When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high.
Edward Elgar’s inscription on the original score of Froissart
There are credible allusions to five knights in Elgar’s Enigma Variations. These direct and indirect references are to Sir Richard Grenville, Godfrey of Bouillon, General Charles Gordon, Geoffroi de Charny, and Junker Jörg (Knight George). Virtually of these allusions are literary, while one is musical and two are cryptographic. These knightly allusions are not out of character for Elgar who composed multiple works dwelling on noble and chivalrous themes. These include Froissart (1890), The Black Knight (1893), King Olaf (1896), The Banner of St. George (1897), Caractacus (1898), music for Authur (1923), and The Severn Suite (1930). The respected Elgar scholar Robert Anderson wrote a volume exploring this very subject in depth, Elgar and Chivalry. To discover the source of Elgar’s chivalrous character, one need not look further than his own mother. In her youth, Ann Elgar enjoyed reading chivalric romances and passed this literary passion onto her children. It is conceivable these noble references within the Variations are a discrete element of the “dark saying” mentioned in the original 1899 program, for knight is the phonetic equivalent of night. Knightly allusions in the Variations proved prophetic for Elgar who was knighted in 1904 in recognition of his impressive musical achievements. In addition to a Knighthood and the Order of Merit, Elgar was also cited by the Catholic Directory as a Catholic Knight.
|Torquato Tasso (1544–1595)|
The richest source of these knightly allusions in the Variations is a literary quote cited at the end of the original score. At the conclusion of Variation XIV, Elgar wrote a paraphrase of a passage from Torquato Tasso’s epic Christian poem La Gerusalemme liberata. The altered quotation appears in the following form:
‘Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio’ ‘(sic, 1595)’ [Tasso]
On the next page, Elgar gives the translation as “I essay much, I hope little, I ask nothing.” The original passage reads, “Brama assai, poco spera, e nulla chiede,” and is correctly translated as “I desire much, I hope little, I ask nothing.” The source for the modified Tasso quote was accidentally discovered by Geoffrey Hodgkins while browsing through one of Elgar’s large account books that had the following entry:
‘Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio’ Tasso
See ‘Sir Rich Grenville’15 –
“Mrs. Browning” refers to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browing. She used the original Tasso quotation at the beginning of An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, her first published volume at seventeen years of age. Elgar’s extensive literary appetite assures he was familiar with Browning’s poetic exploits. “Sir Rich Grenville” refers to a text by Gervase Markham entitled The Most Honorable Tragedie of Sir Richard Grinville, Knight. This book has on the title page the Tasso quotation in the very same form used by Elgar, establishing an indirect link to Sir Richard Grenville. This English sailor and explorer died at the Battle of Flores in 1591 where he commanded the Revenge, a galleon with 46 guns, in a heroic last stand. In this daring engagement, Grenville’s lone ship defiantly opposed a fleet of Spanish ships, permitting the rest of his outnumbered English naval force to escape. Patrick Turner wisely points out, “Elgar may well have felt some affinity with Sir Richard Grenville in the matter of facing up to overwhelming odds, as he was given to complaining the fates were against him and that his work was to no avail.”
|Sir Richard Grenville (1542–1591)|
Jerusalem Delivered is an epic Christian poem by Tasso that mythologizes the First Crusade (1096-1099) that involved a number of famous knights. The most popular is undoubtedly Godfrey of Bouillon, a medieval knight who led the First Crusade in the successful capture of Jerusalem in July 1099. Tasso conceived an elegantly romanticized account of Godfrey’s exploits and how he liberated Jerusalem from Muslim occupation.
|Godfrey of Bouillon (1060–1100)|
Tasso describes how after the city was saved, Godfrey and his troops piously shed their armor and knelt beside devout pilgrims to worship at the Holy Sepulcher. Godfrey’s overarching goal was to secure unfettered access to the tomb of Christ and other holy sites for traveling pilgrims to venerate and at which to pray. The capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade prompted the founding of another legendary chivalric order, the Knights Templar.
|A Templar Knight|
A sacred relic directly associated with the tomb of Jesus is the Turin Shroud, a sacred cloth many believe to be the burial shroud of Christ. According to some historians, the Knights Templar hid the Turin Shroud for over a century following the crusades. Elgar cryptically mentions it with an ingenious elimination cipher in Variation XIII, a movement secretly dedicated to Jesus. The common three-word title for the unstated principal Theme (Ein feste Burg) is the key, and the Mendelssohn fragments are the lock. The Mendelssohn fragments come from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a concert overture inspired by the poetry of Goethe. There is an intriguing literary connection between Tasso and the great German dramatist, for in 1790 Goethe completed a play about the tragic poet's life called simply Torquato Tasso.
