“Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.”
Elgar quoting Longfellow
The Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII of Elgar’s Enigma Variations are a rich fishing ground for ciphers. Years of trawling those perplexing fragments netted the following cryptograms:
Now further fishing has reeled in yet another cipher submerged within the Mendelssohn fragments – the Keynotes Cipher. This other code relies on the order of the keynotes for the Mendelssohn fragments drawn from the concert overture Meeresstille und glücklicheFahrt. In Variation XIII those puzzling fragments (long thought by so-called ‘experts’ to be extraneous to the enigma) appear in the order of A-flat, F, and E-flat. What makes that keynote sequence so remarkable is it forms the tail-end of the closing phrase from Ein feste Burg as quoted by Mendelssohn in the fourth movement of the Reformation Symphony. The Keynotes Cipher is the tail of a much bigger fish, namely a famous melody quoted indirectly by Elgar throughout the Enigma Variations. There is yet another fish encoded in the Enigma Theme, one pointing to a timeless Christogram.
Composed in the key of G major, the fourth movement of the Reformation Symphony is a set of variations on Luther’s Ein feste Burg. It opens with a statement of Luther's heroic hymn on his principal instrument, the flute. In measure 5 the ending phrase concludes for the first time with the notes C, A and G. Remarkably, the keynotes A-flat, F, and E-flat are each a major third below C, A and G respectively. The keynotes of the Mendelssohn fragments are a mirror image of the covert Principal Theme in the key of E-flat major. Once recognized and pulled, that melodic thread unravels the mystery of Elgar’s enigmatic melody.
There are stark contrasts and elegant parallels between the Keynotes Cipher and the Mendelssohn fragments. The end fragment of Ein feste Burg is encoded by a set of musical fragments drawn from the beginning of a theme from Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt. Notice also that the original titles of both works are in German. There are also intriguing parallels between Mendelssohn and Luther. Mendelssohn was baptized as a Lutheran in 1816, a faith spearheaded by Martin Luther. Moreover, Mendelssohn and Luther were musicians who shared the gospel through their original compositions.
Last Things First
The Keynotes Cipher is not an isolated instance of coding in reverse. Elgar places a particular emphasis on the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg within the score of the Enigma Variations. It is stated practically verbatim at Rehearsal 66, and twice by the inner voice in Dora Penny’s movement, Variation X. No wonder he goaded Dora on by saying, “I thought that you, of all people, would guess it.” Among the Variations, her movement most clearly presents the end phrase not once, but twice. If only she had searched for the tune’s conclusion rather than its beginning, perhaps then she would have discovered the answer.
The process of mapping Ein feste Burg over the Enigma Theme revealed Elgar began his counterpoint with the closing phrase, and contrary to all expectations, ended it with the more recognizable opening phrase. That is an exceptionally wily tactic, one prone to throw off investigators stubbornly intent on mapping prospective tunes from their beginnings. In the documentary Elgar’s Enigma: A Hidden Portrait, Conductor Sir Andrew Davis takes the bait hook, line and sinker when he performs prospective tunes from their beginnings over the opening of the Enigma Theme. Dr. Clive McClelland is another thrown off track by Elgar’s contrapuntal ruse. Starting the counterpoint with Ein feste Burg’s closing phrase is the last thing anyone would expect, except perhaps from a church organist who routinely introduced hymns to the congregation by performing their endings first. Like his father, Elgar served as a church organist at St. George’s Church.
Other ciphers in the Enigma Variations reflect Elgar’s penchant for working backward, the hallmark of an exceptional contrapuntist and cryptographer. The Keys Cipher encodes Ein feste Burg’s initials (E.F.B.) starting with the last letter, B. This pattern is replicated by the Mendelssohn and Letter Cluster ciphers. Putting the proverbial cart before the horse is also hinted at by the unusual title for the Theme – Enigma. The first letter is a capital E which resembles the lower case of omega. The last letter is a which is the lower case of alpha. In the title Enigma, the omega (E) precedes the alpha (a), hinting the end precedes the beginning. The quotation at the conclusion of expanded Finale further hints at Elgar’s ploy of starting his enigmatic counterpoint using the Principal Theme’s end phrase. He paraphrases in two six-word phrases a passage penned by Longfellow, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art of ending.” The end is greater than the beginning, meaning it should be granted precedence.
In a letter to a friend, Elgar gave the following explanation regarding the Enigma Variations: “I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ – I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the var[iation] him (or her) self and have written what I think they wd have written – if they were asses enough to compose – it’s a quaint idea and the result is amusing to those behind the scene and won’t affect the hearer who ‘nose nuffin.” Asses is an interesting choice of words. A cursory explanation would be it simply implies stubbornness. A less obvious clue would be to observe that A.S.S. are the initials for A Safe Stronghold, a popular translation of Ein feste Burg by Thomas Carlyle. The word ass may refer to a rump or backside, and this investigation has shown the tail end of Ein feste Burg is quoted in various forms within the Variations. Could this be what Elgar alluded to in his correspondence using such coarse language?
Why would Elgar encode the tail-end of the concluding phrase from Ein feste Burg rather than its beginning? It would certainly be the last thing one would expect (pun intended), and that is undoubtedly what Elgar anticipated. When scouring for clues of a missing melody, the natural tendency is to search for signs of a beginning rather than an ending. Apart from Ein feste Burg, all other purported melodic solutions to the Enigma Theme reflect this deeply ingrained prejudice. Elgar was undoubtedly relying on that innate inclination when openly concealing evidence for the covert Principal Theme. Little wonder Elgar wrote at the end of the revised Finale, "Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending." The end is the key to the beginning. To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.