|Photograph by Mark Bruno|
"God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing."
In Variation XIII of the ‘Enigma’ Variations, Elgar quotes Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in the keys of A flat major, F minor, and E flat major.
These three note letters also appear on the third beat of the first measure of this enigmatic movement, one with three asterisks representing the initials for one of Elgar’s friends.
Three asterisks, three keys for the Mendelssohn fragments, and three notes on the third beat matching those key letters. What are the odds of such a symmetry? Clearly Elgar was trying to tell us something, but what precisely?
The key letters F, A and E are a key to the missing initials suggested by three asterisks in the subtitle, for they are more than just a commingling of random letters. They are the initials for FAE, a well-known acronym representing Joseph Joachim’s romantic motto Frei aber einsam (Free but lonely). Elgar wrote the Enigma Theme expressed his “sense of the loneliness of the artist,” a description that dovetails with Joachim’s personal motto. Even the correct ordering of those key letters is implied by the subtitle of the next and last movement, the Finale. The combination F-A-E occurs with the first and last letters of the six-letter titles for the first and last movements: Enigma and Finale.
As one of the most celebrated violinists of the nineteenth century, Joachim was a perennial favorite of Queen Victoria, and founding president of the Oxford & Cambridge Musical Club in 1899. The ‘Enigma’ Variations were performed in 1899 under the direction of another member of that same club, Hans Richter, a disciple of Wagner. In his youth Elgar dreamed of becoming a great violinist, studying briefly with Adolph Pollitzer, a student of Jean-Delphin Alard who once owned the famous 1716 ‘Messiah’ Stradivarius. In 1891 Joachim played the ‘Messiah’ Strad, and remarked on ‘it’s combined sweetness and grandeur’. Elgar’s cryptographic allusion to Joachim is bolstered by the fact he was a close personal friend of Elgar’s ‘ideal’ composer, Robert Schumann. One of Elgar’s other favorite composers was Wagner. It is striking that like Elgar, Joachim, Pollitzer, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner and Richter were all fluent in the German language.
The FAE Sonata was composed collaboratively by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Schumann’s pupil, Albert Dietrich, in honor of their mutual friend Joseph Joachim. It is based on a musical cryptogram using the notes F, A and E to represent the initials for Joachim’s highly romanticized motto. Dietrich composed the first movement in Sonata form, Schumann an Intermezzo for the second, Brahms a Scherzo for the third, and Schumann a Finale for the fourth. When Joachim first performed the work, he was playfully challenged to guess the identity of the friend who composed each movement. Could this be the kernel of inspiration for Elgar’s symphonic treatment of his own friends, imagining them as composers and how they would interpret a musical cryptogram or enigma? The connection with Joachim’s motto embedded in Variation XIII more than suggests that is indeed the case. But there is more to this puzzle, a mathematical parallel.
The titles for Schumann’s contributions to the FAE Sonata match those for two sections of the Enigma Variations: Variations X (Intermezzo) and XIV (Finale). This is hardly a coincidence, for the sum of these Roman numerals is 24, the precise number of notes in the first six measures of the Enigma Theme’s melody that serves as the basis for a musical checkerboard cipher. It is also the same number of letters in Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, the six word title for the missing Principal Theme. Schumann’s contributions to the FAE Sonata are the second and fourth movements, another spelling of the number 24. Schumann planned to compose a massive oratorio about the life of Martin Luther that would climax with Ein feste Burg, but he passed away before this grand project could be realized.
Elgar, Joachim, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Dietrich, Richter and Mendelssohn were accomplished musicians who were fluent in German. Not coincidentally, the original language for the covert Principal Theme’s title is also in German, just as is the case with Joachim’s motto and the title of Mendelssohn concert overture quoted in Variation XIII – Meeresstille und gückliche Fahrt. Elgar’s use of the German spelling of his name for the initials in Variation XIV (E.D.U. is derived from Eduard) deliberately hints at the importance of the German language to resolving his enigmas. Elgar’s prominent use of the German sixth in the Enigma Theme further suggests the answer consists of six words in German: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott by Martin Luther. This famous theme is quoted in the works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Wagner, Raff, and Liszt.
Some of the greatest composers of the German school quote that mighty theme, and Elgar was a devoted disciple of that proud Germanic tradition. As a practicing Roman Catholic, however, Elgar could not openly quote a song composed by a heretic excommunicated by the Pope. And so the ‘Enigma’ Variations were born as a stealth imitation of the great German masters whom Elgar admired and idealized, but could not openly emulate. To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.