“Character is destiny.”
To successfully navigate the melodic labyrinth presented by the Enigma Variations, it is essential to approach it through the three C’s of Elgar’s psychological profile: Catholicism, cryptograms, and counterpoint. A careful consideration of these traits is critical because a person’s character is more often than not a reliable predictor of behavior. Knowing Elgar’s passions provides a lens to bring the blurred and hazy questions about the Variations into sharper focus, a critical step towards uncovering its covert Principal Theme. The search for this elusive melody is an enduring Elgarian quest, spawning over the past century a distinct genre of research. While answers have multiplied and changed with the passage of time, the enigmas remain tantalizingly unresolved. This investigation strives to find the missing melody and fulfill Elgar’s challenge — and along the way answer many unresolved questions about one of his greatest symphonic masterpieces.
“Elgar’s Catholic upbringing tends to be underplayed in most writings on the composer, but it may nevertheless be one of the most significant sources of his compositional character.”
One of Elgar’s most personally profound and enduring traits was his Roman Catholic faith. The failure to appreciate this insight makes is impossible to fully understand his music and motivations. Even so, revisionists go to great lengths to minimize Elgar’s faith ostensibly to make him and his music more palatable to Anglican, and later secular audiences. They would do just as well to describe the North Pole as a tropical island paradise. To imagine the composer of such epic Christian works as King Olaf, The Light of Life (Lux Christi), The Dream Gerontius, The Apostles, and The Kingdom was a closet atheist or agnostic ventures wildly beyond the absurd. His sister, Ellen Agnes, was profoundly influenced by this faith, becoming a Dominican Nun in 1902 and later a prioress. For the bulk of his major works Elgar’s Roman Catholicism was his modus operandi, the very heart of his artistic motivations. He made this abundantly plain in a letter to August Jaeger when he said of Gerontius, “I’ve written it out of my insidest inside.” Based on a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the oratorio Gerontius depicts an old man who makes a passionate declaration of his Christian faith before dying and being escorted by a Guardian Angel to his Judgment and fall into Purgatory. Elgar closely identified with Gerontius:
I imagine Gerontius to be a man like us, not a Priest or a Saint, but a sinner… now brought to book. Therefore I’ve not filled his part with Church tunes & rubbish but a good, healthy full-blooded romantic, remembered worldliness, so to speak…If he’d been a priest he wd. have sung or said as a climax but as he represents ME when ill he doesn’t – he remembers his little Churchy prayer music in little snatches.
Elgar’s faith was not an act put on for public consumption. It emanated from the confluence of his heart, soul, and mind, finding its greatest expression in what he considered the highest form of art: Music. When art critic Roger Fry insisted ‘all the arts are the same,’ Elgar remonstrated, ‘Music is written on the skies…and you compare that to a DAMNED imitation.’
Catholicism was the cornerstone of Elgar’s youth and education. As a child, he attended Catholic church and three Catholic schools, made Catholic friends and was first employed as an organist at St. George’s Catholic church. To grow up Catholic in England during the Edwardian era meant swimming against the tide of Anglicanism as the dominant orthodoxy and state sanctioned religion. Catholics were looked down upon as outsiders because of their dual allegiances to England and the foreign Pope in Rome. It would have been so much easier for Elgar to abandon Catholicism in favor of Anglicanism, yet he refused to take the easy out. He would not abandon the faith of his youth for his country whose culture and politics was dominated by Anglicanism, or his wife who also was Anglican. Such was the measure of his Roman Catholicism. He would not relent even when it meant enduring limited career prospects, unwarranted discrimination, and being scorned as an outsider.
When Elgar began openly composing the Enigma Variations in October 1898, he was a forty-one years old provincial composer who out of necessity earned income primarily as a violin and viola instructor. By that time he had been married to his wife Alice for nine years, and their union produced one daughter named Carice (an anagram Elgar devised from his wife’s first and middle names, Caroline and Alice). Alice’s first piano lesson with Elgar took place on October 6, 1886. Their marriage is a classic study in contrasts. He was tall and handsome, she short and homely. Alice was Anglican, the daughter of a decorated Major General, and great granddaughter to Robert Raikes, founder of the Anglican Sunday School movement. Edward was Roman Catholic, a musician by trade, and the son of a shopkeeper with no wealth, prospects or university education. Never was it more truly said that opposites attract than in the case of Alice Roberts and Edward Elgar.
