Tell me about your heroes, then I will tell you about yourself
Robert Wayne Padgett
In a palindromic meter he mused,
Anguished, lonely, and beset by sorrow,
Moved by the Spirit to sing a new song,
Encouraged by the clarity of friends,
Disavowing all trivialities,
Willing from heart and mind a miracle –
A counterpoint to some popular tune –
Riveting, radical, and resplendent,
Devised as a theme and variations,
Elgar defied the world to decipher
Love’s mystery shrouded in harmony,
Giving rise to a lock with many keys
About God’s Son whose word is like a sword,
Revered by Gordon as the risen Lord.
Robert Wayne Padgett
The Gordon Symphony
In October 1898 Edward Elgar was not openly planning to compose a set of orchestral variations. Instead, he had a very different project in mind: A symphony in honor of the fallen hero of the Siege of Khartoum, General Charles Gordon. Up to that time, Elgar had never composed an extended symphonic work for orchestra alone, so this represented an escalation in his artistic ambitions. He proposed the “Gordon” Symphony in anticipation of a premiere at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in September 1899. The day before beginning work on the Enigma Variations (October 20, 1898), he wrote to his friend August Jaeger:
‘Gordon Sym.’ I like this idee [sic] but my dear man why should I try? . . . I have to earn money somehow & it’s no good trying this sort of thing even for a ‘living wage’ & your firm wouldn’t give ₤5 for it – I tell you I am sick of it all: why can’t I be encouraged to do decent stuff & not hounded into triviality.
Despite struggling with mixed feelings, he continued to ponder and plan his first symphony. Shortly after beginning the Enigma Variations, he still talked about the “Gordon” Symphony. For instance, on November 11, 1898, he wrote, “Now as to Gordon: the thing possesses me, but I can’t write it down yet.” It is significant that at the same time Elgar was composing his first extended symphonic work – the Enigma Variations – he was openly discussing his Gordon Symphony. Could the two projects be interconnected in some way? And if so, how? Before answering these questions, let us first familiarize ourselves with one of Elgar's heroes – General Gordon.
Who was General Gordon and why of all people would Elgar turn to him as the inspiration for his first major symphonic work? He certainly exercised a considerable influence over Elgar. Consider the following examples. When Gordon was on campaign, he placed a flag on his tent to show that he should not be disturbed. Elgar adopted the same practice when composing in a tent erected outside his home during the warm summer months. Elgar was well known for maintaining a military bearing, emulating respected military figures like his wife’s father (Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts), and of course, General Gordon.
Sending messages in secret code is standard operating procedure among military leaders. One well-known from the history of cryptography is Julius Caesar and his Caesar cipher. Consistent with his imitation of military men, Elgar was deeply interested in secret codes and puzzles. In his correspondence, Gordon liberally peppered his prose with the Latin acronym D.V. (Deo Volente), an apotropaic that Elgar also used in his letters. In the Enigma Variations, Elgar cryptically incorporates these initials in his musical self-portrait (E. D. U.), the Finale. This is the case because the Latin letter U is equivalent of V. It is exquisitely appropriate this veiled allusion to Gordon occurs in the movement that sounds like a military march. Even more intriguing is the Finale is in the key of G major, an illuminating coincidence since Gordon was a Major-General at the time of his death.
A surprising conclusion that can be drawn from the fact Elgar talked about Gordon in connection with a symphonic work immediately before, during, and after composing the Enigma Variations is that both works are, in certain respects, one and the same. As evidence of this possibility, the initials for General Charles George Gordon are formed at rehearsal 62 of Variation XIV as shown below:
This musical cryptogram is highly reminiscent of Elgar's Allegretto on GEDGE (1885), a work based on the last name of some students who were sisters. The veiled reference to General Gordon in the most martial sounding of the Enigma Variations makes complete sense and reaffirms Elgar's public quasi-military persona.
Elgar’s greatest source of identification with Gordon was most assuredly his unwavering Christian faith. Gordon was an Anglican warrior-evangelist who died the death of martyr-hero at the siege of Khartoum in 1885. He was also Queen Victoria’s favorite General. Following his tragic death mourned by not just one nation, but an Empire spanning the globe, his sister Augusta “presented the Queen with her brother’s Bible, which was placed in one of the corridors at Windsor, open, on a white satin cushion, and enclosed in a crystal case.” Gordon quotes the Bible extensively in his letters, and so does Elgar in his oratorios: The Light of Life, The Saga of King Olaf, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, and The Kingdom. Gordon dedicated his life to God, and willingly sacrificed it rather than abandon his faith. Elgar dedicated the majority of his works to God with the initials A. M. D. G., and willingly endured decades of obscurity before being discovered for a talent he always enjoyed. Finally, Gordon encouraged a more ecumenical form of Christianity, a path that Elgar also embraced in later life.
