“…As to myself the following are F A X about me. Just completed a set of Symphonic Variations (theme original) for orchestra — thirteen in number (but I call the finale the fourteenth, because of the ill-luck attaching to the number). I have in the Variations sketched portraits of my friends – a new idea, I think – that is, in each variation I have looked at the theme through the personality (as it were) of another Johnny.”
Edward Elgar in The Musical Times
“The number thirteen has from time immemorial been associated with distress and trouble. In Bible numerology the number thirteen indicates rebellion, disaster and judgment.”
M. R. De Haan from Studies from Revelation
Elgar displays a peculiar fascination with the number thirteen, for it appears time and again within the Enigma Variations. For his first biographical sketch published in the October 1901 issue of The Musical Times, Elgar wrote there are thirteen variations. The problem with this description is there are fourteen variations preceded by the original theme. Why the discrepancy? Elgar’s explanation is simple enough. The number thirteen refers to only his friends pictured within, not to himself. Excluding the composer, there are thirteen friends portrayed in the variations. Like the unstated Principal Theme, one of these friends remains nameless, the inspiration behind Variation XIII.
Why would Elgar portray thirteen friends if he attributes bad luck to that number? Compounding the mystery is the fact Variation XIII is the only movement lacking a friend’s initials or nickname. Instead, it is identified by three asterisks (***). The answer is spiritually symbolic and deeply theological. The secret friend behind Variation XIII is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith. This should come as no surprise as Elgar dedicated the majority of his major works to God by writing AMDG, an abbreviation of the the Jesuit motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam. The initials for Elgar’s famous friend are conveyed by the Roman numerals for this movement. X stands for the tenth letter of the alphabet (J), and III the third (C). Converting the Roman numerals X and III into their alphabetical equivalent produces the initials for Jesus Christ – J.C. In a revealing parallel, the symbol of the Jesuits includes a cross and three nails, characters subtly captured by the Roman numeral X and three I's.
|Symbol of the Society of Jesus|
|AMDG at the top of the score of Elgar's Gerontius|
In Biblical numerology, the number thirteen is associated with judgment and rebellion. In this context, the "deathly stillness" of Variation XIII portrays the crucifixion of Messiah, God’s judgment and atonement for the sins of humanity. The Roman numbers graphically symbolize this with X representing a cross, and the I’s the three nails. Jesus equated his impending death and resurrection to the Sign of Jonah, thereby linking his death to the ocean. Excluding Christ’s Variation, there are twelve of Elgar’s friends pictured within. This presents a numerological allusion to the twelve disciples who precede Jesus in the set. Christ lowered himself before the twelve at the Last Supper, washing their feet like a common servant to demonstrate his humility and willingness to serve others. With this gesture, Jesus made himself last among his disciples. In like manner, Elgar places Christ’s Variation after the twelve, and closest to himself, E.D.U.
In light of Elgar’s fascination with the number thirteen, it is remarkable he sequentially encodes the numbers 1 and 3 in the first violin and viola parts of the Enigma Theme and Variation XIII. In the string choir the first section is the first violins, and the third the violas. The Enigma Theme begins with the first violins playing in third position on B-flat and G using the fingers 3 and 1. These fingerings also correspond to scale degrees.
In Variation XIII the violas recapitulate the rhythmic pattern of the Enigma Theme one measure after rehearsal 56. This accompaniment figure is played the first position with the upper voice cycling between A-flat and C using the first and third fingers. Again, these fingerings match the degrees of the scale. The alto clef used by the violas looks remarkably like the number 13.
Key modulations in Variation XIII spell the number 13. The movement begins in G major and modulates up one note to A-flat major. From A flat major it modulates down three notes to F minor. These first two key modulations spell the number 13. From F minor it then modulates back up one note to the tonic key of G major followed by a modulation three notes down to E-flat major. These ensuing modulations present yet another spelling of the number 13. Given the biblical connotations attached to this number, it is deeply symbolic Elgar chose Variation XIII to portray his greatest friend. The repetition of the number 13 may be a coded reference to the year 1313 when the Rosicrucian Order was founded. A symbol of that order, the Christian Rose Cross (C.R.C.), was adapted by Martin Luther as his personal seal. Consequently, the year 1313 may be interpreted as a clue regarding the composer of A Mighty Fortress, the unstated Principal Theme of the Enigma Variations.
The Enigma Variations have multiple music ciphers in the Enigma Theme and Variation XIII. It makes sense that these two movements are linked by the presence of ciphers. Just as the Enigma Theme has a missing Principal Theme, Variation XIII has a missing Principal Friend. These overt puzzles hint at covert puzzles in the form of ciphers with missing solutions. The most sophisticated of Elgar’s ciphers is a music box cipher. The cipher key is a four-sided checkerboard grid that encodes plain text solution letters using melody-bass note pairs from the first six measures of the Enigma Theme. Rosicrucians used ciphers to send coded messages, and the grid pattern of the Rosicrucian cipher is reminiscent to Elgar’s box cipher table. The three ciphers in Variation XIII are the F-A-E Cipher, the Romanza Cipher, and the Mendelssohn Cipher. Two of these ciphers – the F-A-E and Mendelssohn Ciphers – identify the unstated Principal Theme, Ein feste Burg. The Romanza Cipher identifies the burial cloth of Christ, the Turin Shroud. Elgar’s coded reference to the Turin Shroud in Variation XIII further hints at the numbers 1 and 3. This is the case as the Turin Shroud consists of a 3 over 1 herringbone twill pattern.
This analysis documents multiple references to the number thirteen within Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Ranging from the number of friends portrayed to key modulations in Variation XIII, the number thirteen is suggested in a variety of ways. In Biblical numerology, the number thirteen is associated with judgment and rebellion. It is theologically appropriate the movement secretly dedicated to Jesus is assigned this number. Martin Luther led a rebellion against the Catholic Church, and it is equally appropriate various ciphers within Variation XIII identify his most famous hymn – Ein feste Burg – as the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations. In his own way, Elgar rebelled against his publishers who preferred trivial, shallow works that sell over serious ones with depth and profound meaning. Perhaps this explains Elgar’s secret identification with Luther, a person who placed personal integrity and spiritual purity over curdled traditions and the Church’s insatiable greed for indulgences. Elgar was a very public Roman Catholic, so such an opinion would have to remain veiled in secrecy. Besides, for him it was fun keeping everyone guessing. Now the guessing game is over, for Elgar's enigmas are enigmas no more. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.