Sunday, January 16, 2011

Elgar's Enigma Theme and the Plagal Cadence

"Devoting one's strength to religious music remains the supreme goal of an artist."

"In Wagner’s age, the plagal cadence was a topos for sacred music. Many of Wagner’s redemptive conclusions to his operas employ this gesture, often involving the minor subdominant."

"This book contains the height, the depth, the breadth, the sweetness, the sorrow, the best and the whole of the Best of This World and the Next."
Edward Elgar, written in a vocal score of Tristan und  Isolde

The discovery Ein feste Burg is the covert Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations imbues Elgar's use of the plagal cadence in the Enigma Theme with new meaning and significance. The plagal cadence (IV-I), also known as the Amen cadence due to its extensive use in sacred music, features prominently in the music of the Romantic composers.  It also appears often as a closing cadence for Protestant hymns, one of the most famous of all time being A Mighty Fortress. The minor to major resolution (iv-I) is a favored version among the romantics, particularly with Elgar's idol, Richard Wagner. One of the most illustrious examples of this minor-major plagal progression occurs at the end of Tristan und IsoldeElgar's musical heroes were predominantly Romantic composers, and Wagner is undoubtedly the Emperor of the Romantic School. As the epigraph makes plain, the plagal cadence symbolizes the redemptive and sacred in Wagner's music. It was popular in the baroque and romantic periods, but fell out of favor during the classical era. The major version of the plagal cadence occurs at the end of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The minor-major form appears in the opening of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s DreamRobert Schumann's Second Symphony closes with a lingering plagal cadence. Similarly, Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger concludes with an expansive plagal cadence.  Understanding the symbolic and theological importance of the plagal cadence to Romantic composers, Elgar harnesses it within the haunting Enigma Theme as a harmonic talisman of the sacred and redemptive.
The plagal cadence is found twice in the Enigma Theme. It first occurs in measures 6 and 7, and a second time in measures 16 and 17.  It is remarkable the sum of 16 and 17 is 33, the mirror image of Elgar's cursive initials. Following this same vein, the sum of 6 and 7 is 13, the number assigned to the most mysterious of the Variations. With both plagal cadences in the Enigma Theme, Elgar states the C minor subdominant with the sixth (A) briefly introduced as an upper neighbor tone before resolving to the G major tonic.

A cursory explanation for why Elgar may have used the plagal cadence in the Enigma Theme is that he was 41 years old when he composed the Enigma Variations. The plagal cadence is described in Roman numerals as the IV-I cadence, the very same numerals for Elgar's age from October 21, 1898 - Enigma day - until he finished orchestrating the Variations on February 19, 1899. Elgar did not turn 42 until June 2, 1899. It is fascinating the elapsed time between October 21, 1898 and February 19, 1899 is exactly 3 months 30 days. The repetition of the number three is remarkable since Elgar's initials are the mirror image of the number 33.

Edward Elgar's Signature

A more nuanced explanation for Elgar's use of the plagal cadence in the Enigma Theme is its close and widely recognized association with Protestant hymns and the Romantic school. Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) is one of the most famous Protestant hymns in history. It was composed by Martin Luther, a leader of the Reformation who distinguished himself as much for his musical compositions as his sermons. Ein feste Burg is quoted by many of Elgar's favorite composers. Bach cites it extensively in his most famous sacred cantata, Ein Feste Burg BWV 80. Mendelssohn quotes it in the fourth movement of his first major symphonic work, the Reformation Symphony. It is also quoted in the most famous and performed grand opera of the 19th century, Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer, a cousin of Mendelssohn.  Wagner quotes it in his Kaiser March, a work performed at both the 1902 and 1911 coronations in England. Each coronation was a global event attended by representatives from the far corners of the the British empire as well as foreign dignitaries spanning the globe. Franz Liszt sketched an unfinished symphony featuring Ein feste Burg, composed an organ fantasy based on that rousing hymn, and transcribed Otto Nicolai's Ecclesiastical Festival Overture on the Chorale 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott' Op. 31Elgar's 'ideal' composer, Robert Schumann, spent years planning to compose a vast oratorio about Martin Luther with a final, rousing chorus of Ein feste Burg.
Given the plagal cadence's significant to sacred music, its conspicuous and repeated presentation in the Enigma Theme subtly hints at the source of the unstated Principal Theme: A Protestant hymn. Like the word plagal, the first letter in the word Protestant is P. This letter also appears in the Chi Rho, a famous Christogram embedded in the title of Variation XIII as I explain here. The double presentation of the plagal cadence in the Enigma Theme may be interpreted as a subtle hint about the presence of a box cipher. Why? Because a box has four sides, the plagalfour-one cadence (IV-I), there are two plagal cadences, and two sides of the box cipher delineate the cipher. Known as a Polybius square, a box cipher is a checkerboard array with two sides of the square used to label the columns and rows. It is noteworthy the solution grid is shaped like an inverted capital L since Elgar used this letter to label the earliest sketch for Variation XIII. L is the first letter in the name Luther. By substituting this letter for the first in the name of the poet pinpointed by the Mendelssohn fragments (Goethe), this produces a phonetic spelling for Luther("Loethe"). This is just the kind of wordplay Elgar would be pleased and proud of producing.

As I explain here, Elgar uses a sophisticated musical checkerboard cipher to secretly communicate a 'dark saying' based on an anagram of the unstated Principal Theme's title. The anagram is 24 letters in length, the identical number of letters found in the title Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.  With two plagal cadences in the Enigma Theme, Elgar hints at two "fours" - the number 24. There are 24 melody notes in the first six measures of the Enigma Theme segregated by an oddly placed double bar at the end of measure six. There are six words in the title of the unstated Principle Theme for a total of 24 letters. Six measures, 24 melody notes, six words, 24 letters - this is surely more than mere coincidence. The number four is closely associated with the sacred, particularly in early music. Medieval music notation employed square notes on a four line staff. This early form of notation was reserved almost exclusively for religious music. According to his first biographer, Elgar composed music on a four line staff when he was a boy. It is not difficult to see how he developed an early and lasting association between the sacred and the number four, particularly given the significance of the plagal cadence to the Romantic school of composers. To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

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