It is intriguing that the word Shroud is incomplete, represented only by its initial. In essence, it remains shrouded in mystery, revealing its meaning only figuratively rather than being fully spelled out. Identifying the Shroud by its initial is a a similitude shared by the Variations that identifies the majority of Elgatr's friends by their initials. The inclusion of Turin is sufficient to hint at both the artifact’s location and absent five letters.
The setting for the grand finale of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered is directly connected with the Shroud, for Christ rested in the tomb while wrapped in the shroud before his miraculous resurrection. The first known historical owner of the Turin Shroud was Geoffroi de Charny, a knight who reportedly obtained this relic during a crusade in 1345-46. He authored three works on chivalry, and Europe’s most heralded knights during his lifetime. He was renowned not only for his skill in battle but also for his profound piety and sense of honor. Froissart’s Chronicles document de Charny visited Scotland twice and was once held for ransom in England at Goodrich Castle. He would later fall at the Battle of Poitiers, but not before writing Pope Clement VI for permission to build a church at Lirey, France, to house the Shroud.
|Geoffroi de Charny (1306–1356)|
There is a revealing historical connection between the Turin Shroud and Torquato Tasso. In 1578 on the day the Shroud was delivered to the city of Turin, the city was host to a very famous guest: Torquato Tasso. A special Mass was held the next day to celebrate the arrival of Christendom’s most sacred relic, and Tasso was among those present to receive Communion. When the Exposition of the Shroud was conducted, Tasso venerated the cloth by kneeling before it, weeping, and kissing it over and over again.
|Martin Luther disguised as Junker Jörg|
In Variation XIII, the keys of the Mendelssohn fragments transparently encode the letters of the well-known music cryptogram “FAE”. Those initials originate from the romantic motto “Frei aber einsam” coined by the famed violinist Joseph Joachim. His initials are “JJ,” the same shared by an alias adopted by Martin Luther when he hid out at Wartburg Castle under the title of Junker Jörg (Knight George). The coded reference to Joseph Joachim provided by the Mendelssohn fragments contains a code within a code because Joachim’s initials also point to an alias used by the composer of the covert principal Theme to the Enigma Variations. Joachim’s conversion into the Lutheran faith in May 1855 further augments this coded allusion to Luther.
|General Gordon (1833–1855)|
The last and perhaps least obvious of Elgar’s Enigma knights is General Charles George Gordon, a companion of the chivalrous Order of the Bath. In October 1898, Elgar was not planning a set of symphonic Variations, but rather his first major symphony in honor General Gordon. Even after beginning work on the Variations, he continued to mention the “Gordon Symphony” in his letters. The covert reference to “Knight George” in Variation XIII is likely a coded allusion to General Gordon who shared the name George. Various allusions to General Gordon in Variation XIV suggest Elgar saw the Finale as a partial fulfillment of that ambitious project.
The first and most obvious of these martial allusions is the rousing Finale sounds like of a military march. The second is found in the initials for this movement (E. D. U.) which originate from the first three letters in the German version of Elgar’s first name, Eduard. In his correspondence, Gordon often wrote the Latin acronym “D. V.” which stands for Deo Volente. Not only does this apotropaic appear in Elgar’s personal correspondence, but it is also cleverly concealed in the initials “E. D. U.” In the classical Latin alphabet, the letter U is the equivalent of V. Consequently, “D. U.” may be read alternatively as “D. V.” A second reference is Elgar’s choice of key (G Major), for Gordon was a Major-General at the time of his death. A third allusion to General George Charles Gordon is intimated by the chords on beats 1 and 3 of the first two measures at rehearsal 62 which form his initials.
