Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Elgar’s Contrapuntal Smoking Gun

Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.”
Elgar quoting Longfellow at the end of the Enigma Variations

117 years ago on October 21, Edward Elgar first performed the transcendent Enigma Theme for his wife. For this reason, October 21 is known to Elgarians as Enigma Day to commemorate the birth of the Enigma Variations, and a rebirth of English music. Elgar composed the Enigma Theme as a counterpoint to a famous melody, one that researchers have been unable to identify unanimously. Varying opinions have been proffered as prospective melodic solutions, yet they habitually fail to satisfy even the most basic condition of achieving a vertical fit with the Enigma Theme in its entirety. Far too many investigators content themselves with partial fits and pass them off as complete solutions. Like the misshapen stepsisters of Cinderella, they struggle in vain to shove on a glass slipper that simply will not fit.
The conundrum is compounded by the unexpected discovery Elgar’s counterpoint begins paradoxically with the final phrase of the hidden melody – Ein feste Burg by Martin Luther – and concludes with its opening phrase. Who would have ever suspected Elgar would begin his counterpoint with the concluding phrase of the mysterious missing melody? This would account for his odd explanation that the solution “…must be left unguessed.”[1] Without exception every mapping of an alleged solution melody starts with its beginning at the outset of the Enigma Theme. No one ever stopped to consider Elgar served for years as church organist at St. George’s Church in Worcester, and in such a setting it was common practice to introduce hymns by playing their ending phrase as an introduction. And Ein feste Burg is an epic hymn.  The key to unraveling Elgar’s bewildering counterpoint is to search for the ending phrase at the beginning, and conversely the beginning phrase at the end.
Ein feste Burg is comprised of six distinct phrases (ABCDEF). With some repeated phrases that mighty theme extends to a total of nine parts (ABABCDEFB). In contrast to this rather elaborate phrase structure is the Enigma Theme’s much simpler ABAC structure. The ABA section is the more familiar Ternary Form (Measures 1 through 17) followed by section C which is an elaborated and elongated ending (Measures 18-19) forming a bridge to Variation I. The surprising discovery is Elgar contrapuntally mapped the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg at the beginning of the Enigma Theme, and slipped the hidden theme’s opening phrase at the tail end ‘through and over’ the bridge. The efficacy of this analysis is sustained by mapping Ein feste Burg in this unexpected phrase order over the Enigma Theme, a method that produces a credible counterpoint consistent with Elgar’s compositional style.

There is ample circumstantial evidence implicating Elgar’s devious decision to begin his haunting countermelody with Ein Feste Burg’s exultant ending phrase. First, consider the ABAC phrase structure of the Enigma Theme. When read phonetically, ABAC sounds like aback, a word that means in a backward direction. This term was originally used to describe when the sails of a ship are blown backward into the mast. A more modern meaning of aback is to be taken by surprise. These definitions – backward and surprised – synchronize perfectly with Elgar’s unforeseen tactic to begin his counterpoint with the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg, for it is surprising because it is backward. Second, the puzzling title Enigma suggests just such a reversal because its first letter – the upper case E – resembles the lower case of the Greek letter Omega, while the last letter a is the first Greek letter Alpha. The word Enigma subtly places the Omega first and the Alpha last. In the New Testament book of Revelation, Jesus – the secret friend personified in Variation XIII – is quoted as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”[2]
A third reason to suspect Elgar began his counterpoint using the ending phrase of the covert Principal Theme is most of the Variations end with a partial or complete restatement of their opening phrases. This pattern holds true for nine of the fourteen Variations: I, II, III, V, VI, VII, IX, XII, and XIV. By restating the starting phrase at the end of most movements, Elgar strongly implies the opening phrase of the unstated Principal Theme must also appear at the end of his contrapuntal mapping. This condition would further suggest the missing melody’s ending phrase would be found rather counter-intuitively at the beginning.
A fourth reason may be found in a passage by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from his Elegiac Verse is quoted by Elgar at the conclusion of the extended Finale.  In Elgar’s script is Longfellow’s prose, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” This citation clearly affirms the supremacy of the ending over the beginning. The grand irony is Elgar transformed the ending of Ein feste Burg into a beginning with his unusually contoured counterpoint. Merriam-Webster defines an elegy as “a poem or song that expresses sorrow for someone who is dead.” The somber mood of the Enigma Theme and ‘deathly stillness’ embodied in Variation XIII both satisfy that definition. This is a remarkable insight because the central message of the Gospels is that God, personified in the form of Jesus Christ, died at Calvary for the remission of humanity’s sin. This would explain why Elgar would encode the phrase DEAD GOD in the score of Variation XIII and via the Mendelssohn fragments allude to the poetry of Goethe that describes the deathly stillness of the sea. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus likens his time in the tomb to that spent by the prophet Jonah in the belly of the whale. These layers of Biblical allusion were not lost on Elgar who wove an elegant tapestry of interlocking subtext in Variation XIII with music, literature, and cryptography.
A fifth reason is found in Variation X Dorabella. Six bars before Rehearsal 42 and 45 the first four notes of Ein feste Burg’s ten-note concluding phrase are quoted verbatim by the inner melodic line in an augmented form. Five of the remaining six notes from that ending phrase follow the inner voice’s direct quotation in the outer treble and bass lines in sequential order. The probability of nine out of ten notes from the ending phrase from Ein feste Burg randomly occurring in the correct order is exceedingly remote. In each case, the final cadence of Ein feste Burg is immediately followed in mid-measure by a double bar line, a feature commonly used to designate the end of a section. The double bars are a highly suggestive clue regarding the actual nature and significance of these passages.

