Saturday, December 25, 2010

Elgar's Grand Allusion: Dante's "Enigma Forte"

Dante and The Divine Comedy
Without his musical surroundings, Edward Elgar might have been a poet, might have emulated Dante or Milton. He was born to high enterprise. His turn of thought inclined to the serious, the heroic, the epic.
Thou father of the children of my brain
By thee engendered in my willing heart,
How can I thank thee for this gift of art
Poured out so lavishly, and not in vain.
What thou created never more can die,
Thy fructifying power lives in me
And I conceive, knowing it is by thee,
Dear other parent of my poetry!
For I was but a shadow with a name,
Perhaps by now the very name's forgot;
So strange is Fate that it has been my lot
To learn through thee the presence of that aim
Which evermore must guide me. All unknown,
By me unguessed, by thee not even dreamed,
A tree has blossomed in a night that seemed
Of stubborn, barren wood.  For thou hast sown
This seed of beauty in a ground of truth.
Humbly I dedicate myself, and yet
I tremble with a sudden fear to set
New music ringing through my fading youth.

The Promise of the Morning Star by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I had the good fortune to be thrown among an unsorted collection of old books. There were books of all kinds, and all distinguished by the characteristic that they were for the most part incomplete. I busied myself for days and weeks arranging them. I picked out the theological books, of which there were a great many, and put them on one side. Then I made a place for the Elizabethan dramatists, the chronicles including Barker’s and Hollinshed’s, besides a tolerable collection of old poets and translations of Voltaire and all sorts of things up to the eighteenth century. Then I began to read. I used to get up at four or five o’clock in the summer and read – every available opportunity found me reading. I read till dark. I finished reading every one of those books – including the theology. The result of that reading has been that people tell me that I know more of the life up to the eighteenth century than I do of my own time, and it is probably true.
Edward Elgar from a 1904 interview for The Strand Magazine


In the original 1899 program note for the premiere of the Enigma VariationsElgar’s couches the mystery of his first extended symphonic work using some very unusual terms:
The Enigma I will not explain – it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion 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]
Scholars struggle to account for Elgar’s use of such terms as enigmadark saying, and unguessed in connection with the Enigma Variations.  On closer inspection, the atypical term unguessed alludes to Elgar’s favorite poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as the appearance of this unique word in the epigraph makes plain. More tantalizingly, the words enigma and dark saying point to Longfellow’s popular translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio. There are an astonishing number of parallels between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Before exploring these in depth, it is helpful to first review Longfellow’s influence on Elgar.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Longfellow and Elgar
Elgar’s mother venerated the poetry of Longfellow, read it to her children often, and nurtured this devotion in her impressionable son, Edward. This is made abundantly clear by Elgar’s decision to set Longfellow’s verse in two extended choral works: The Black Knight Op. 25 (1889 – 92), and Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf Op. 30 (1895).  He used Longfellow’s translation of Froissart for his song Rondel Op. 16 No. 3 (1894).  In his oratorio The Apostles Op 49 (1902-3), Elgar based the third tableau of Part I “In the Tower of Magdala” on Longfellow’s description of Mary Magdalene in the epic poem The Divine Tragedy.