Where words fail, music speaks.
An extensive examination of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations performed over seven years uncovered at least fifty-five different ciphers. These secret codes are decisive in resolving the riddles posed by the Variations because they provide a set of mutually consistent, reinforcing answers. There are three paramount questions. What is the covert principal Theme to which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint? What is the secret “dark saying” associated with the Enigma Theme? And who is the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII? These diverse codes confirm that Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) is the covert principal Theme, a Music Box Cipher is the Enigma Theme’s elusive “dark saying,” and Jesus Christ is the secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII.
Five of the forty-one ciphers stand out because they share a common feature in their decryptions, namely the presence of Elgar’s initials or last name. These varied yet mutually reinforcing ciphers are the Program Anagram Cipher (found in the original 1899 program note for the premiere), the Music Anagram Cipher (contained in the Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII), the Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher (also in the Mendelssohn fragments), the Enigma Psalm Cipher (located in the first measure of the Enigma Theme), the Music Box Cipher (embedded in the Enigma Theme’s opening six bars). Brief descriptions of each will be given followed by some concluding remarks.
The Program Anagram Cipher
In the original program note Charles A. Barry quotes verbatim Elgar’s description of his latest orchestral masterpiece:
It is true that I have sketched for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter, and need not have been mentioned publicly. The Variations should stand simply as a ‘piece’ of music. The Enigma I will not explain – it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion 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…So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some later dramas – e.g., Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’ – the chief character is never on the stage.
It is decidedly anomalous that in describing a work dedicated to his friends that the only name Elgar would give is one for a stranger, the Belgian playwright Maeterlinck. Was this possibly done to serve as a clue? Are there any plausible connections between the names Maeterlinck and Martin Luther, the composer of Ein feste Burg? As the table below shows, these names share the same letters in the first (M), second (A), fourth (T) and seventh (L) positions. There are also three equidistant matching letters with R in the third and sixth positions, I in the fifth and eighth positions, and N in the sixth and ninth positions. In all, there are seven shared letters between these two names with four in the same places and three in equidistant positions.
The striking parallels between the names Maeterlinck and Martin Luther suggest the presence of something far more tantalizing – a cipher. In consideration of his lifelong fascination for anagrams and cryptography, it is not unreasonable to suspect Elgar cited Maeterlinck’s name to serve as a coded link to the composer of Ein feste Burg. When treated as an anagram, the letters in the name Maeterlinck may be rearranged to form “CEEK MARTIN L.” With a history of unconventional spellings, Elgar substituted the letter c for s, a practice buoyed by the words cent and sent. Eric Sams observed Elgar respelled score as ckor and csquorr. This appreciation of Elgar’s phonetic spellings permits one to read CEEK MARTIN L as “Seek Martin L,” a remarkably revealing anagram since Ein feste Burg was composed by Martin Luther.
A second plausible anagram of Maeterlinck introduces spaces before and after Elgar’s initials (EE) to produce “C EE K MARTIN L.” The letter C is the phonetic equivalent of see. Elgar routinely signed his correspondence with his initials, so the double E’s represent himself. The letter K appears on Elgar’s scores to indicate that they had been copied. Armed with these insights it is possible to interpolate “C EE K MARTIN L” as “See E(dward) E(lgar) copy Martin L(uther).” This reading points to Elgar’s copying something by Martin Luther. Observe that Elgar’s initials (EE) are incorporated within that anagram. The first and last letters of that anagram (C and L) are indelibly linked to Variation XIII. In that movement, Elgar sonically portrays the sea by quoting a fragment from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The letter c is the phonetic equivalent of sea. On an early list of the variations, Elgar identified this movement with a solitary capital letter L. The fringes of Maeterlinck’s anagrammatic decryptions are revealing clues hinting at where to search for this mysterious “Martin L.” It is noteworthy that Elgar only later added the letters ML (the initials for Martin Luther) to the original L.
The Music Anagram Cipher
The search for “Martin L” triggered by the Program Anagram Cipher leads to another anagram, one situated in Variation XIII with its seemingly anomalous Mendelssohn fragments. On closer inspection it was determined the Mendelssohn fragments cleverly encode the initials for Ein feste Burg, revealing the missing letters for the subtitle’s three asterisks (***). The A flat and E flat fragments enclosed by quotation marks are elaborated and enlarged by Elgar into seven bar clarinet solos. When the discrete notes of the A-flat clarinet solos are treated as an anagram, it is feasible to reconstruct the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg as realized by Mendelssohn in the Finale of his Reformation Symphony.
Like the Program Anagram Cipher, the decryption of the Music Anagram Cipher includes the composer’s initials as shown by the first and last notes of the music anagram beginning and ending on E flat. This feature parallels the initials for the first and last movements of the Variations, Enigma, and E.D.U. respectively. While the first two Mendelssohn fragment in quotations are orchestrated in A flat major, the anagram of the extended clarinet solo itself produces Ein feste Burg’s concluding phrase in E flat major, the dominant or fifth of A flat. In the same manner, the music anagram obtained from the E flat clarinet solo is in B flat major, the dominant key. The remaining Mendelssohn fragment in F minor lacks quotation marks because it departs from the original major mode. The F minor phrase containing the Mendelssohn fragment cannot be rearranged to fully form Ein feste Burg’s end phrase because it lacks one of the necessary notes (E or E flat).