Elgar, Gordon and the Bible
The most influential book in Gordon's life was undoubtedly the Bible, and the same could be said concerning Elgar. For the vast majority of his oratorios, the Bible was Elgar's libretto. In Gordon’s case, it was the only book that mattered. The Bible is the most published and quoted book in history, so Gordon's lofty opinion is not without merit. In 1886, Henry William Gordon published a biography about his famous brother. In the introduction he states:
[Gordon] always took his stand upon the Bible. In distress of mind or in times of hesitation, he turned to it for advice. His Bible was to him his friend and companion in the time of trouble.
He further explains Gordon “rested his faith upon the word of God, and upon the Savior, in whom he trusted.” A comparison is even made with the Apostle Paul: “Without meaning to affirm that General Gordon approached to the perfectness of the great apostle to the Gentiles, yet I discern a strong resemblance in the lives of the two men; while both suffered death, sooner than surrender their faith as Christians.” At the Siege of Khartoum, General Gordon was granted multiple opportunities by the Mahdi to escape certain death by converting to Islam, but he refused to abandon his Christian faith or the people of that besieged city. Gordon believed it was noble to fall in battle, and that is exactly how he left this life and world behind.
Khartoum, the Crusades, and Gordon
In many respects, the fall of Khartoum hearkens back to the Crusades and the historic clash between East and West, Christianity and Islam, broad sword and scimitar, and the conquest of Jerusalem. As one writer describes it, “The narrative of Gordon in China, in Africa, at home in Christian England, or abroad in the service of the Khedive or of his own sovereign, reads like a page torn from medieval history, when a religious fervor moved prince and knight to take up the crusade against the defilers of the Holy Sepulchre.” Elgar's fascination with Gordon and his martial zeal for Christ would account for his use of a modified Tasso quote at the end of the score of the Enigma Variations taken from Jerusalem Delivered. In that epic Christian poem, Tasso describes how an army of Christian Knights led by Godfrey (a General whose name begins with the letter G) liberates Jerusalem from Muslim occupation. After the city is saved, Godfrey and troops piously shed their armor and kneel beside other pilgrims to worship at the tomb of Christ.
Godfrey’s overarching goal in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered is to secure unfettered access for pilgrims to the Holy Sepulcher. A sacred relic directly linked to the tomb of Jesus is the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Christ. Elgar encodes a reference to this sacred relic in Variation XIII. It was previously shown how Luther's Ein feste Burg plays “through and over” Variation XIII. The object of Tasso's poem is directly connected with this sacred relic, for Christ rested in the tomb while wrapped in the shroud. It is remarkable Elgar alludes to the crypt of Christ and His burial shroud using cryptography and Christograms, a feat encapsulating Elgar's subtle and elaborate sense of wordplay. Another example of his affinity for wordplay is described here.
There is an even more direct link between General Gordon and Jerusalem. In 1883 Gordon devoted almost an entire year in Jerusalem researching four questions:
- The site of the Crucifixion
- The line of division between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah
- The identification of Gibeon
- The position of the Garden of Eden.
During his extended stay in the Holy City, he acknowledged and popularized a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem as the location of Golgotha (“skull” hill), the site where Jesus was reportedly crucified. Originally discovered in the nineteenth century by Otto Thenius of Dresden, Golgotha hill has the sinister outlines of a skull.
In the New Testament, Golgotha is also called Calvary (a word derived from the Latin calvus for “scalp” or “bald head”). Today “skull” hill is known as Gordon’s Calvary, for Gordon was convinced of its authenticity after discovering nearby what he believed to be the Garden Tomb. This is where Christ was reportedly interred following his gruesome crucifixion. For Christians, it is also the place of the resurrection and where the Shroud of Turin was miraculously transformed into a photographic negative of the crucified Christ.