Regarding Variation X Elgar wrote the “…inner sustained phrases at first on the viola and later on the flute should be noted.”[3] His cryptic commentary draws attention to the inner melody without furnishing any specific reason except for the word noted. Such an overtly suggestive wordplay beckons the reader to observe the notes of the inner voice. The discovery that Ein feste Burg is the hidden melody provides a compelling explanation for Elgar’s odd statement because of the uncanny resemblance between its ending phrase and the inner melody of this movement. No wonder Elgar chided Dora by confessing he thought that she of all people would be the one to guess the melodic solution. Dora made numerous speculative attempts to unmask the hidden melody, all to no avail. When she begged Elgar for the answer, he replied, “Oh, I shan’t tell you that, you must find it out for yourself.” “But I’ve thought and racked my brains over and over again,” she insisted. He then replied, “Well, I’m surprised. I thought that you of all people would guess it.”[4] This confession makes complete sense when one recognizes that out of all the movements, Variation X provides the most complete quotation of Ein feste Burg’s ending phrase in the inner voice not once, but twice.
A sixth reason is that the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg is ingeniously encoded by a musical anagram in two of the four Mendelssohn fragments of Variation XIII. In standard practice, an anagram is a word or phrase created by the transposition of another word or phrase. For instance, the letters from debit card may be reshuffled to spell bad credit. The same can be done with the notes from a musical phrase in which one melody is constructed from the notes of another. This is precisely what Elgar does in Variation XIII with two of the three clarinet solos beginning with the Mendelssohn fragment.

The clarinet solos in A-flat major and E-flat major begin with a three measure fragment from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt. This fragment is elaborated by Elgar into a complete 7 bar solo. A careful analysis of those two clarinet solos reveals the notes are a music anagram of the ending phrase from Ein feste Burg. This is subtly hinted at by the Mendelssohn Keynotes Cipher which encodes the last three notes of that ending phrase as quoted by Mendelssohn himself in the fourth movement of the Reformation Symphony.

A seventh reason has now surfaced from the rousing Finale of the Enigma Variations which all but confirms Elgar intended his counterpoint to commence with the concluding phrase of Ein feste Burg. At Rehearsal 68 the beginning of the Enigma Theme is stated with augmented triplets accompanied by a rhythmic descending G major scale as a countermelody. The back to back triplets suggest Elgar’s initials, for 33 is the mirror image of EE. A careful study of the countermelody at Rehearsal 68 reveals it starts and ends with the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg. The beginning and ending sections of this concluding phrase are separated by note fragments (designated A and B) sourced from it. One of these intervening fragments (B) is an exact interval match the F minor Mendelssohn fragment found in Variation XIII. In the B fragment, the notes are the third, second and first degrees of the descending A minor scale (C, B and A). These are the identical scale intervals cited in the F minor Mendelssohn fragment (A-flat, G, and F). This is an extraordinary congruence because it has previously been shown the concluding phrase of Ein feste Burg is encoded by the Mendelssohn fragments in several ways, demonstrating unequivocally that Elgar’s use of interlocking ciphers extends beyond the Enigma Theme itself.

The more acute observer will observe that the third, sixth and ninth notes of the countermelody at Rehearsal 68 are E, B and F-sharp respectively. These note letters may be rearranged as E-F-B, the initials for Ein feste Burg. There are at least five other Enigma Variations Ciphers that encode those same initials:
  1. Keys Cipher
  2. Mendelssohn Cipher
  3. Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher
  4. Letter Cluster Cipher
  5. Enigma Date Cipher
The countermelody at Rehearsal 68 is a veritable smoking gun that reveals Elgar began his counterpoint with the concluding phrase of Ein feste Burg. The key to unraveling Elgar’s enigma is to begin with the end, honoring Jacobi’s maxim, “Invert, always invert.” To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

[1] Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing a letter by Elgar
[2] Revelation 22:13 New Century Version
[3] 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. [1946], republication of notes for Aeolian Company’s piano rolls, 1929)
[4] Powell, D. M. (1947). Edward Elgar: Memories of a variation (2nd ed.). London: Oxford University Press, p. 23

No comments:

About Mr. Padgett

My photo
Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker, and Rosenker’s pupil, Owen Dunsford. Mr. Padgett studied piano with Sally Magee (a student of Emanuel Bay), and Blanca Uribe, a student of Rosina Lhévinne. He attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Vassar he studied music theory and composition with Richard Wilson. Mr. Padgett has performed for Joseph Silverstein, Van Cliburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Steve Jobs, Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Marcia Davenport, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other prominent public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008 Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry "Fanfare for the Eagles." It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado in May 2008. A member of the Elgar Society, Mr. Padgett is married with five children.