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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Missing "Dark Saying"


The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played…So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some later dramas – e.g., Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’ – the chief character is never on the stage.[1]

Edward Elgar
the 1899 program note for the Enigma Variations

      The sole reference to a "dark saying" comes from the original program note by Charles Anslie Barry, a composer and music journalist who solicited Elgar’s comments in the months leading up to the 1899 premiere of the Enigma Variations. Elgar explained, “The Enigma I will not explain – it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed…” [1]  One definition for enigma is “a dark saying”, so a cursory explanation is both refer to the same thing. This begs the question why he repeats himself — unless there was something more to the puzzle. In this context “dark” means hidden or secret, and “saying” pertains to words that may be spoken, written, sung, or more likely, enciphered.
The likelihood of a musical cipher lurking in the Enigma theme is virtually assured because of Elgar’s lifelong passion for cryptography. His correspondence and musical sketches are peppered with anagrams, ciphers, and secret messages. One of his greatest cryptographic feats is the Dorabella cipher, a short coded letter written to Dora Penny in July 1897 that was only recently cracked by Tim S. Roberts. Dora Penny is the dedicatee for Variation XI, and her nickname comes from a character in Mozart’s opera Così van Tutte. Considering Elgar’s lifelong fascination with ciphers, it is reasonable to suspect he inserted a musical cryptogram within the Enigma theme. By arriving at the solution through cryptanalysis, the outcome would not be guessed, but rather decrypted. His cryptic use of the neologism “unguessed” makes far more sense in this framework.
There are a number of compelling reasons to suspect the presence of a musical cipher in the Enigma theme. First, there is the oddly placed double bar at the end of measure six. A double bar is commonly placed at the end of a movement or section, and this is clearly not the case here.  Second, there are 24 melody notes in the first six measures evenly distributed among quarter and eighth notes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the most musical ciphers used 12 quarter notes in an ascending scale and 12 eighth notes in a descending scale to represent the 24 letters of the alphabet with I/J and U/V sharing the same notes.  The total number of melody notes in the first six measures is compelling evidence for a musical cipher, although all attempts at uncovering a strict substitution cipher have failed. This suspicion is reinforced by the contents of Elgar’s personal library held at the Elgar Birth Place Museum that includes a series of articles from The Pall Mall Gazette published in 1896 entitled Secrets in Cipher. The third article in the series presents an example of a music cipher used during thereign of Charles II (1727-1760) consisting of 12 quarter notes and 12 eighth notes. [2]
Another indicator of a cipher is the reversible rhythm of two quarter and two eighth notes repeated three times over the first six bars. Clive McClelland contends this rhythmic palindrome “strongly suggests the cryptological technique of disguising word-lengths in ciphers by arranging letters in regular patterns.” [3] The phrase ‘dark saying’ is itself suggestive of a cipher. In the nineteenth century countries maintained departments dedicated to intercepting, copying, and decoding secret messages. These organizations were known as Black Chambers because they specialized in recognizing and decoding “dark sayings”, i.e., cryptograms. Finally, the opening measures appear directly under the six letter title Enigma. The evidence overwhelmingly shows the enigmatic title serves as a beacon marking the precise location of Elgar’s mysterious dark saying   a music cipher. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.


[1] Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing a letter by Elgar
[2] John Holt Schooling, “Secrets in Cipher”, The Pall Mall Gazette (1896), p. 459.
[3] McClellend, Clive. Shadows of the evening: new light on Elgar's 'dark saying'. The Musical Times, Winter, 2007: 44, p. 44.

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About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker, and Rosenker’s pupil, Owen Dunsford. Mr. Padgett studied piano with Sally Magee (a student of Emanuel Bay), and Blanca Uribe, a student of Rosina Lhévinne. He attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Vassar he studied music theory and composition with Richard Wilson. Mr. Padgett has performed for Joseph Silverstein, Van Cliburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Steve Jobs, Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Marcia Davenport, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other prominent public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008 Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry "Fanfare for the Eagles." It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado in May 2008. A member of the Elgar Society, Mr. Padgett is married with five children.