“I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”
In 1977 Dennis Whitten proposed Pop Goes the Weasel as the hidden theme to Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Could that ordinary folk song be the secretive Theme to the Enigma Variations? A credible case can only be made if it can be shown that Pop Goes the Weasel effectively satisfies six conditions Elgar gave defining 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 given melody "through and over" the Enigma Theme to assess whether there is a credible contrapuntal and horizontal fit. Before attempting this, it is first necessary to adapt a candidate theme 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 begins in G minor (measures 1-6), continues in G major (measures 7-10), returns to G minor (measures 11-16), cadences in G major (measure 17), and modulates again back to G minor in the bridge leading to Variation I (measures 18-19). Even when adjusting for these modulations, Pop Goes the Weasel flunks the test.
Based on this melodic mapping, Pop Goes the Weasel does not present a credible counterpoint to the Enigma Theme. Strike one. It finishes prematurely seven bars before the Enigma Theme concludes. Strike two. More fatally, it has never been shown how Pop Goes the Weasel 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: Pop Goes the Weasel could not possibly be the covert principal Theme to the Enigma Variations. If he were alive today, Elgar's response to Dennis Whitten would undoubtedly be, “No, nothing like it. Pop Goes the Weasel 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.
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 contrapuntal and horizontal fit. Before attempting to do so 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 necessitated by 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, Pop Goes the Weasel flunks the test.
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.