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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Theodore van Houten’s Enigma "Solution" Refuted

Neptune Resigning the Empire of the Sea to Britannia
When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main
Arose, arose from the azure main,
This was the charter, the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule Britannia!
Britannia rules the waves:
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves."
Lyrics from  Rule! Britannia
In 1976 Theodore van Houten first proposed the patriotic British song Rule Britannia as the hidden Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations. This theory relies primarily on the repeated use of the word ‘never’ in the original 1899 program note, and a series of falling thirds on the words "never, never, never" in the chorus of Rule Britannia. According to Houten, the resemblance between the falling thirds and the opening notes of the Enigma Theme suggests a fleeting melodic connection. Sir Mark Elder echoes this opinion. As a substantial number of tonal works use falling thirds in the melody, this correspondence is far from isolated. The salient passage from the lyrics reads, “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Observe the word ‘never’ appears three times in succession in the lyrics, but only twice non-consecutively in the original program note:
The Enigma I will not explain – it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played…So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some later dramas – e.g., Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’ – the chief character is never on the stage.[1]
The impression of some link between the Enigma Theme and Rule Britannia is at best superficial, failing to withstand any rigorous contrapuntal scrutiny.  To avoid a genuine test of his theory, Houton conveniently denies the existence of a counterpoint between the two melodies.  If that were the case, then why grasp for a motif of falling thirds to conjure some link between the two? Either there is a true counterpoint, and by extension a real melody, or there is not. He cannot have his cake and eat it too. This still leaves unanswered the question why Elgar would conceal a patriotic theme in the first place. He composed an ample number of patriotic works, so what rationale could there be to hide the obvious? There would certainly be nothing humorous in obscuring what is already known about him. Elgar was proud of his country and its traditions and was unashamed to celebrate them in his music. Houton’s theory rests on the absurdity Elgar would want to hide his patriotic verve when his previous works reveal just the opposite.
Besides these issues with Houton’s problematic theory, an even bigger problem is it blatantly contradicts Elgar’s character as a composer. A primary driver behind some of his greatest music was the habit of creating counterpoints to famous melodies. A person’s character is usually a reliable predictor of behavior, and this is undoubtedly the case with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Two accounts from his life illustrate his undeniable fascination with writing counterpoints to famous themes. At age 12 Elgar helped prepare the orchestra parts of Handel’s "Messiah" for the 1869 Three Choirs Festival, describing the experience in these words:
I composed a little tune of which I was very proud. I thought the public should hear it, but my opportunities of publishing it were decidedly few. I took my opportunity when my father was engaged in preparing the Handel parts for the forthcoming festival. Very laboriously I introduced my little tune into the music. The thing was an astonishing success, and I heard that some people had never enjoyed Handel so much before! When my father learned of it, however, he was furious! [2]
In 1901 at age 42 he composed the Cockaigne Overture Op. 40. His sketchbook shows he conceived of the lover’s theme as a counterpoint to the "Wedding March" from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elgar invoked this counterpoint because Mendelssohn’s music is indelibly linked to marriage, and there was some concern the lovemaking portrayed in the overture was not "strictly proper." [3] The counterpoint is an example of Elgar’s practical jokes, or what he called japes. For him, the joke involved creating a counter melody to a famous tune, one that is not openly stated in the overture. Mendelssohn’s "Wedding March" may therefore be described as an unstated Principal Theme, something analogous to the hidden melody of the Enigma Variations completed two years earlier (Figure 1.1). This jape involves a counterpoint to a hidden theme, so it is safe to abandon’s the very core of Houton’s theory as untenable.



In an autobiographical sketch published in October 1901 issue of The Musical Times, Elgar displays his musical sense of humor by cleverly inserting God Save the King into the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. In this instance, Elgar mingles two famous melodies together into an artful counterpoint (Figure 1.2). Contrary to Houten's misinformed view, Elgar’s sense of a musical jape is not the absence of a counterpoint, but the very opposite. It should be observed Elgar's version of God save the Queen is in an augmented version.


Elgar’s history makes it sufficiently clear he relished writing counter melodies to famous themes, so any thoughtful investigator should take the composer at his word when he said the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to a well-known melody. Houton makes the mistake of preferring his own assumptions rather than deferring to numerous public statements issued by Elgar that clearly define the parameters of the puzzle. A credible case can be made 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. 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, Rule Britannia still flunks the test.


Rule Britannia fails to present a complete or convincing counterpoint over the entire seventeen measures of the Enigma Theme.  Strike one. In fact, that patriotic song fails to complete even one full cycle over the Enigma Theme, falling three measures short. Strike two. Houton is correct in claiming there is be no contrapuntal relationship between Rule Britannia and the Enigma Theme. The catch is that no counterpoint means no solution. On top of these difficulties, it has never been shown how that patriotic song could conceivably play "through and over" the remaining movements, a requirement Elgar specifically mentions in the original 1899 program note. Strike three. The failure to satisfy these key conditions leads to only one conclusion: Rule Britannia could not possibly be the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations.
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 Houten's solution would likely be, "No. Rule Britannia will 'never, never, never' do." To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.




[1] Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing a letter by Elgar
[2] Moore, J. N. (1987). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 43.
[3] McVeagh, D. (2007). Elgar the Music Maker. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, p. 75.

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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.