I will incline my ear to a parable; I will open my dark saying upon the harp.
A Music Box Cipher Key
Hidden within the first six measures of the Enigma Theme is a Polybius square cipher, more lightheartedly known as a music box cipher. Elgar’s breathtakingly original music cipher holds a secret message – a "dark saying" – confirming the identities of both the covert principal theme and the secret friend of Variation XIII. The key to this type of cipher is quickly and easily constructed using nothing more than a pencil and a small scrap of paper. The circumstances under which Elgar composed the Variations would seem to require any cipher be created speedily without difficulty. A Polybius square satisfies those requirements perfectly. In Elgar’s music box cipher, melody and bass note pairs combine to pinpoint a corresponding row and column in a checkerboard grid (Table 1). The intersection is a cell containing a solution letter or a null, non-cipher material intended to confuse cryptanalysis.
The cipher key in Table 1 present melody and bass note letters in alphabetical order to label columns and rows with plain text and nulls dispersed throughout the grid. There are fifteen movements in the Variations, and likewise there are 15 plain text letters in the cipher grid (b, e, f, g, g, i, n, o, r, s, s, s, t, u , u). With this key the melody/bass note letter pair C/A produces the plain text letter u. It should be noted accidentals are extraneous as the key relies on discreet note letters only. With this same key the melody/bass note letter pair B/E produces f. That is a remarkable combination since theses letters form the initials for the covert principal theme, Ein feste Burg. Additional evidence recently unveiled reveals this key letter combination is scarcely coincidental.
A Key within a Key
The Enigma Theme is performed in the minor and major modes of G. The key signatures for G minor and G major employ the letters B, E and F to identify the accidentals B-flat, E-flat and F-sharp. Incredibly those same letters form the initials for Ein feste Burg. The Enigma Locks Cipher suggests the key to discovering the secrets of the Enigma Variations rests in the keys. These identical initials are spelled out by the Mendelssohn Cipher in Variation XIII, ostensibly as the solution letters to the three asterisks (***) in the title of that movement. Elgar’s use of two parallel keys suggests an alternative treatment of his music box cipher key, namely adjusting the order of the bass and melody note letters to alter the configuration of the plain text solution letters within the grid. In a new twist, experimentation with the order of the row and column letters reveals a cipher within a cipher.
A Reconfigured Cipher Key
According to the Rule of product, there are 518,400 possible combinations in a 6 by 6 checkerboard grid. With only 15 cells having plain text solution letters out of 36, this means over half of the grid (58.3%) has no useful information (nulls). This substantially reduces the number of possible combinations. After extensive experimentation, Table 2 was realized. The order of the melody notes in the columns is B, D, G, F, C, A. The order of the bass notes in the rows is E, C, G, B, D, A. In both the melody and bass sequences A is the last letter, and G is the third. What is most striking about this reconfigured key are the resulting letter clusters.
A Germanic Matrix
There are at least four Germanic terms produced by the reconfigured cipher key. The first occurs in rows one and two. In the first row are the letters fou, and nestled around the u in the second row are the letters st. Together they spell foust, a phonetic version of Faust (Table 3).
The story of Faust is a classic German legend, the basis of many artistic works ranging from painting, literature to music. In German the word Faust means fist, implying the use of force to achieve a desired outcome. Faust makes a Faustian bargain with the devil who offers earthly pleasures and knowledge in exchange for his immortal soul. That famous legend serves as the backdrop for a tragic play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His poetry inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose the concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a work quoted by Elgar in Variation XIII.
A second Germanic reference occurs in the second and third rows. Here we find the contiguous letters rine, a phonetic rendering of Rhine (Table 4). One of the most important rivers in Europe, the Rhine runs through the heart of Germany. Its banks are populated with many historic castles and ancient fortifications, posing an interesting parallel with the title of the unstated principal theme (A Mighty Fortress). Elgar visited Germany on numerous occasions, composing From the Bavarian Highlands after vacationing in Upper Bavaria in 1894. In his youth, Elgar studied German in the hopes of attending the oldest school of music in Germany, the Leipzig Conservatory founded by Felix Mendelssohn.
A third German term is found in the first two columns in the second through fourth rows where the word ring is formed (Table 5). This language is intriguing because the mathematical constant Pi is encoded in the first measure of the Enigma Theme. Pi is a special ratio at the very center of the mathematics of circles. The overlap of two of the letters with rine strongly suggests Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The first of these four operas is Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold). Elgar was a huge admirer of Wagner's music.
