The word enigma appears only once in all of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in the last canto of the Purgatorio, where Beatrice devises an “enigma forte” for Dante the pilgrim to ponder. To this day, it has not been solved conclusively. Dante the poet modeled it on the riddles of the Apocalypse, notably the number of the Beast, 666 (Rev. 13: 18). He set it in a prophetic speech where Beatrice borrows language from that most enigmatic biblical book.
Eleanor Cook in Enigmas and Riddles in Literature
Elgar’s makes multiple veiled allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Enigma Variations. One of the more profound examples centers on coded references to Dante’s enigma forte, the mysterious number "Five Hundred, Ten and Five." The majority of these are found in Variation XIII. That movement begins with the melody played by the first clarinet and an accompaniment figure performed by the second violins and cellos. The original score identifies these instrumental staves in Italian as Clarenetti, Violini and Violincelli.
The Roman numeral values of the first letters of those Italian terms are 100 for C, and 5 for V. Converting the first letters into their Roman numeral equivalents form a coded reference to Dante’s enigma forte, the fabled number 515.
V = 5
C = 100
V = 5
This is not the only coded reference to Dante’s mystical number. Rehearsal Number 55 marks the opening of Variation XIII just above both the Flute I and Violin I staves. The pairing of Rehearsal Number 55 with the instrument number (I) provides two additional coded references to 515. The Roman numeral I for the violin part even appears just between the two fives of the rehearsal number. Rehearsal 55 is assigned to the first measure of Variation XIII, creating yet another coded version of 515. The tempo marking Moderato appears just below Rehearsal 55. The Roman numeral value of M is 1000. By dispensing with the zeros, the pairing of M with 55 permits yet another coded reference to 515.
These cryptic allusions to 515 in Variation XIII are hardly coincidental. The twenty-second measure of Variation XIII is measure 515 of the Enigma Variations. The appearance of that measure number in Variation XIII reinforces the conclusion Elgar’s other coded references to 515 were calculated. It is remarkable that Variation XIII is 51 measures in length. The concluding melody note in the Clarinet I part is D, the fifth of the G major scale. Pairing the fifty-first measure with the fifth of the G major scale encodes yet another 515.
On the original sketch, Elgar identified Variation XIII with a capital L. In latter life he appended it with the letters ML to form LML. By excluding the extra zeros, the Roman numeral conversion of LML just so happens to produce 515.
L = 50
M = 1000
L = 50
Besides augmenting the arsenal of the 515 Ciphers, the addition of ML to the original L also hints at the initials for the composer of the covert Principal Theme: Martin Luther.
It has been observed Elgar encodes the number 515 in various forms at the beginning and end of Variation XIII. That mystical number appears in the decryption of the Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher found in the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII. As a final tribute to that special number, he does so two more times in the title for Variation XIV E.D.U. Combining XIV with Elgar’s German initials (E.D.U. from Eduard) permit the formation of DUX and EIV. In Latin, the word dux means leader, a character trait of Dante’s prophesied Savior. The letters U and V are equivalent in Latin, so the Roman numeral value of DUX as DXV is 515. The three remaining letters – EIV – are yet another coded version of 515 because E is the fifth letter of the alphabet, I is the Roman numeral for 1, and V for 5.
The number 515 is a biblical number associated with Noah's Ark which measured 515 feet from bow to stern and was 51.5 feet high. That special ship is a symbol of God's salvation because it preserved Noah's family and a remnant of terrestrial life from a devastating global flood. In Genesis 6:14 God commanded Noah to build an ark and cover it inside and out with pitch. In a remarkably parallel, Elgar's ship in Variation XIII is portrayed with musical pitches. Like Elgar's ship, Noah's Ark traveled the sea in search of dry land before safely resting on the Mountains of Ararat. In that account, the sea serves as a potent symbol of God's judgment. The ocean is intimately associated with Jesus. He walked on the Sea of Galilee, calmed the winds and the waves, and even preached from a boat. The Fish is a popular Christogram because Jesus likened his death and resurrection to the Sign of Jonah. After spending three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, Jonah was spit out onto dry land. In a similar manner, Jesus spent three days and nights in the belly of the earth – the grave – before rising miraculously from the dead.
DEAD G-D Cipher
With so many coded references to Dante’s 515, it appears Elgar is offering his own solution to Dante’s difficult enigma. Variation XIII captures the deathly stillness of the sea epitomized by Goethe in his poems Meeresstille and Glückliche Fahrt. These poems were the inspiration behind Mendelssohn’s concert overture quoted by Elgar. Buried in the lowest staff of the score, the bass section plays the notes D-E-A-D four measures after Rehearsal 55 (bars 497-498), and a second time four measures after Rehearsal 59 (bars 529-530). Incredibly, the bass part literally spells out what Elgar sonically portrays through the Mendelssohn fragments. Variation XIII is set in the key of G major. When the melodic intervals of the notes used to spell DEAD (D=5, E =6, and A=2) are converted into their corresponding letters in the alphabet using a number-to-letter key, they become E, F, and B respectively. Those are the initials for the covert Theme, Ein feste Burg.
But who is dead? The answer is given using the same enciphering method by the flute, oboe, and clarinet in the measures that immediately follow the bass part. In measures 500, the first flute and oboe play the notes G and D, and these are repeated by the clarinet in bar 501. This same pattern is revived in measures 535 and 536. Elgar’s answer to the question of who is dead is G-D, a phonetic version of God. Three repetitions of the notes G-D suggest the Trinity. Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith leaves only one credible candidate for a God who died, and his name is implicated by the XIII and Romanza ciphers: Jesus Christ. Elgar raises a question by encoding the word DEAD in the lowest part of the score and then answers it in the three highest staves with three codes references to G-D. With so many coded references to the number 515 in Variation XIII, Elgar is cryptically offering Jesus Christ as the ultimate solution to Dante’s enigma forte. It is remarkable Elgar answers Dante’s difficult enigma with one uniquely his own and reflective of their mutual faith.
To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.