|Dante and Virgil beholding the stars.|
From the most holy water I returned
Regenerate, in the manner of new trees
That are renewed with new foliage,
Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars
Purgatorio XXXIII, lines 142-145
Translated by Henry W. Longfellow
In the original full score of the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar, the subtitle of Variation XIII consists of three asterisks (✡ ✡ ✡) enclosed by parentheses. The word asterisk comes from the Greek asterikos, meaning little star. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that these asterisks resemble diminutive stars.
|Published title of Variation XIII.|
The late Patrick Turner, if he were still with us today, would likely interpret these starry asterisks as evidence for his theory the missing melody to the Enigma Variations is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. When that popular children’s melody is played “through and over” the Enigma Theme, it fails to establish a credible contrapuntal fit even when allowing for the shifts between the minor and major modes of G. The first published score reflects the same type of stars Elgar used on the original full score. Observe that the initials “L.M.L.” do not appear anywhere on the Autograph Score.
|Title of Variation XIII from the Autograph Score|
The asterisks on the original full score and first published orchestral score are six-pointed stars known as hexagrams. On the piano reduction, the asterisks are more floral in appearance with eight end-points. Like the full score, the asterisks on the piano reduction are framed by parentheses. Unlike the full score, however, the term Romanza is absent.
|Title of Variation XIII from the Elgar's piano reduction|
According to notes supplied by Elgar in 1927 for a set of Duo-Art Pianola rolls, the asterisks ostensibly represent the initials of a secret friend. What those missing letters are has been the subject of intense debate since its premiere in June 1899.
The three cryptic asterisks evoke the three principal riddles posed by the Enigma Variations:
- What is the covert principal Theme?
- What is the “dark saying” concealed within the Enigma Theme?
- Who is the secret friend embodied in Variation XIII?
Could the asterisks conceivably serve as lodestars that illuminate the course for discovering the solutions to these conundrums? There is an obvious parallel between the three asterisks and Variation XIII, for in this movement Elgar openly quotes three times a fragment from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. This seemingly extraneous work to the Enigma Variations was inspired by the poetry of the towering German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his poem with the original German title Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Goethe describes the plight of a sailing vessel stranded on a windless sea. The sixth line describes the ocean’s “Terrifying, deathly stillness” in German as “Todesstille fürchterlich!” This alarming image of a ship lost at sea invites a vigilant reassessment of the asterisks because sailors routinely look to the stars to find their way in a process known as celestial navigation. Could these three little stars in the form of asterisks serve in some manner of cryptographic navigation to navigate Elgar's placid, sonic sea?
There are three asterisks, three Mendelssohn fragments in quotations, and three enigmas. Is there some possible way to connect these outwardly disparate dots like stars in a constellation? There is indeed. Mendelssohn was a radiant star in the constellation of great German composers, and Elgar was an ardent disciple of the German School who clearly looked up to him for inspiration and guidance. Elgar's passion for all things Teutonic was equally matched by his obsession for ciphers. A careful investigation of the Mendelssohn fragments uncovered some intriguing cryptograms that furnish mutually reinforcing answers to all three of Elgar’s baffling riddles:
- The Fragments Cipher hints at the fact Mendelssohn quotes the unstated principal theme in one of his works, specifically his Reformation Symphony.
- The “FAE” Cipher encodes the English initials for the unstated principal theme, A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther. The lyrics of that epic Christian hymn name Elgar’s secret friend – Christ Jesus – in the second stanza.
- The “FAE” Cipher also encodes the romantic motto of Joseph Joachim, a famous Jewish violinist who converted to Lutheranism. This sect of Christianity was founded by Martin Luther, the composer of the unstated principal theme. Like Jesus, Joachim was Jewish. Joachim’s first name is also the name of Jesus’ earthly father, the husband of Mary. Elgar openly suggested the movement was dedicated to Lady Mary Lygon when the evidence clearly ruled her out as a credible candidate. Elgar’s misdirection conveniently provided one of the Roman Catholic titles for the Mother of Jesus, Lady Mary.
- The Mendelssohn “EFB” Cipher cleverly enciphers the German initials for Ein feste Burg.
- The Keynotes Cipher encodes the three last notes of the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg.
- The Music Anagram Cipher encodes the entire ending phrase of Ein feste Burg.