It is remarkable the names Maeterlinck and Mendelssohn share the same first letter (M) and number of syllables (3), striking parallels that invite the more astute observer to investigate further. The possibility arises of constructing Elgar’s initials in at least possible three ways from the comparison of the names Maeterlinck and Mendelssohn. The first is based on their triple syllables, for two 3’s when placed together (33) form the mirror image of two capital cursive E’s (EE). The second focuses on the two capital M’s. In his famed Dorabella Cipher, Elgar reoriented the cursive capital E to resemble a capital M, making it conceivable to interpret two M’s as two E’s. The third and final approach recognizes the two matching E’s in the fifth position of each name that reproduces by this alignment the composer’s initials. Not only do the Program Anagram and Music Anagram Ciphers reproduce Elgar’s initials in their decryptions, but a linear comparison of the two names raised by these ciphers also ingeniously reproduce those same initials.
The Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher
Multiple ciphers are ensconced within the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII. Cracking the Music Anagram Cipher revealed the notes from the A flat and E flat clarinet solos may be reshuffled to form the covert principal Theme’s concluding phrase in their respective dominant keys of E flat and B flat majors. It is remarkable these dominant keys furnish the first and third letters from the initials E.F.B., the digits for the number 13, the Roman numerals assigned to this movement. Appropriately enough the F minor Mendelssohn fragment appears in between the major fragments, conveniently providing the second initial (E.F.B.). The key order of the Mendelssohn fragments as they appear in this movement (A-flat major, F minor, and E-flat major) permits the realization of the initials E.F.B. in order based on the Dominant-Tonic-Dominant recasting. The Locks Cipher in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme hints at this key-based decoding, for locks are opened with keys. The appearance of two dominants in the Dominant-Tonic-Dominant Cipher key is a code for Elgar’s initials given that the fifth letter in the alphabet is E.
This Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher invokes the number 515, a mysterious sum described in Dante’s Divine Comedy as an “enigma forte” (hard enigma). Measure 515 appears in Variation XIII, and there are other veiled references to this symbolic number in that movement. With the discovery that the famous personage portrayed in Variation XIII is Jesus Christ, Elgar offers through his a subset of original puzzles his own solution to one of the great enigmas of Western literature.
The Psalms Cipher
The Psalms Cipher is located in the first measure of the Enigma Theme. In that opening bar, Elgar uses seven Italian musical terms: Andante, legato e sostenuto, piano, and molto espressivo. The first letters of two of these words (e and espressivo) create the initials for the composer, while the first letters of the remaining five terms are an anagram for Psalm. When taken as a whole the first letters of the seven performance directions are an anagram for “EE Psalm.”
Like the Program Anagram and Music Anagram ciphers, Elgar initials his Psalms Cipher in code to serve as a stealthy form of validation. Factoring in the s after the e in espressivo permits the solution to read “EE’s Psalm,” or “E(dward) E(lgar’s) Psalm.” According to this analysis, the Enigma Theme represents Elgar’s own psalm. This presents a remarkable parallel with Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg because that title originates from Psalm 46. That chapter number is suggested by the Enigma Theme’s opening G minor section in six measures followed by a contrasting G major section in four measures.
The Music Box Cipher
In the opening six measures of the Enigma Theme is a Polybius Square Music Cipher. Known more wittily as a Music Box Cipher, it is an extraordinary exploit in music cryptography. Not only does it encode the complete six-word German title Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), it does so as a 24 letter anagram in a series of phonetically spelled words and phrases in English, Latin, and Aramaic. Phonetic or “trick” spellings are a hallmark of Elgar’s unconventional writing style, something born out by his personal correspondence and the decryption of the Program Anagram and Music Box Ciphers. More remarkable still is the first letters of the four languages employed in Elgar’s Music Box Cipher stealthily
Rather than merely initialing his cipher as was observed with the four previously described, Elgar stealthily inserted his last name via a code within a code. There are at least three notable similarities between Elgar's Music Box Cipher and his Dorabella Cipher as decrypted by Tim Roberts. Both ciphers use multiple languages. The ciphers also employ phonetic spellings. More striking still is that both encode a last name within the decryption. Just as Elgar's last name appears in the Music Box Cipher decryption, Dora Penny's last name also appears in the decryption of the Dorabella Cipher.
This overview has shown a distinct subset of five cryptograms from Elgar’s Enigma Variations encodes the composer’s initials or name. Four of these ciphers contain his initials: The Program Anagram, Music Anagram, Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) and Psalms Ciphers. In the fifth and most elaborate – the Music Box Cipher – Elgar encodes his last name using the first letters from four different languages. The appearance of the composer's initials and last name in these cryptograms serves as a covert method of authentication for both the codes and their decryptions. Anagrams are a common trait in the majority of these ciphers, the lone exception being the Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher which is in reality ancillary to the Music Anagram Cipher. When considered together these five ciphers and their decryptions are sufficient to identify and authenticate the secret principal Theme, the Enigma Theme’s “dark saying,” and the secret friend portrayed in Variation XIII who is named in the second stanza of Ein feste Burg.
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 an unsourced letter by Elgar.