[2] These compositions demonstrate Longfellow’s influence over Elgar both before and after the Enigma Variations were composed. Evidence for Longfellow’s centrality to Elgar’s artistic vision, particularly his allegiance to the German Romantic School, is shown by Elgar’s gift to the German conductor Hans Richter in 1899 of Longfellow’s Hyperion (1839).[3] In a letter accompanying the book, Elgar wrote, “I send you the little book about which we conversed & from which I, as a child, received my first idea of the great German nations.”[4] It is undeniable Longfellow and his poetry held a central place in Elgar’s artistic universe, bending the very light of his muse and music before and after the Enigma Variations sprang into existence.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Dante’s Divine Comedy
The parallels between the Enigma Variations and Dante’s Divine Comedy are multilayered, ranging from the poetical, numerological, symbolic, theological and even musical. The Enigma Theme was composed in ternary form, more commonly known as ABA form. In an intriguing parallel, the verse scheme in the Divine Comedy is terza rima, three line stanzas defined by interlocking rhyme sequences beginning with aba. Moreover, like every Canto of the Divine Comedy, each variation is identified with a Roman numeral. Elgar first mentioned the Enigma Variations to Jaeger in a letter dated October 24, 1898. He wrote:
Since I've been back I have sketched a set of Variations (orkestra) on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I've labeled 'em with the nicknames of my particular friends - you are Nimrod.[5]
With the now obvious connection between the meaning of the variation’s name and the title of the missing Principal Theme, Elgar’s use of the name Nimrod confirms he contemplated the melodic enigma from its very genesis. Elgar began composing the Variations on October 21, 1898, just three days before his letter to Jaeger mentioning the name Nimrod. The Roman numeral assigned to this variation holds a powerful literary link to Elgar’s favorite poet, Longfellow, and his famous translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Canto XXXI of the Inferno, Nimrod is described as a babbling giant trapped in the ninth circle of hell. Variation IX is appropriately named Nimrod. Dante links Nimrod to the construction of the Tower of Babel, and his eternal punishment for his rebellion is to be struck dumb with an inability to speak coherently.  In Dante's hell, Nimrod babbles incoherently and desperately blows a horn to vent his inarticulate passions. In a symbolic tribute to this literary image, Elgar concludes Variation IX with a thundering blast from the brass section at rehearsal number 37 followed by Variation X in which the subject captures Dora Penny's stutter, an obvious confusion of tongues.
On November 7, 1899, August Jaeger wrote to Edward Elgar:
How is the Gordon symphony getting on? You Sphinx!!
Why Dontcher answer???
Are you lazying over your work?[6]
These words were written just over a year after Elgar began work on the Enigma Variations and five months after its premiere that propelled him to international acclaim. The Sphinx is a mythological creature who guards the entrance to the city of Thebes and challenged travelers with a difficult riddle before granting them entry. On one level Jaeger’s nickname for Elgar points to the recent success of the Enigma Variations in which the composer poses a difficult riddle. On another level, Jaeger’s language points to Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio. Longfellow's translation of lines 43-51 contains a cryptic prophecy about a future savior identified only with the number 515. In this passage the terms Sphinx, enigma and dark utterance are found:
Within which a Five-hundred, Ten and Five,
One sent from God, shall slay the thievish woman
And that same giant who is sinning with her
And peradventure my dark utterance,
Like Themis and the Sphinx, may less persuade thee,
Since, in their mode, it clouds the intellect
But soon the facts shall be the Naiades,
Who shall this difficult enigma solve,
Without destruction of the flocks and harvests.