- The Mendelssohn Pi-C Cipher enciphers the Latin word for fish (Pisces), and the Ichthys (Jesus Fish) is a universally recognized Christian symbol. Pisces is a constellation of the zodiac, a clear reference to the stars suggested by the asterisks.
- The Romanza Cipher encodes a reference to the Turin Shroud, the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
The ciphers embedded within the Mendelssohn fragments are diverse and yet deliver a uniform, interwoven tapestry of mutually reinforcing answers. The asterisks of Variation XIII are in reality a cipher, the fortieth to be uncovered in the Enigma Variations. Three asterisks of two different types found in the full score and piano reduction come to a total of six. In a remarkable parallel, there are six words in the title Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The three eight-pointed asterisks on the piano reduction have a combined total of 24 end-points, presenting another incredible parallel with the full title of the covert principal theme which has 24 letters. Pairing the end-point totals for both sets of asterisks, i.e., 18 and 24, produces the year 1824. In that year Mendelssohn completed his Symphony No. 1 in C Minor Op.11 at the tender age of 15. This year appears to serve as a coded suggestion to search out one of Mendelssohn's symphonies for the covert principal theme.
On the original full score, the asterisks are hexagrams, the compound of two equilateral triangles. By the 1890s this symbol was commonly recognized as the Seal of Solomon, the Shield of David (Magen David), and the Star of David. At the First Zionist Congress in 1897 it was chosen as the principal symbol on their flag. This public use of the hexagram to represent the Jewish people predated the genesis of the Enigma Variations by at least two years. By the time the Enigma Variations were published in 1899, the hexagram was widely known as a symbol of the Jewish people. This is a profoundly revealing insight because multiple lines of evidence point to Jesus Christ – a Jew - as the secret friend personified in Variation XIII. The three asterisks are collectively known as the Star Cipher.
|Jesus pictured within a hexagrammic star|
There is a robust theological association between Jesus and the stars. His miraculous birth was heralded by the Star of Bethlehem which attracted the attention of the Three Wise Men or Biblical magi. In Revelation 22:16 Jesus is called the bright Morning Star. In that same passage he is also described as the Root and Offspring of David, so the Star of David strongly hints at the genealogy of Elgar’s not-so-secret friend. Bethlehem is called the City of David, so the Star of David further suggests the birthplace of Christ. The image of a calm sea depicted in Variation XIII is theologically relevant because Jesus commanded the raging winds and roaring waves to be still, and immediately there was a great calm (Mark 4:35-41). Psalm 107:29-20 describes how God “made the storm be still” and brought sailors on their ships safely “to their desired haven.” That is an apt illustration of Elgar's theological imagery in Variation XIII.
The hexagram is also a Christian symbol. Known as the Star of Creation, its six points represent the six days of creation as well as the six attributes of God: Power, wisdom, majesty, love, mercy and justice. According to Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith, Jesus is both God and Man – the Incarnation – who was present at the Creation. In John 1:3 it declares that through Christ “. . . all things were made . . .” The meanings attached to the hexagram from the Jewish and Christian traditions are both relevant to Jesus because he is Jewish, Divine and the Creator.
|A depiction of the Star of Bethlehem.|
The eight-pointed star intimated by the asterisks on the piano reduction serves as a Christian symbol called the Star of Redemption or Regeneration. Eight is the number of regeneration, and for this reason, many baptismal fonts have an octagonal base. In Variation XIII the portrayal of a body of water in the form of a placid sea deftly compliments this interpretation.
|Octagonal baptismal font|
The parentheses enclosing the asterisks appear to serve no apparent purpose, yet a reassessment is now in order because the Mendelssohn fragments prove the seemingly extraneous denotes the presence of a cipher. By placing the top of the right and left parentheses together and overlapping them at the bottom, the combination forms the Jesus Fish. With its sonic pictorial of the sea, there was always something fishy about Variation XIII.
|The Jesus Fish.|
The Jesus Fish is a popular Christogram, and Christ is undoubtedly the secret friend portrayed in Variation XIII. The Latin word for fish is cleverly encoded in the Mendelssohn fragments combining the mathematical ratio Pi with the musical excerpts clearly intended to depict the sea, a word that sounds like the letter C. The combination of Pi and C creates the phonetic equivalent of Pisces, the Latin word for fish. That this clever Pi-C Cipher is aptly situated in the Mendelssohn fragments specifically intended to represent the sea is hardly a coincidence. There is another fish in the Enigma Theme, one suggested by pairing the number Pi encoded in measure one with the symbol for common time, C.
The starry imagery suggested by the three asterisks at the beginning of Variation XIII augments the numerous allusions within the Enigma Variations to the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, a renowned Italian poet of the late Middle Ages. Just as there are three little stars in the subtitle of Variation XIII, the three books of the Divine Comedy conclude with the word stars. Recognizing this subtle Dantean reference, the three asterisks highlight the importance of the ending over the beginning. Elgar implied as much citing the following quotation from Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse at the end of the Finale, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” This crucial insight proved pivotal for successfully mapping the covert principal Theme over the Enigma Theme because contrary to conventional wisdom, Elgar cunningly began his counterpoint with the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg. This is the same concluding phrase encoded in part by the Keynotes Cipher, and in its entirety by the Music Anagram Cipher. Speaking of endings, the Enigma Date Cipher encodes the date of Martin Luther’s death – his earthly end. The deathly stillness of Variation XIII also hints at the heartrending death of Elgar’s secret friend.
Armed with this insight the odd description Elgar gave regarding the inner voice of Variation X takes on renewed significance. Concerning that movement, he wrote the “. . . inner sustained phrases at first on the viola and later on the flute should be noted.” Indeed, the notes of that inner voice are the combination to unlock Elgar’s seemingly impenetrable melodic safe. The explanation for his peculiar description is that the inner voice virtually quotes the entire ending phrase of Ein feste Burg not once, but twice. No wonder Elgar teased Dora Penny, the dedicatee of this movement, by telling her, “I thought that you of all people would guess it.” If only she had searched for the ending rather than the beginning of the covert theme, her efforts would have been richly rewarded.
The appearance of six-pointed asterisks in the subtitle of Variation XIII is remarkable because Elgar draws special attention to the number six throughout the Enigma Variations. The opus number (36) is the product of six times six. There are six titles given to different movements that are each six letters long. The first is Enigma, while two others appear in succession for Variations VI (Ysobel) and VII (Troyte). There is an oddly placed double bar at the end of measure 6 of the Enigma Theme. Less obvious but equally relevant is the presence of a six-by-six music box cipher embedded within the first six measures of the Enigma Theme. When decoded, it reveals Elgar’s “dark saying” first mentioned in the 1899 program note. The complete title of the unstated Principal Theme is six words in length: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. There are 24 letters in that title, the sum of four sixes. The lyrics of Luther's most famous hymn originate from Psalm 46, a chapter number ending in six. The names Martin and Luther are each six letters in length. Elgar's use of the German sixth chord in the Enigma Theme alludes to the missing melody's six-word title in German. Even Elgar's dedication hints at this number because it is comprised of six words: “Dedicated to My Friends Pictured Within.” Further evidence of the importance of the number six may be found at Rehearsal 66 in the score where the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg is presented virtually verbatim.
The Star Cipher is multifaceted as it ties into a number of other ciphers concerning the Covert Principal Theme, the Secret Friend, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is remarkable the “Messiah” Stradivari has three small stars carved on it with one star on the bass-side eye of the scroll, and two more on the peg box mortice.
|Star on the bass-side scroll eye of the “Messiah” Stradivari|
|Two star imprints and the letter “G” in the pegbox mortice of the “Messiah” Stradivari|
Joseph Joachim played that legendary instrument in 1891 and was deeply moved by its “combined sweetness and grandeur.” Recognizing the connection between Variation XIII and Joachim, the three small stars forming the subtitle of that movement are more than likely a coded reference to the “Messiah” Stradivari, thereby encoding one of the many titles for Elgar's secret friend. The two star imprints in the pegbox subtly hint at the Music Box Cipher found in the opening Enigma Theme set in G minor. To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
FOOTNOTE Elgar, Edward. My Friends Pictured Within. The Subjects of the Enigma Variations as Portrayed in Contemporary Photographs and Elgar’s Manuscript (Sevenoaks: Novello, n.d. , republication of notes for Aeolian Company’s piano rolls, 1929)
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