoopy, like this:
Just as we think we’ve reached the end, we haven’t
YOU THOUGHT IT WAS THE LAST TIME BUT IT WASN’T. After making us spend the whole piece listening out for the next variation of the main theme, Elgar shoehorns in another timpani-filled, fortissimo version.
He takes it back down
But then Elgar’s all like ‘I'm not done - one more trick’. So, after reaching the highest dynamic nine-tenths of the way through the piece, lifting us up to our emotional peak, he brings the orchestra right back down to a piano.
It’s the calm after the storm, and it feels simultaneously like a relief and emotionally exhausting.
Here’s what that sneaky piano does to Sir Colin Davis:
Well played, Mr Elgar.
Here’s ‘Nimrod’ again, in its full orchestral glory: