“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.”
Edward Elgar from the 1899 program note for the 'Enigma' Variations
In describing the ‘Enigma’ Variations for the 1899 premiere, Elgar likens the missing principal Theme to a main dramatic character who never appears on stage. To frame it another way, the main character remains in the dark ‘off-stage’, hidden from view. It is incredibly revealing Elgar’s 1903 sacred oratorio The Kingdom presents the trial and crucifixion of Jesus ‘off stage’. Elgar’s use of this dramatic device is rich with symbolism as there was darkness over the land resulting from an eclipse during the crucifixion. It also alludes to the identity of Elgar’s hidden friend, the subject of his haunting Enigma Theme and ‘dark saying’, a musical box cipher that reveals both the name of the unstated Principal Theme and the secret friend of Variation XIII.
Research confirms the hidden friend and dedicatee of Variation XIII is Jesus. The evidence is both overwhelmingly obvious yet cleverly concealed. Variation XIII was originally designated with a capital L, a letter associated with various titles for Jesus as the Lord of Lords, Light of the World, and Light of Life. There are some compelling linguistic associations between the letter L and Jesus that likely prompted Elgar to use it as a cryptic reference. For one, the letter L is the phonetic equivalent of the Hebrew word for Lord and God (El), and the first two letters in Elgar's last name. In Greek the letter L is known as Lambda, a title that may be interpreted as an oblique reference to one of the titles for Christ as the Lamb of God with the final two letters (da) forming the reverse acronym of the equivalent Latin title Agnus Dei. In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, L is represented by a reclining lion or sphinx. In Elgar's Roman Catholic tradition, one of the titles for Jesus is the Lion of Judah. As an aside, it is intriguing that in a letter from November 1899 Jaeger describes Elgar as a sphinx, a mythical creature infamous for posing insoluble riddles.
It is fascinating the word crucifixion contains exactly one X and three I’s, the same Roman numerals associated with Elgar’s most enigmatic variation. These Roman numerals are a numerological cipher key for the initials to Elgar’s secret friend. The Roman numeral X represents the number 10. The tenth letter of the alphabet is J. The three Roman numeral I’s stand for the number 3. The third letter is C. When considered as X and III, the Roman numerals XIII encode the initials JC. They may also figuratively be read to represent a cross and three nails. Even the lyrics of the covert Principal Theme – Ein feste Burg –mention Elgar’s hidden friend by name. More tantalizingly, an elimination cipher in Variation XIII refers to the burial cloth of Jesus, the Turin Shroud.
In May 1898 the amateur photographer Secondo Pia made history when his photographic negative of the Turin Shroud revealed a moving, life-like image of the crucified Jesus. What makes Pia’s discovery even more symbolically relevant to this inquiry is that it was made in a dark room as he was developing a photographic plate. Could this be one element of Elgar’s elaborate ‘dark saying’? The evidence certainly suggests so. The riveting revelation of Pia’s photographic negative of the Turin Shroud galvanized the Roman Catholic community and mesmerized the world press during the five months preceding the genesis of the Enigma Variations in October 1898. The amazing image of Jesus on the Turin Shroud was openly hidden in plain view, yet could only be fully seen in the form of a photographic negative. Another compelling reason why Elgar used the letter L as a reference to Christ is the Turin Shroud contains four distinctive L-shaped burn hole patterns. As I explain here, the Turin Shroud was a tremendous source of inspiration for Elgar when he composed the Enigma Variations.
Jesus, the teacher who spoke in parables or dark sayings, is ultimately the main character of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and subject of the covert Principal Theme who only appears "off-stage." To learn more about the secrets behind the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar's Enigmas Exposed.