It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
One of the loftiest figures in Elgar scholarship is Julian Rushton, a prolific musicologist and Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Leeds. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has doggedly advanced and ossified the conventional wisdom regarding the Enigma Variations. One of his importunate mantras is to insist that the correct solution to the Enigma Variations – if one exists at all – “should seem obvious (and not just to its begetter).” This staid opinion is reiterated when commenting on his tenure as editor of The Elgar Society Journal, “I am delighted to have got through five years without printing any more purported enigma ‘solutions’, especially as some that have recently come to my attention tend to the increasingly tortuous, despite Elgar’s claim that the solution, once spotted, would seem obvious.” According to Rushton, the answer to the Enigma Variations must appear obvious; and as there are no obvious solutions, the riddle must remain steadfastly unresolved.
Where Rushton found such a peculiar proviso is not so obvious, for there is no record of Elgar stipulating the solution should be apparent. This faux condition conjured by Rushton’s feted imagination is easily refuted by consulting a dictionary. The Merriam-Webster definition for enigma is, “Someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain.” In contrast, the definition for obvious is, “Easy for the mind to understand or recognize.” With such diametrically opposed meanings, Merriam-Webster classifies enigma and obvious as antonyms. Following the passage of over a century without uncovering a compelling solution to the Enigma Variations, what should be excruciatingly obvious (even to a career academic like Rushton) is that the correct solution is anything but straightforward. Compromised by such a fatal logical flaw in which the principle of contradiction has been suspended, Rushton’s quest for a credible resolution in his book Elgar: Enigma Variations was doomed from the start.
There are other outlandish errors pockmarking Rushton’s analysis of the Enigma Variations. One of the most glaring is his assumption Elgar had only a brief three-day stint in which to conceive of any cryptograms. He relies on Elgar’s correspondence with Jaeger to arrive at such an eccentric conclusion. Rushton ruminates, “A tempting avenue leads to ciphers, although the short interval (three days) between conception and the commitment implied by mentioning the existence of the Variations to Jaeger makes elaborate precompositional calculation unlikely.” This inference conflicts with Rushton’s remarks concerning Variation X (Dorabella) which he describes as being of “possibly early origin . . .” An “early origin” would imply some degree of “precompositional calculation.” What Rushton alleges is the Variations were essentially a spontaneous, unplanned eruption of Elgar’s genius that would necessarily preclude any elaborately premeditated cryptograms and counterpoints.
Does Rushton’s theory harmonize with the historical record? A cursory review of the timeline decisively refutes such an arbitrary three-day constraint on the formulation of any cryptograms and counterpoints. Elgar openly began work on the Variations starting October 21, 1898, only completing the orchestration by February 19, 1899. From the time he first performed the Enigma Theme for his wife until he completed the initial orchestration covered no less than 121 days. This timeline does not take into consideration an extra five days in July 1899 when Elgar sketched and appended 96 bars to the extended Finale. At a minimum, Elgar enjoyed a leisurely four months to devise and perfect any eventual ciphers and counterpoints, not a scant three days as Rushton weirdly contends. The selfsame scholar who conflated the definitions for obvious and enigma apparently lacks the mathematical acuity to differentiate between three days versus four months. To paraphrase Elgar’s not-so-secret friend, it is as if Rushton’s left lobe does not know what the right is thinking. If Rushton is the best England’s renowned universities can muster in the quest to crack the Enigma Variations, then no wonder the British academic establishment failed to successfully navigate that melodic labyrinth.
Rushton’s three-day limitation on Elgar’s creative ferment is in marked conflict with Elgar’s lifelong compositional habits. In The Cambridge Companion to Elgar (edited by Daniel M. Grimley and, somewhat ironically, Julian Rushton), Christopher Kent describes Elgar’s compositional practices in his essay “Magic by mosaic: some aspects of Elgar’s compositional methods.” From early childhood Elgar would record and accumulate his musical ideas on small sheets of staff paper during outdoor excursions, a practice he likely absorbed from his father. Kent designates these musical sketches as “spontaneous jottings.” He offers numerous anecdotes of Elgar deriving musical inspiration from outdoor trips by the River Wye, Lake Windermere, and the reeds of the Severn with “a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something great.” Elgar’s lasting “indebtedness to environmental stimulation” raises the question whether he conceived of the Enigma Theme and some of the variations while ostensibly extemporizing at the piano on the eve of October 21, 1898, or if his ideas were crystallized earlier during his pastoral forays. Unfortunately, the sketchbook that could document those ideas was burned in July 1921, a year after the passing of Lady Elgar. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence proving Elgar used material from sketches generated years and even decades before fashioning them into a polished work. Rushton’s observation regarding Variation X as possibly being of an early origin supports this very conclusion.