Gordon and Newman's Dream of Gerontius
During the siege of Khartoum, Gordon read and underlined in pencil a famous poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman called The Dream of Gerontius. He cherished that poem. When death and destruction loomed, he underlined passages such as “Now that the hour is come, my fear is fled.” He died with a copy of it on his person, but not before his markings were duplicated and given to Frank Power, a special correspondent for The Times in Khartoum. It was soon published and became hugely popular. In a bid to comfort his future bride when her father died in 1887, Elgar lent Alice his personal copy of Gerontius with General Gordon’s markings. When they married in 1889, they received another copy of Gerontius with Gordon's markings as a wedding present. Elgar immortalized this poetic work in his sacred oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, composed in 1900 just after he completed the Enigma Variations in 1899.
The link between General Gordon and Gerontius is obvious, for he read and meditated on that poem in the Sudan before his tragic death. Since Elgar completed his sacred oratorio Gerontius just the Enigma Variations, the close proximity of the two works suggests some connection with Gordon. After all, Elgar’s correspondence mentions the Gordon Symphony before, during and immediately after he composed the Variations. Shortly after Hans Richter wired his acceptance to conduct the Enigma premiere in late March 1899, Elgar abruptly dropped his plans for the Gordon Symphony by mid-April 1899. Is it possible Elgar called off the Gordon Symphony because he had just completed it? All the evidence points in that direction.
General Gordon eschewed earthly honors, preferring instead to embrace an ascetic lifestyle characterized by hidden acts of charity at great personal sacrifice. One example of his noble generosity involves a great gold medallion he received from the Chinese government following his successful campaign against the Taipings. During the Lancashire famine in England, Gordon scratched the inscription off his gold Chinese medal and anonymously donated it to help feed starving widows and orphans. If he sought fame and earthly glory, he could have just as easily donated the medallion with his title still etched into it. He did not because he believed it was better to give than receive, and that charitable acts should be done in secret. Jesus told his disciples that “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” Gordon gave much of his earthly wealth to help underprivileged boys, and following his death, a school was founded in his honor to perpetuate his charitable work. Today is known as Gordon's School, but when it was originally founded in 1886 it was known as the Gordon Boys' School.
Given Elgar’s desire to emulate General Gordon, it is not unreasonable to conclude he finally recognized a symphony in Gordon's honor would contradict everything the General believed in. By April 20, 1899, Elgar abandoned the Gordon Symphony and likely did so after coming to terms with Gordon's austerity and revulsion for public recognition. What greater contradiction could he contrive than to overtly compose a symphony in Gordon's honor? That would be the last thing Gordon would want, and more importantly, condone. The best way for Elgar to honor Gordon would not be to praise the General publicly with a symphony, but rather to emulate his example by glorifying Gordon's spiritual Commander In Chief in secret.
Just as Gordon practiced his charitable acts in secret, so too Elgar found it fitting to honor Gordon’s God in secret. Ultimately this is what he did with the Enigma Variations. In his first great symphonic work, Elgar secretly honors Gordon's Lord, the God who hides himself, using a hidden theme, a hidden message and a hidden friend to all who will receive Him. These three hidden aspects of the Enigma Variations form a trinity of mystery. Elgar's choice for the unstated Principal Theme – Ein feste Burg – is readily associated with Gordon because he was Anglican, and hence a Protestant. A Mighty Fortress was the battle hymn of the Reformation. Gordon may also be associated with Ein feste Burg because of its military connotations as a war hymn performed on the eve of battle and to commemorate military victories. An excellent example of the latter is Wagner's Kaiser March, a work performed in England at the Coronations of 1902 and 1911.
A “Mighty” Coincidence
On October 21, 1898 – the day he first performed the Enigma Theme for his wife – Elgar wrote, “‘Gordon’ simmereth mighty pleasantly in my (brain) pan & will no doubt boil over one day.” Elgar's use of the word mighty on that day of days is an illuminating slip of the pen. Why? Because the covert Principal Theme to his Enigma Variations is Ein feste Burg – A Mighty Fortress. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed. Like my heavenly Father’s gift of salvation, the price is free.
Footnotes Kennedy, Michael. The Life of Elgar (Musical Lives). Illustrated edition ed. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2004, p. 60
 Ibid, p. 63
 Ibid, p. 60
 McVeagh, D. (2007), Elgar the Music Maker. Rochester, New York: Boydell Press, p 58.
 Gordon, H. W. (2009). Events In The Life Of Charles George Gordon: From Its Beginning To Its End (1886). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc., p. 7
 Ibid, p. 1
 Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel According to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 471
 Michael Kennedy, The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, 2004), p. 75
 The Musical Times, October 1, 1900, p.654
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.13
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.13