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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Richard Powell's Enigma "Solution" Refuted


“No. Auld Lang Syne won’t do.”
Edward Elgar

In 1934 Richard Powell formally proposed the folk song Auld Lang Syne as the hidden Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations[1] He claimed to have hit on the idea in 1920, but delayed making is public until after Elgar’s death.  Married to the woman Elgar so delicately portrayed in Variation X as Dorabella, Powell advanced his theory despite the glaring realization that Elgar disavowed it. In response to a query in 1920 from Dyneley Hussey, Elgar sent a postcard reading simply, “No. Auld Lang Syne won’t do.” [2]  Did Powell claim to be the private originator in 1920 to preempt Hussey’s documented but unsuccessful inquiry? Or did Powell wait until after Elgar’s death to publicly release his theory as a means of barring any possibility of another candid denial from the composer? The answers will never be known, but one thing is definite – Auld Lang Syne is not the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations.
A credible case can be made only if it can be shown that Auld Lang Syne effectively satisfies six conditions Elgar gave describing the relationship between the Enigma Variations and the covert principal Theme. Obtained directly from Elgar’s recorded words by multiple, independent, unimpeachable sources, those six conditions are:
  1. The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the principal Theme.
  2. The principal Theme is not heard.
  3. The principal Theme is famous.
  4. Fragments of the principal Theme are present in the Variations.
  5. The principal Theme is a melody that can be played through and over the whole set of Variations including the entire Enigma Theme.
  6. 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 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, Auld Lang Syne still flunks the test.


Auld Lang Syne fails to produce a complete or credible counterpoint over the full seventeen measures of the Enigma Theme, cadencing in bar 16 rather than the final bar. More fatally, it has also never been shown to play "through and over" any of the other movements. According to the original 1899 program note, the unstated Principal Theme must play over each of the movements, not solely the Enigma Theme.
The only theme ever shown to successfully satisfy all six of Elgar’s specific conditions is Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin LutherA 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 BurgThe 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.
If he were alive today, Elgar's response to Powell's solution would undoubtedly be, “No. Auld Lang Syne still will not do." Powell's flawed theory should be forgot and never brought to mind. 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.



[1] Music & Letters, Vol. XV, July 1934 pp 203-208
[2] Turner, Patrick. Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations - a Centenary Celebration. London: Thames Publishing, 1999, p. 107

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About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker, and Rosenker’s pupil, Owen Dunsford. Mr. Padgett studied piano with Sally Magee (a student of Emanuel Bay), and Blanca Uribe, a student of Rosina Lhévinne. He attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Vassar he studied music theory and composition with Richard Wilson. Mr. Padgett has performed for Joseph Silverstein, Van Cliburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Steve Jobs, Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Marcia Davenport, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other prominent public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008 Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry "Fanfare for the Eagles." It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado in May 2008. A member of the Elgar Society, Mr. Padgett is married with five children.