Friday, December 3, 2010

Why Scholars Failed To Decode Elgar's Enigmas

Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar's dream

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.

Secret codes and puzzles have captivated the human intellect since the beginning of recorded time. From the riddle of the Sphinx in Homer’s Odyssey to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, people retain a persistent fascination for riddles, ciphers, and secrets of various kinds. Towering intellects like Sir Isaac Newton succumbed to their irresistible allure. After laying down the major laws of physics, he dedicated the bulk of his adult life to studying the Bible in search of secret codes and messages. Blaise Pascal was another great mind who shared Newton's perspective, for he confessed, “The Old Testament is a cipher.”[1]
The celebrated English composer Sir Edward Elgar was also fascinated by riddles, ciphers, anagrams, and puzzles.  In 1897 he wrote an enciphered message to Dora Penny that proved unbreakable. Known as the Dorabella cipher, it merits mention in works of fiction such as Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and Terry Brennan’s The Sacred CipherWords, numbers, and symbols can be used to create secret messages, and so too can musical notes.  Dora Penny was the subject of Variation X in Elgar’s famous Enigma Variations Opus 36 composed in 1898-99. Known under the subtitle Dorabella (taken from a character in Mozart’s opera Cozì van Tutte), Variation X also contains a secret — an absent principal Theme — one that has baffled experts for over a century.

My interest in the Enigma Variations began in 1995 when I performed that work as a sectional violinist with the Monterey Symphony. For many years Elgar worked as a concert violinist, and I was immediately struck by his subtle and lucid scoring. My experience performing the Variations on violin in the midst of a symphony orchestra gave me a much deeper appreciation for that work’s contrapuntal complexity, melodic diversity, and harmonic splendor. Over a decade would pass before I would again play the Enigma Variations in 2006 with the Bohemian Club Orchestra under Maestro Richard Williams. As a former conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, his enthusiasm for Elgar’s music was decidedly contagious.  The LSO was first conducted by Hans Richter (who directed the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899), and he was succeeded by Elgar in 1911. Maestro Williams shared fascinating insights about the enigmatic theme and variations during rehearsals — affairs at the Bohemian Club “commenced in a spirit of humor and continued in deep seriousness.”[2] His passion and perceptive commentary served as the catalyst to transform my curiosity about the enigma into an obsession. No matter the obstacles, I resolved then and there to discover the identity of the famous hidden theme.

From the start of my research, I found that various popular solutions were neither convincing nor fitting. The vast majority are nothing more than speculative guesses hanging by the thinnest thread. These faux solutions would never suffice because Elgar asserted the solution “must be left unguessed.”[3] Evaluating these erroneous conjectures was not without benefit because I became more acutely aware of the various contrapuntal, melodic, and harmonic restrictions imposed by the oddly structured Enigma Theme.  Understanding why each alleged solution melody failed to satisfy Elgar's specific conditions was hardly a waste of time.  That the puzzle was musical in character rather than allegorical or symbolic was never in doubt. Elgar was a composer of music, and the Enigma Variations are a symphonic work.  Indeed, just as the friends pictured within each variation were genuine, so too must be the existence of a covert Principal Theme. Given the rather vague nature of the conundrum, it is unsurprising some would resort out of desperation to extra-musical explanations, ones that uniformly fall flat.
For over a century the correct solution to the Enigma Variations has remained a riddle wrapped inside an enigma shrouded in mystery. Since the best and brightest minds failed to untie this melodic Gordian knot, how could I hope to do otherwise? For three years I struggled in vain to unmask the solution and was ultimately forced to recognize that by myself I was no more capable than my more accomplished and talented predecessors in unlocking this heavily armored melodic vault. If I simply persisted in relying on my own ability and wits, I would fail just as surely they did. At that moment I realized a genuine breakthrough required the help of someone callously ignored in this secular age — God.
As a person of faith, I prayed to God for help and searched his word for guidance. The Proverbs teach that “the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”[4] I asked Him for the wisdom to discover the correct answer to Elgar’s enigma. My faith was strengthened by a promise Jesus gave his disciples: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”[5] I found encouragement in the book of Daniel in which we learn he was confronted by a seemingly impossible puzzle, yet managed to solve it by placing his faith in God instead of scholars, astrologers, magicians and others who pretend to be wise.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon ordered his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers to interpret a troubling dream. To ensure the interpretation was correct, he refused to disclose the content of his dream as a test of their purported abilities. When they predictably failed, the king became enraged and ordered their immediate execution. As one of the wise men, Daniel only learned of this calamity when the executioners came for him and his fellow Israelites. Through tact and cunning, he secured permission for more time to discover the king’s hidden dream and its correct (rather than contrived) interpretation. Daniel and his friends prayed fervently to God for help, and that night the answer was given in a vision.  Thankful for the answer and for saving his life, Daniel praised God and said, “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in the darkness, and light dwells in him.”[6] These scriptural accounts taught me that to fathom deep and hidden things, I must first turn to God — the Light of truth and life — to illuminate the correct answers.
After appealing to the Almighty for His help in solving Elgar's Enigma Variations, I next dug deep into Elgar's life story to gain a clearer understanding of his music and motives underlying it. Just as in World War II when generals such as Patton and Rommel had opposition research done on each other to acquire an edge in battle — such as reading each other's books and finding out all they could about their opponent's life — finding out all I could about Elgar's personal and professional life unveiled rich insights that proved helpful in cracking the Enigma. Just as faith without works is dead, belief alone is insufficient to arrive at the correct solution.[7] To truly appreciate Elgar's music, it is vital to understand the composer. As I read about Elgar's life, I was amazed to discover he and I share an unusually high number of similar experiences. Here was a composer I could personally relate to on multiple levels despite being separated by cultures, continents, and centuries.
Elgar was extremely inventive, and for that reason reminds me of one of my other heroes, Thomas Alva EdisonThat great American inventor conducted thousands of experiments before hitting on the correct material for his renowned incandescent light bulb. When asked why he continued his experiments in the face of so many failures, he countered that each failure was a success by showing how not to make a light bulb.  If Edison taught the world anything, it is the most essential ingredient to success is failure. Edison’s attitude struck a chord with me, and I reasoned much could be learned by reviewing previous attempts at solving Elgar’s enigma. Elgar's persistence in the face of overwhelming odds reminded me of Edison's attitude toward life's seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Like Elgar, Edison was self-taught. The similarities do not end there. Both experienced their greatest epiphanies on the same day — October 21. It was on that day in 1879 that Edison achieved his famous breakthrough with the incandescent light bulb,[8] and in 1898 when Elgar first played the Enigma theme on the piano for his wife.[9] Their signatures share at least one similarity with the cursive capital E beginning each last name that looks like a reversed number 3.