As a dutiful wife, she agreed to a Catholic wedding ceremony in 1889 at the Brompton Oratory, also known as the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She would later receive instruction in Latin and the Catholic faith before converting in July 1893. It never occurred to Elgar to convert to Anglicanism even though his parents were born and raised in that faith tradition. His mother, Ann, converted to Catholicism when his father, William, worked as the organist at St. George’s Catholic Church. Hired though he was Anglican, his duties included playing the organ, training the choir, selecting the music, and even composing infrequently. William would later condemn “the absurd superstition and playhouse mummery of the Papists; the cold and formal ceremonies of the Church of England; the bigotry and rank hypocrisy of the Wesleyan.” He detested organized religions, yet ironically worked as an organist for the Catholic Church in addition to being a piano tuner and owner of a music store. In matters of faith Elgar followed closely in the footsteps of his mother, but in his choice of profession closely emulated his father. Like William, he married an Anglican who later converted to Catholicism, and supported himself by working as a professional musician. William was a violinist, pianist, and organist in addition to being a professional piano tuner and music shop owner. When his father retired as organist at St. George’s in 1885, Elgar seamlessly assumed the role. Like father, like son.
By 1898 Elgar enjoyed a local reputation as a gifted composer, yet justifiably felt thwarted by the London establishment and the pedestrian demands of music publishers. His works up to 1898 testify to the twin pillars of his artistic raison d'être: Catholicism and romanticism:
- Ave verum corpus(1887)
- Ave Maria (1887)
- Ave maris stella (1887)
- Salut d’amour (1888)
- Ecce sacerdos magnus (1888)
- Froissart (1890)
- La Capricieuse (1891)
- Serenade for String Orchestra (1892)
- The Black Knight (1893)
- From the Bavarian Highlands (1895)
- King Olaf (1896)
- The Light of Life (1896)
- Imperial March (1897)
- The Banner of St. George (1897)
- Te Deum and Benedictus (1897)
- Caractacus (1898)
In a deeply personal vein for Elgar, each dramatic story involves an outsider challenging the establishment. His devout faith is illustrated by the oratorio Lux Christi Op. 29, renamed The Light of Life to assuage dominant Anglican sensibilities. That work celebrates another who challenged the religious and social establishment of his day by daring to heal a blind man on the Sabbath: Jesus of Nazareth.
“The odds are on there being a mystery tune, since several times during the rest of his life Elgar encouraged that belief. But he loved puns, acrostics, secret codes and crossword puzzles” 
Elgar’s lifelong fascination with ciphers and word games is well known. It is remarkable his musical scores and letters are peppered with anagrams and secret codes. He was so obsessed with ciphers he would even insert them in the margins of orchestra programs. In April 1886 he attended a performance at the Crystal Palace conducted by August Manns in honor of Franz Liszt who was present for the occasion. Elgar expressed his opinion of the performance by writing a message in cipher on his program. It was later decoded as “Gets you to joy, and hysterious.” The word hysterious is a portmanteau sourced from the words hysteria and mysterious. Hysterious is one example of Elgar’s interest in wordplay. Another is his use of trick spellings. He spelled excuse as xqqq, and score as ckor, skore, skorh, skowre, skourrghe, csquorr, skourghowore, and ssczowoughohr.
In July 1897, Elgar sent a coded letter to Dora Penny who later became the ‘variationee’ for Variation X with the nickname Dorabella. This coded message is known as the Dorabella Cipher, and it is among the most famous puzzles in cryptography because it remained unbroken for over a century. In his first biography published in 1905, Elgar describes how he amused himself with cryptograms on railway journeys and solved an allegedly unbreakable Nihilist cipher by John Holt Schooling found in an 1896 issue of The Pall Mall Gazette. He was so pleased with this discovery he painted the solution on a wooden box using black paint. This box is now in the possession of the Elgar Birthplace Museum.