In the opening scene, Alberich steals gold from the Rhine Maidens to forge it into a magical ring that enables him to rule the world. Wagner’s innovative orchestration includes 18 pitched anvils whose distinctive ding is literally spelled out by substituting the column heading D for the r in ring (Table 6). The legend of the Rhine Gold would later inspire Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In Scene 2 of Das Rheingold there are two giants, Fasolt and Fafner. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the giant Nimrod is observed by Dante and Virgil imprisoned in the ninth circle of Hell. There is an obvious parallel with that epic Christina poem because Variation IX is called Nimrod. This association suggests Elgar saw his friend August Jaeger as a giant and champion of his music. It is also an excellent example of Elgar’s exquisite sense of wordplay. The assorted Germanic references point to the Teutonic character of the unstated principal theme.
In addition to these overt Germanic allusions, the reconfigured cipher key contain other suggestive letters in close proximity to one another. The first is the E, F, and b in the upper left corner (Table 7), the initials for Ein feste Burg. In column 3 the word Goes is formed. This exactly mirrors Elgar’s language in the original 1899 program note which reads, “The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘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..” Together these may be read as EFB Goes.
In column six appears the German word aus. This term generally means from, out of, off of, made of, and for. One of these translations (out) is phonetically spelled in the upper right corner of the cipher key as Aut. This appears to indicate the translation of Aus is out. Adding this to the first two terms produces EFB Goes Aut, or EFB Goes Out. This brief phrase captures the essence of the Enigma Variations. The principal theme goes with the music, yet it is taken out, silent like the deathly stillness of the sea. Like Jesus before his accusers, the principal theme remains silent. With biblical names such as Ysobel and Nimrod, the Enigma Variations are rich with literal and implied theological references.
In 1898 to a letter to his friend Jaeger, Elgar wrote, “This is what I hear all day - the trees are singing my music – or have I sung theirs?” The letters in rows one and two of Table 8 show the plain text solution letters fou and rest may be combined to spell fourest, a phonetic rendering of forest. A forest has trees, and Elgar adored them, especially pine trees. He once told Newmann, “…as a boy he used to gaze from the school windows in rapt wonder at the great trees in the park swaying in the wind; and he pointed out to me a passage in Gerontius in which he had recorded in music his subconscious memories of them.” The appearance of fourest in this reconfigured cipher key suggests a source of inspiration for Elgar’s musical ideas. A checkerboard cipher has four sides surrounding a clump of cells in which to plant a forest of plain text solution letters and nulls. Some even liken tackling a difficult a cipher to wandering into a deep, dark forest. Elgar's fascination with trees is mentioned by Matthew Riley who writes, “The pine trees in particular seem to have been a recurring motif in his life.” In this context it is remarkably relevant the first six measures of the Enigma Theme are performed exclusively by the string section since those instruments are made of wood. Before launching his public ministry, Jesus’ vocation was a carpenter, a wood-worker.
Another Dark Saying
Further analysis of the reconfigured cipher table reveals another "dark saying" (Table 9). In row one appears the French word for fool (fou). The term fool has a distinctly Christian context because in 1 Corinthians 4:10 it reads, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but we are wise in Christ.” Jesus is the hidden friend of Variation XIII, so a theological perspective is more than warranted. In row two below the o in fou is e, permitting another reading as foe. It should be emphasized fou is a phonetic equivalent of foe. One definition of foe is enemy. Romans 5:10 states, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
Row two has the letters for rest. The downbeat of the first six measures of the Enigma Theme is a rest, and this pattern reappears in measures 11 through 16. Row three spells in. Row four contains the letters g and b. In the absence of a d among the solution letters, the conventions of cryptography permit reading b as the mirror image of d. Tim Roberts made a similar discovery in his ingenious decryption of the Dorabella Cipher. Roberts discovered Elgar substituted the letter b for p because these letters are shaped the same but have different orientations. The same holds true for b and d. Consequently the letters gb may be viewed as gd, a phonetic version of God. The last two rows contain the letters gsus, a phonetic rendering of Jesus. This is the exact same spelling found in the decryption of Elgar’s music box cipher for measure 1 of the Enigma Theme. Piecing together all of these key words produces the saying, “Fool, foe, rest in God, Jesus.” The phrase “rest in God” is found in Psalm 62 which begins:
Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
The number of that Psalm offers a tantalizing connection to Elgar’s 6 by 6 music box cipher because 62 is highly suggestive of two sixes. In the fourth line it reads, “God is my fortress…” This is a singular recasting of the secret theme’s title from the plural; A Mighty Fortress is our God. In this analysis it has been shown that the reconfigured cipher key uses the following languages: English, French and German. The use of multiple languages is significant because this is also found with Elgar's Music Box Cipher and the Dorabella Cipher. Some will undoubtedly criticize this analysis as highly speculative and unworthy of serious consideration. With so many pieces of the puzzle pointing in the same direction, however, it would be nothing short of cavalier to dismiss this research so readily. The unusual concentration of Germanic terms is hard to ignore. Clearly there is more to Elgar’s Enigma Variations than meets the eyes...or ears. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
 Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing a letter by Elgar