In the 1899 program note for the premiere of the Enigma Variations, Elgar’s couches the mystery of his symphony using the terms Enigma, and ‘dark saying’ (the equivalent of dark utterance). Maeterlinck’s ‘Les sept Princesses” (literally “the seven princesses”) lends itself easily as an allusion to the seven ladies in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio symbolizing the three theological (Faith, Hope, and Love) and four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance).[7] In measures three and four of the Enigma Theme, the unusual drop in the seventh in the melody occurs twice. This conveniently presents numerological parallels with the three theological and four cardinal virtues. The numbers three and four are used extensively as numerological symbols in the Divine Comedy. These seven ladies begin Canto XXXIII with “melodious psalmody” – the harmonious chanting of Psalm 78. This is remarkable because the lyrics for the unstated Principal Theme (Ein feste Burg) are based on a psalm, specifically Psalm 46. Psalm 78 was written when Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple desecrated. In the King James Version, Verse 2 states, "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old." This presents an intriguing link to the language in the original 1899 program note. Finally, Dante states Beatrice's difficult enigma will be solved by the Naiades, a type of nymph that presides over bodies of water. Dante's poetic connection between the enigma's solution and water (a play on words Elgar certainly would have relished as water is a "solution") presents a potent literary parallel with the marine atmosphere of Variation XIII. As previously explained, Elgar inserted in this puzzling variation four melodic fragments drawn from Mendelssohn's overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage pointing to the identity of the unstated Principal Theme.
At the end of the original score, Elgar wrote “Bramo assai,poco spero, nulla chieggio” followed by ‘(sic, 1595)’ and the name Tasso in brackets. The original source for this quote is Tarquato Tasso’s epic Christian poem, La Gerusalemme Liberata­ – Jerusalem Liberated. A formative influence over Tasso’s work was none other than Dante and his Divine Comedy. It is hardly coincidental Elgar's choice of language for his literary quotation is in the Italian vulgare, the same language used by Dante for writing his magnum opus. The enigmatic quote is slightly modified from the original with Elgar incorrectly translating it as “I essay much, I hope little, I ask nothing.” The correct translation is “I desire much, I hope little, I ask nothing.” Tasso's original quote is in the third person, not the first as Elgar renders it.
     Fortunately, research by Geoffrey Hodgkins and Professor Brian Trowell sheds light on this little enigma. They confirmed the modified quote originates from the title page of The Most Honorable Tragedie of Sir Richard Grinville, Knight by Gervase Markham published in 1595. Like General Gordon, Sir Richard Grinville was a war hero who died battling overwhelming odds. In the Variations Elgar makes a number of allusions to famous knights who fell in battle. Prior to his death at the siege of Khartoum, General Gordon spent a year in Jerusalem investigating such theological questions as where Jesus was crucified and buried. Through his correspondence he popularized a rocky outcropping as Golgotha and an adjacent site as the Garden Tomb. To this day it is known as Gordon's Calvary. The purpose of covering these seemingly unrelated subjects is to show how on a much deeper level, one palpable to Elgar's acute sensibilities, many meaningful connections between these seemingly unrelated subjects may be drawn. The Enigma Variations. Tasso quotation. Jerusalem Liberated. Sir Richard Grinville. The 'Gordon' Symphony. General Gordon. Gordon's Calvary. Dante's Divine Comedy. Enigma forte. Dark saying. Variation XIII. The Hidden Friend. The Shroud of Turin. Jesus.
The Five Hundred, Ten and Five
The prophecy concerning the Five Hundred, Ten and Five (515) in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio furnishes some intriguing numerological parallels with the Enigma Variations. The Variations consist of fifteen (15) sections or movements. Variation XIII is 51 measures in length. The final variation is identified with the Roman numerals XIV, literally Ten, One and Five. In music, the most powerful tonal relationship exists between the tonic (the first note in a scale) and the dominant (the fifth note in a scale). The perfect cadence describes this central relationship as the resolution of the V chord to I. The number 515 is a palindrome, and Elgar’s use of a palindrome rhythmic pattern in the Enigma Theme forms in Morse code a phonetic anagram (IMMI) for the double “I AM.” This is one of the titles Jesus claims for himself.[9]
Apart from Elgar’s affinity for Longfellow’s poetry, older literature in general, and a profound interest in theology, there are other compelling reasons why he would be captivated by the enigma forte of Dante’s Divine Comedy. For one,  forte is a musical term. Another reason is that one prominent interpretation theorizes the number 515 symbolizes Jesus (Dominus Xristus Victor). The Roman numerals DXV form the slightly anagrammatized word in Latin for leader, dux.  It is interesting that this same spelling is present in the title for Variation XIV including the initials E.D.U.  Notice after removing the letters DUX, the remaining letters are EIV. It should be noted that E is the fifth letter of the alphabet, so EIV is the cryptographic equivalent of VIV, or 515. The number five is closely associated with Jesus as evidenced by popular devotional concepts focusing on the five points of the Cross, the five holy wounds, and the five letters in his name. The number fifteen holds special significance because it is associated with the stations of the cross with the last representing the resurrection. In Hebrew, the number fifteen is not written in the usual manner because it spells one of the names for God (י-ה, yodh and heh).  Passover, the day on which Jesus was crucified, begins on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan. It was also shown the hidden friend of Variation XIII is Jesus, so Elgar’s numerological suggestion for his Lord and Savior is artistically poignant and relevant, especially since Variation XIII is 51 measures in length, a number forming the inversion of the stations of the cross. The Enigma Variations consists of fifteen sections with the Enigma Theme followed by fourteen Variations.