Elgar combined his interest in codes with his love for music by inserting music ciphers in some of his compositions. In an Allegretto composed for the Gedge sisters, he used the letters of their name as the basis for a musical motive. This approach imitates Schumann’s Nordische Lied in which he transforms the name of a Danish contemporary, Gade, into a musical motive. The 1899 premiere of the Enigma Variations Op. 36 publicly sealed the case for Elgar’s cipher mania. Shortly after that in The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38, a sacred oratorio completed in 1900, Elgar encoded the names of some of his harshest critics in the Demons’ Chorus.
Elgar’s interest in wordplay was deeply personal as shown by special names he conceived for his only child, a home, and himself. His only child was named Carice, a term produced by combining six letters from his wife’s first and middle names (Caroline Alice). In March 1899 he named his new home Craeg Lea, a title constructed by reversing the letters of his last name (Craeg Lea) and inserting the first letters of the first names of his daughter, wife, and himself (Carice, Alice, and Edward). Coincidentally, C.A.E. are also the initials for his wife in the Enigma Variations, a work completed a month before the family moved to Craeg Lea. He later invented the palindrome Siromoris to serve as his telegraphic address, a name based on his two honors – a knighthood and the Order of Merit. In correspondence, he used this name as well as the opening bars of the Enigma Theme to represent himself. Since he composed the Enigma Theme, this identification is self-evident.
“I have not given any space to consideration of Elgar’s wanderings from the paths of contrapuntal rectitude, as laid down by the theory formalists. The Roman soldiers tied weights to their sandals when marching for exercise, that by discarding them in time of war they might rejoice in comparative lightness and freedom. So, it would seem, are musicians weighted in the study of strict counterpoint, that in free composition they may derive additional inspiration from the joy of casting the load aside. It may be suggested that Elgar has cast away not only the weights but also the sandals. The sequence of consecutive fifths in ‘The Apostles’ is calculated to make the old theorists uneasy in their graves. But this is only history repeating itself. The Man of Progress is necessarily the Breaker of Laws, and if the Law-breaker is justified by results, we can demand no more.”
Robert J. Buckley, Elgar’s first biographer
From an early age Elgar displayed a gift for improvisation, and in the realm of music this invariably requires a comfort and fluency with counterpoint. As a young child he accompanied his father on excursions to wealthy homes to tune pianos. After his father’s work was done, Elgar would extemporize at the piano to the amazement of the wealthy patrons and guests. He soon gained a local reputation for his gift of improvisation, and this aptitude is indelibly linked to the art of counterpoint. His first biographer, Robert J. Buckley, placed special emphasis on Elgar’s fascination with counterpoint:
A born student, an omnivorous reader, he cared little for boyish sports. His mind was occupied with higher thoughts. Absorbed by his enthusiasm, other things seemed small. Cricket had no chance against counterpoint.
Elgar grew up in the shadow of his father, William Henry Elgar (1821 – 1906), a piano tuner, violinist, pianist, church organist, choir director, composer, and proprietor of a music shop with his brother. The towering influence William exerted over his son’s interest in music is evident, and the same holds true for his practice of habitually jotting down musical ideas in notebooks. Once the boy Elgar and his father were sheltering under a tree during a rainstorm, William took out a notebook to write down a musical inspiration. Elgar accompanied his father to the organ loft, the Glee Club, piano tunings, and the music shop where he taught himself about composition, harmony, and counterpoint:
I saw and learnt a great deal about music from the stream of music that passed through my father’s establishment…I read everything, played everything, and heard everything that I possibly could…I am self-taught in the matter of harmony, counterpoint, form, and, in short, the whole of the “mystery” of music…First was Catel, and that was followed by Cherubini.
After reading Cherubini’s text on counterpoint, Elgar applied his new found knowledge to the task of composing numerous preludes and fugues. However, he did not restrict his contrapuntal writing by slavishly following traditional rules. “The worst of the old textbooks,” Elgar explained to Buckley, “is that they teach building but not architecture.” He elaborated further with his first biographer, and his comments reveal a great deal about his mindset and attitude towards the traditional rules of counterpoint:
You were talking of contrapuntal rules and restrictions. I have gone over them all: marked, learned, and inwardly digested everything available in theoretical instruction I could come across (and I think I have come across most of what has been written); and I cherish a profound respect for the old theorists. They were useful in their day, but they were not entitled to lay down hard and fast rules for all composers to the end of time.
