Luther translated the entire New Testament into German within 11 weeks. Like a man possessed, he worked at the rate of more than 1500 words per day. What he produced was so masterful that in time it did much to create the modern German language. He was determined to do as good a job as possible and to prove to the world that “German nightingales can sing as beautifully as Roman goldfinches.”
It is impossible to fully enter into and understand either the earlier or the Elgarian Oratorios without a preceding familiarity with the New Testament itself, and a faith in and sympathy with the truths and forces therein contained. The Elgarian pair are a veritable musical translation of the Gospel content itself, brought out in a deeply set, contemplative potency, wherein every orchestral and vocal strand serves as an integral part of the thought which it conveys.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Edward Elgar and Martin Luther share a number of similar life experiences. Both were raised and educated as Roman Catholics and regularly attended Latin Mass at churches named after St. George. They learned to read, write and speak German. Their fathers worked in various trades and owned their own businesses. Elgar and Luther briefly studied law before abandoning it for an uncertain life rife with great risks and even greater rewards. They studied theology and were well-versed in the Bible. Their personal libraries were filled with various translations of the Bible, books, and essays on theology, and hymnals. Only marrying once, they become husbands and fathers. In their chosen professions, they were essentially autodidacts, recognized for their independence and originality of thought. Luther translated the scriptures into his native German, and Elgar translated large sections of the New Testament into music. As composers, they created sacred works with a powerful message infused with faith, hope, and love.
Elgar and Luther also share one other very important connection – the secret melody to the Enigma Variations.
Recognizing these intriguing parallels between the lives of Luther and Elgar, is it any wonder Elgar openly quotes the music of a devout Lutheran – Felix Mendelssohn – in Variation XIII of the Enigma Variations? The original sketch of that movement was identified with a solitary capital “L”, as in Luther. Later versions included the extra letters “ML”, as in Martin Luther. These clues allude to the fact the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to one of the most quoted themes in the German School, Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. After all, Mendelssohn quotes and develops a set of variations based on that famous hymn in his Reformation Symphony. Elgar was a devout student of the German school, and Ein feste Burg is quoted in the works of the great German masters like Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Bach, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Wagner.
In the original 1899 program note describing the Variations as a work about his friends, Elgar gives only the name of a stranger: Maeterlinck. Behind this odd reference is a word game alluding to Luther. The original score is incorrectly dated “Feb. 18, 1898”, but this is just another reference to Luther as it was the anniversary of his death. Even the word Enigma holds a connection to the title of Luther’s most famous hymn. The case for Ein feste Burg as the unstated principal Theme of the Enigma Variations is extensive and persuasive. More compelling still is that Elgar covertly encodes the answers to his enigmas in the opening measures of the Enigma Theme using an ingenious musical Polybius Box Cipher. Even the unusual nickname for Variation IX (Nimrod) is linked to the title of the hidden melody. When Elgar told Dora Penny that she, of all people, should be the one to guess the answer, he did so because her variation cites the opening four notes from the final phrase of Ein feste Burg. All the evidence, when properly understood, points to one melodic solution to the Enigma Variations: Ein feste Burg. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
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