The number 515 is theologically significant for other reasons. For instance, according to the Genesis account, the length of Noah’s ark was 300 Egyptian cubits, a figure that converts to 515 feet. The ark is a symbol of redemption, one marking the destruction of humanity’s past and preservation of its future. In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as the past and future Savior who fulfills the Old Covenant and establishes a New Covenant. It is rather revealing that Elgar identified Variation XIII with the letters LML. This palindrome may be interpreted according to its Roman numeral values as follows:
  • L  = 50
  • M = 1000
  • L  = 50
Discounting the zeros produces 515, the mysterious "Five Hundred, Ten and Five" of Dante's Divine Comedy. The Second Temple was dedicated in 515 B.C. It was renovated by Herod around 19 B.C., and it was in this same Temple that Jesus taught during his earthly ministry. The number 515 may be seen figuratively as representative of Christ, for Jesus referred to his body as a Temple. Just as the Temple of Christ's body was killed on the cross in 33 A.D., the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus and his Roman legions in 70 A.D. There is a much less direct way to obtain the number 515 based on one of Jesus' more famous miracles: The feeding of the five thousand.[10] This event served as the inspiration for one of Christianity’s earliest known symbols, the fish or IchthusJesus miraculously fed five thousand men and their families with just five loaves of bread and two fishes, directing his 12 disciples to distribute the food among groups of 50 (Luke 9:14).
The sum of the fish and loaves is 2 + 5 = 7. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, the seventh day on which God rested.[11] Seven is the biblical number of completeness. Fish symbolize the sea and bread the land. Both symbols, namely the sea and land, are implied through the musical imagery of Variation XIII. Jesus blessed and multiplied the fish and the loaves.
  • 2 multiplied by 5 = 10.
  • Jesus directed his disciples to divide the food among the 5000.
  • 5000 divided by 10 = 500.
  • Jesus instructed the crowd to divide itself into groups of 50 so his disciples could distribute the food among these smaller groups (Luke 9:14).
  • 50 divided by 10 = 5.
Based on this analysis, it is feasible to obtain the mysterious number 515 from the biblical account of Jesus feeding the five thousand, for 515 is the sum of 500, 10 and 5. The composer's rendering as 'LML' on his sketch of Variation XIII is far less circuitous, and interpreting these initials based on their Roman numeral values is all but implied by Elgar's assignment of Roman numerals to each of the Variations.
A Spirit of Humor and Seriousness
There is ample evidence to conclude Elgar drew inspiration from Dante's Divine Comedy when he composed the Enigma Variations. Dante was one of Longfellow's most revered and respected poetic heroes, and Longfellow was an artistic cornerstone for more than one of Elgar's major works. The unusual language from the original 1899 program note employing terms like 'Enigma' and 'dark saying' to describe the work are virtually identical to those found in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio that describe Dante's enigma forte. Dante's pervasive using the numbers three are four to symbolize the theological and cardinal virtues is mirrored by Elgar's unusual drop in the seventh found in measures 3, 4, 13 and 14 of the Enigma Theme. In the case of Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio, these virtues are represented by seven ladies. It is an intriguing coincidence that Elgar mentions the play 'Les sept princesses' (The Seven Princesses) in the original program note. The Enigma Theme is in ABA or ternary form, and the verse scheme in the Divine Comedy is terza rima starting with aba. Like the Variations, each Canto is identified with a Roman numeral.
The Roman numeral and subtitle Nimrod for the ninth variation are a match with the giant Dante describes in the ninth circle of hell, and even the orchestration at rehearsal 37 bears a striking resemblance to the poet's description of Nimrod making a loud blast on his brass horn. Numerological references to the number 515 may be found in the Enigma Variations, including the interesting fact the final movement may reasonably be performed in 5 minutes 15 seconds. The "Five Hundred, Ten and Five" is a number Dante gives for a future Savior prophesied in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio. A discreet set of ciphers alludes to the mysterious number 515. It is noteworthy that the Roman numerals XXXIII represent the number 33, the reverse of Edward Elgar's initials (E.E.). In light of my discovery of the hidden friend for Variation XIII, it appears Elgar chose to answer Dante's poetic enigma forte with a musical Enigma of his own, one championing the theory that the hidden Savior is Jesus Christ. The three asterisks in the subtitle of Variation XIII are also highly suggestive of Dante's magnum opus. Elgar collected old books and rare editions, and his literary tastes were inclined towards the old rather than the contemporary. Elgar remarked the Enigma Variations were "commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness." What could be more humorous and serious as a source of inspiration than The Divine Comedy? In humor there burns the flickering flame of truth. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.


[1] Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing a letter by Elgar
[2] Adams, B. (Editor). Edward Elgar and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 64.
[3] Ibid, p. 64.
[4] Moore, Letters of a Lifetime, p. 81.
[5] Elgar, E. (1965). Letters to Nimrod: Edward Elgar to August Jaeger, 1897 - 1908. London: Dobson, p. 27.
[6] Moore, J. N. (1999). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Clarendon Paperbacks) (New Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, p. 294.
[8] Cook, Eleanor. (2009). Enigmas and Riddles in Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 93

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