Counterpoint was central to Elgar’s identity as a composer because he liked writing counter melodies to famous themes. At the age of twelve, he composed a counterpoint to Handel’s oratorio Messiah and surreptitiously inserted it into the parts for the Three Choirs Festival. He recounted this incident of melodic mayhem as follows:
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!
This boyhood interest in writing counterpoints to famous melodies continued into adulthood. In his overture Cockaigne (Op. 40, 1901), Elgar deftly composed the lover’s theme as a counterpoint to the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is an example of one of his practical jokes (‘japes’) because of concerns the lovemaking was not “strictly proper.”
An excerpt from Elgar’s notebook shows Mendelssohn’s Wedding March in the top staff with the lover’s theme in the two lower staves (Figure 1). In four measures there are no less than seven dissonant intervals between Elgar’s counterpoint and the Wedding March. Dissonance is defined as any interval other than a unison, octave, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major or minor third, and major or minor sixth. The prevalence of so many dissonant intervals obliterates the myth Elgar would strictly avoid any dissonant intervals between the Enigma Theme and the covert Principal Theme. In his Cockaigne Overture, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March is unstated (or covert) as it is not played. Mendelssohn was a devout Lutheran, further dispelling the myth Elgar’s Roman Catholicism would somehow bar him from considering any promising themes composed by a Protestant. It should also be pointed out Elgar modified the covert source melody to better suit his counterpoint, changing some notes and omitting others completely. These alterations are indicated with brackets.
Although separated by three decades, these two events from Elgar’s life share four common themes:
- Composed a counterpoint to a melody
- Melody is famous
- Counterpoint is featured in an orchestral context
- Both cases combine elements of humor and seriousness
Do these traits sound familiar? They are all associated with the correct covert Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations, a work composed between 1898-99 when Elgar was 41 years old. In a 1911 program note he wrote the Variations were begun ‘in a spirit of humor & continued in deep seriousness.’ To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
 Adams, B. (Editor). Edward Elgar and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 18.
 From a letter to August Jaeger dated June 20, 1900.
 Grimley, D. M., & Rushton, J. (2004). The Cambridge companion to Elgar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 109.
 McVeagh, D. (2007). Elgar the Music Maker. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, p. 193.
 Adams, B. (Editor). Edward Elgar and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 12.
 Kennedy, Michael. The Life of Elgar (Musical Lives). Illustrated edition ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 32.
 Moore, J. N. (1999). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Clarendon Paperbacks) (New Ed ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, p. 179.
 Worcester Papers, no. 6, September 18, 1852 (MS at Elgar Birthplace Museum).
 Kennedy, Michael. The Life of Elgar (Musical Lives). Illustrated edition ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 68
 Moore, J. N. (1999). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Clarendon Paperbacks) (New Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, p. 114.
 Cited from an unpublished paper by Eric Sams entitled Elgar’s Cipher Table (1970-71).
 Kahn, David. The Code Breakers. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968, p. 800.
 Buckley, Robert J. (1905). Sir Edward Elgar). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2009, p. 41.
 McVeagh, D. (2007). Elgar the Music Maker. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, p. 3.
 Daverio, J. (2008). Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, p. 101.
 Kennedy, M. (2004). The Life of Elgar. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 66.
 Buckley, Robert J. Sir Edward Elgar (1905). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2009, p. xii
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Moore, J. N. (1987). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 21.
 Interview with Rudolph de Cordova, February 11, 1904, in The Strand Magazine, May 1904, p. 538.
 Buckley, R. J. (2009). Sir Edward Elgar (1905). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, p. 13.
 Ibid, p. 13.
 Ibid, p. 32.
 Moore, J. N. (1987). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 43.
 McVeagh, D. (2007). Elgar the Music Maker. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, p. 75.
 Ibid, p. 75.
 Ibid, p. 68.