Dies iræ! Dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!
First stanza of the Dies Irae
Ben Kingdon contends the plainchant Dies Irae is the secretive melody to Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Could that well known medieval Latin hymn be the covert Principal Theme to the Variations? Elgar was a devout Roman Catholic who dedicated the majority of his major works to God, so the Dies Irae is an obvious choice, perhaps too obvious. A credible case can be made for that candidate theme only if it can be shown to effectively satisfy six conditions Elgar gave describing the relationship between the Enigma Variations and the covert principal Theme. Secured directly from Elgar’s recorded words by multiple, independent, unimpeachable sources, those six conditions are:
- The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the principal Theme.
- The principal Theme is not heard.
- The principal Theme is famous.
- Fragments of the principal Theme are present in the Variations.
- The principal Theme is a melody that can be played through and over the whole set of Variations including the entire Enigma Theme.
- The Enigma Theme comprises measures 1 through 19.
Any theme that violates just one of those six conditions must be ruled out as invalid. The first and foremost test is to play a candidate melody “through and over” the Enigma Theme to assess whether there is credible evidence for both a contrapuntal and horizontal fit. Before attempting this, it is first necessary to adapt a prospective melody to mirror the Enigma Theme’s shifts between the major and minor modes of G. These modulations are required by the structure of the Enigma Theme which opens in G minor (measures 1-6), continues in G major (measures 7-10), returns to G minor (measure 11-16), cadences in G major (measure 17), and modulates back to G minor in the bridge leading to Variation I measures 18-19). Even when granting these generous accommodations to facilitate a contrapuntal mapping, the Dies Irae fails the test.
Based on this melodic mapping, the Dies Irae does not present a credible counterpoint to the Enigma Theme. Strike one. It finishes prematurely two measures before the Enigma Theme concludes. Strike two. More fatally, it has never been shown how the Dies Irae plays “through and over” the remaining movements, a requirement Elgar specifically mentions in the original 1899 program note. Strike three. The failure to satisfy these and other key conditions permits one inescapable conclusion: The Dies Irae could not possibly be the covert principal Theme to the Enigma Variations. If he were alive today, Elgar's response to Ben Kingdon would undoubtedly be, “No, nothing like it. The Dies Irae does not fit in the least.”
The only theme that successfully satisfies Elgar’s six conditions is Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. A precise vertical and horizontal alignment between the two melodies is realized by Elgar's sophisticated treatment of Ein feste Burg as a retrograde counterpoint in an augmented form. Such an unconventional approach accounts for the profound difficulty in detecting a contrapuntal alignment because researchers invariably pair the beginning of a prospective melody with the beginning of the Enigma Theme. Such a predictable approach produces a mismatch even when the correct melody is considered.
The case for Ein feste Burg as the covert Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations is extensive and persuasive. Confirmation that Ein feste Burg is the hidden theme is given by a diverse range of music ciphers in the Enigma Theme and Variation XIII. Within the Enigma Theme is concealed a music box cipher, Elgar’s "dark saying" linked to the Enigma mentioned in the original 1899 program note. Incredibly, Elgar did not take his secret to the grave, but rather enciphered the answer within the orchestral score to ensure its survival and organic connection to the work. When discovered, the decrypted answer would remain unguessed just as Elgar predicted. He even went so far as to encode the initials for the hidden melody in the Enigma Theme which modulates between the minor and major modes of G. It is remarkable the accidentals for those two keys (E-flat, F sharp, B flat) are the initials for Ein feste Burg.
The odd nickname for Jaeger’s Variation (Nimrod) is linked to the title A Mighty Fortress by of one Elgar’s favorite pastimes, wordplay. When he gave a copy of Longfellow’s novel Hyperion to the conductor Hans Richter following the premiere, Elgar literally gave away the answer. No wonder he suspected the solution would soon be discovered. Even the wrong date on the original score is a revealing clue since it falls on the anniversary of Luther’s death. According to an alphanumeric cipher within the Mendelssohn fragments, the missing initials for Variation XIII (***) are E.F.B. – the initials for Ein feste Burg. The mapping of Ein feste Burg over Nimrod is so self-evident that the melodic solution to Elgar's Enigma Variations is as plain a pikestaff.
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 and forgiveness, the price is free.