Edward Elgar's signature  

Thomas A. Edison's signature

My new and compelling melodic solution to Elgar’s Enigma Variations is the famous Reformation hymn Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. During this decidedly secular era, I expect the secular academic community will not grant my discovery a warm reception since speaking in absolutes to the high priests of relativism is anathema.  Those lacking any foundation for offense hypocritically claim to be offended whenever their preconceptions, or more nebulous feelings, are countered by truth and common sense. In his prescient work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, historian Max Weber describes how an iron cage of reason would serve as a corrosive acid that eats away and destroys traditions and faiths, culminating in the disenchantment of the world.[10]  A belief in unbelief becomes the absurd and conflicted outcome of the abandonment of virtue, truth, and God. Modern academia wanders aimlessly in a darkened wilderness of its own making because it has unilaterally and brazenly rejected the Light of Life — Lux Christi. David describes this perverse condition in these wordsThe fool says in his heart, There is no God.’”
Julian Rushton's wholesale rejection of all enigma solutions embodies such a form of intellectualized blindness, thus making him the Richard Dawkin's of Elgar scholarship. I doubt he would object to such a comparison. For instance, he opines in the November 2010 edition of The Elgar Society JournalI am delighted to have got through five years without printing any more purported enigma solutions, especially as some that have recently come to my attention tend to the increasingly tortuous, despite Elgar's claim that the solution, once spotted, would seem obvious.In light of Elgar's public statements on this subject, Rushton's insistence there can be no melodic solution constitutes a case of academic malpractice. Indeed, what was obvious to Elgar may seem far less so to the rest of us, particularly Rushton and his fellow travelers in academia. Rushton's hyper-critical attitude towards enigma solutions — a de facto vow of perpetual ignorance   — brings to mind an admonition by the famed cryptographer Charles Babbage:
Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.
Rushton is an Englishman, hence Babbage's criticism is exquisitely appropriate. I suspect most academics in this post-modern age devote far too much time burnishing the bars of their deconstructive cages to experience the spiritual and creative freedom that Weber extolled and Elgar exercised so admirably in his compositions. Secular academics gaze proudly inwards for answers when they should be humbly looking upwards. They have forgotten the words of the Psalmist:
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
The secret melody to the Enigma Variations is Ein feste Burg by Martin Luther. The secret friend of Variation XIII is Jesus Christ, Elgar’s inspiration behind not only the Enigma Variations, but also to his sacred oratorios: The Light of LifeThe Dream of GerontiusThe Apostles and The Kingdom. Elgar even inserts a secret dedication to God in the first measure of the Enigma Theme. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Penguin Books, London, 1995), p. 87
[2] The phrase comes from a program note by Elgar for a performance in 1911.
[3] From C. Barry’s program note for the 1899 premiere citing a letter from Elgar
[4] Proverbs 2:6 New International Version
[5] Matthew 7:7 New International Version
[6] Daniel 2:22 New International Version
[7] Diana McVeagh, Elgar the Music Maker (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2007), 57.
[8] Matthew Josephson, Edison (History Book Club, New York, 2003), 219.
[9] Diana McVeagh, Elgar The Music Maker (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2007), 46.
[10] Mark Irving Lichbach and Alan S. Zuckerman, Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture and Structure (The Cambridge Press, Cambridge and New York, 1997), 267-269.

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About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker (a student of Leopold Auer), 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.