Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
Some classical composers whose melodramatic quirks would have made life with them difficult, such as Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz and Satie, have their opposites in such genial geniuses as Hayden, Mozart and, I would argue, Edward Elgar.
Elgar was among the more modern, and had a gift for friendship. The “Enigma Variations” are musical sketches of friends who enjoyed his company. The ninth Variation is called “Nimrod” in honor of Augustus Jaeger, whose name is German for hunter. In the Old Testament, Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod was the “great hunter.” Hearing him playing notes distractedly on the piano one day, Elgar’s wife Alice said, “That’s a pretty tune, Eddie – keep it.” That is how we got that surpassing orchestral work whose solemnity has made it a staple of memorial ceremonies, played in Whitehall at the Cenotaph each year on Remembrance Day. A choral setting for it applies to its meter the text of the Requiem Mass:
Lux aeterna luceat eis,
Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum,
quia pius es.
dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
(May light eternal shine upon them,
O Lord, with Thy saints forever,
for Thou art Kind.
give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.)
Elgar was a Catholic whose wife converted before they married in London’s Brompton Oratory, causing her to be ostracized by her family. In 1900, less than two years after the “Enigma Variations,” Elgar set to music Cardinal Newman’s long poem, The Dream of Gerontius. In 1907, the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler commissioned Elgar to write a concerto that he premiered in 1910. After a chance encounter with Kreisler in New York in 1947, then-Monsignor Fulton Sheen, who at the time was a professor at the Catholic University of America, received the violinist and his wife into the Catholic Church and later preached at Kreisler’s Requiem. In another Catholic connection, Elgar set his first “Pomp and Circumstance March”—“Coronation Ode,” composed for King Edward VII and familiar at graduations—to words of Arthur C. Benson, brother of the convert preacher and writer, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.
The Protestant dean of Gloucester Cathedral banned performance of “The Dream of Gerontius” because it is about Purgatory. But the doctrines of Particular Judgment, Purgatory and the Intercession of the Saints, are blessings of God’s grace, and in these wistful autumnal days when All Saints and All Souls set the theme, that melody of “Nimrod” and the lines of Gerontius give a confused world a dose of reality that is a sturdy relief from the depressing attempts of a secular culture to “celebrate life” artificially at funerals, when in fact it harbors a pagan fear of death. But as Newman wrote and Elgar played:
Now that the hour is come, my fear is fled;
And at this balance of my destiny,
Now close upon me, I can forward look
With a serenest joy.