The placement of these initials on beats 1 and 3 suggest the number for Variation XIII, a movement secretly dedicated to Jesus, the bedrock the faith of both Elgar and Gordon. Before he embarked on his final ill-fated campaign in the Sudan, Gordon went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Lytton Strachey deftly describes Gordon’s sojourn in Jerusalem:
During the year 1883, a solitary English gentleman was to be seen, wandering with a thick book under his arm, in the neighborhood of Jerusalem . . . To the friendly inquirer, he would explain, in a low, soft, and very distinct voice, that he was engaged in elucidating four questions – the site of the Crucifixion, the line of division between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, the identification of Gibeon, and the position of the Garden of Eden. He was also, he would add, most anxious to discover the spot where the Ark first touched ground, after the subsidence of the Flood: he believed, indeed, that he had solved that problem, as a reference to some passages in the book which he was carrying would show.That singular person was General Gordon, and his book was the Holy Bible.
Gordon spent an entire year investigating various theological questions, most famously the location of the Garden Tomb. Today the Garden Tomb is popularly known as Gordon’s Calvary due to his powerful influence in publicly promoting the place as the genuine resting place of Christ. This direct connection with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is critical because it is also associated with Elgar’s other knightly allusions linked to the Tasso paraphrase, and Tasso’s public veneration of the Shroud on its arrival in Turin in 1578.
|The Garden Tomb|
Elgar personally identified with icons of Christian heroism like Gordon who chose a martyr’s death over surrender and conversion to Islam. An annotated copy of Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius was on Gordon’s person when Khartoum fell to the Mahdist army. Elgar owned a copy of that annotated text, shared a copy of it with his future wife when her father died, received a copy as a wedding present, and later referred to it when composing his sacred oratorio with the same title. Like many patriotic Englishman, Elgar owned a bust of General Gordon. Elgar imitated Gordon’s manners and martial bearing. For instance, when Gordon was on campaign he would place a flag on his tent to show 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 adopted a military bearing, emulating respected military figures like his wife’s father (Major-General Sir Henry Gee Roberts), and General Gordon. Sending secret messages in code is standard operating procedure for the military, and Elgar was fascinated by secret codes.
Elgar’s identification with Gordon’s faith and noble is clearly consistent with the artistic vision of many of his works. More relevant to this discussion is the fact the fall of Khartoum shares some distinct parallels with 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.”
This analysis shows the Tasso paraphrase at the conclusion of the original score of the Enigma Variations is an effective literary device that ties together famous knights, the tomb of Christ, and the Turin Shroud. The Tasso paraphrase deftly alludes to Sir Richard Grenville, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Geoffroi de Charny. Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered establishes a distinct connection to the Tomb of Christ, and the poet’s public veneration of the Turin Shroud completes the connection to Christendom’s most sacred relic and shrine, the Garden Tomb. Various allusions to General Gordon in Variation XIV revisit and reinforce these literary associations because of his well-known public promotion of the Garden Tomb, and heroic last stand at Khartoum against the marauding Mahdist army. As an aside, it is remarkable the name Khartoum contains the phonetic equivalent of tomb. Elgar’s Enigma knights share some common traits. For instance, at least one of their names begins with G:
- Sir Richard Grenville
- Godfrey of Bouillon
- Geoffroi de Charny
- Knight George (Junker Jörg)
- General Charles Gordon
Could this be why Elgar chose the key of G major for the Finale? At least three of these historic figures died in battle against overwhelming odds: Grenville, Gordon, and de Charny. One Arab historian records Godfrey was killed by an arrow at the siege of Acre, but this account is disputed by others who suggest he was poisoned or died in Jerusalem after a lengthy illness. Who could ever imagine that such a little literary thread spun by Tasso, dyed by Gervase Markham, and woven by Elgar into the Variations could contain so many reams of meaning? To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
|Autograph Score: The Enigma Theme (bars 1-3)|
 Turner, Patrick. Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations - a Centenary Celebration. London: Thames Publishing, 1999, p. 100.
 Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin). London: Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 189.