There is overwhelming evidence for no less than 41 ciphers in the Enigma Variations, and in all probability, there are more waiting to be discovered. Elgar apparently devised some of these ciphers before or during the three-day window invoked by Rushton. For instance, Richard Santa made the momentous discovery that Elgar enciphered the number Pi in the first bar of the Enigma Theme using the scale degrees of the melody. The Enigma Locks Cipher could not have been realized until the orchestration commenced in February 1899. In contrast, the Keys Cipher was evidently conceived at the outset because the accidentals for the two keys in which the Enigma Theme is played (G minor and major) cleverly encode the initials for the hidden Theme. The key signature for G minor consists of B-flat and E-flat, and the accidental for G major is F-sharp. Those three letters (E, F, and B) form the initials of Ein feste Burg, and it is remarkable at least five ciphers encode those very same initials. The odds of so many ciphers encoding the same three initials is so remote as to exclude the realm of chance.
The moniker Elgar ascribed to Jaeger’s variation – Nimrod – first mentioned in his letter dated October 24, 1898, is on closer inspection an exquisite wordplay cipher that encodes the covert Theme’s title. It is no coincidence that Bach’s rendering of Ein feste Burg plays convincingly “through and over” that elegiac movement, or that Mendelssohn’s adaption from his Reformation Symphony offers an equally compelling counterpoint. The Enigma Psalms Cipher was likely conceived during that initial three-day period because of its placement in the opening bar of the Enigma Theme, although it is equally possible Elgar revisited this measure later during the orchestration to select the performance directions necessary to construct it. At least five of these ciphers include in their decryptions Elgar’s initials or last name. The four languages used in Elgar’s Enigma Theme Music Box Cipher are the four voices of a cryptographic choir – English, Latin, German, and Aramaic. From the grave, this foursquare ensemble sings the composer’s name: Elgar. This elaborate cryptogram proves Elgar did indeed record the solutions to his enigmas by incorporating the cipher within the body of the orchestral score, affixing his name in code to authenticate the answers.
A subset of eight ciphers are embedded in the anomalous Mendelssohn fragments cited in Variation XIII:
- FAE Cipher
- Fragments Cipher
- Mendelssohn “EFB” Cipher
- Mendelssohn Keynotes Cipher
- Music Anagram Cipher
- Dominant-Tonic-Dominant (5-1-5) Cipher
- Mendelssohn Pi Cipher
- Mendelssohn Pi-C Cipher
Concerning the cryptographic relevance of these Mendelssohn fragments, Rushton clearly missed the proverbial boat by assuming that Elgar lacked the time needed to devise such an elaborate series of cryptograms. Rather than impugning the veracity of these codes by relying on the demonstrably false assumption that Elgar lacked sufficient time, the complexity and sophistication of these complementary cryptograms serve as conclusive evidence for their authenticity, and by extension, the answers they encode. Rushton’s folly illustrates when one presumes there are no cryptograms to discover, the need for conducting a diligent search becomes superfluous with the attendant absence of evidence feeding that corrosive confirmation bias. In short, Rushton found nothing because he believed there was nothing to find, culminating ever so predictably in a self-fulfilling prophecy intoned by a false prophet.
Rushton’s capacity to sustain a modicum of objectivity is compromised, if not smothered, by an intractable skepticism towards all alleged solutions to the Enigma Variations. Such agnosticism appears to be driven by his belief that a solution is unnecessary. As he surmises, “That Op. 36 stands ‘as a piece of music’ reminds us that there is no need, from the aesthetic rather than psychological point of view, to find a solution.” The appeal to the psychological realm in describing the motives of those recommending new solutions suggests an unhealthy obsession, one fatal to scholarly objectivity. As he writes, “I shall propose no new solution, nor try to fathom the solver’s psychology, beyond remarking that it may lead to illnesses dangerous to scholars, such as selective quotation.” He all but implies that the quest for answers requires the abandonment of reason and objectivity, a position decidedly at odds with the English motto of his Alma mater, the University of Leeds: “And knowledge will be increased.” The appalling irony is that Rushton, in his naked desire to minimize and marginalize all solutions, casts reason to the wind to ensure that no solution, no matter how credible, will ever be taken seriously or granted an impartial hearing. If Elgar’s Enigma Variations were likened to a melodic labyrinth, then Rushton is surely a type of Minotaur whose illusive scholarship impeded the discovery of a way out.
Rushton’s failure to objectively present the most basic facts about the Enigma Variations without imposing artificial constraints on the exercise of Elgar’s genius casts a long and lingering shadow of doubt over much of his analysis. When citing the original 1899 program note, Rushton wryly observed, ‘This passage raises a ripe mixture of unanswerable questions, not least why the composer indulged in obfuscation as early as 1899.” Unanswerable questions? From the outset, Rushton pigeonholes the only “solution” he finds palatable, namely that the answer should remain uncertain, unknowable, and undecided. His superficial summary of Elgar’s conditions concerning the relationship between the Covert Theme and the Enigma Variations is so hopelessly constructed that it reaps a whirlwind of clashing answers. Perhaps this was Rushton’s intention all along, to so abjectly confuse his audience as to ensure they would inevitably arrive at his foreordained inconclusive conclusion.
Only a judicious appreciation of Elgar’s carefully crafted conditions offers any genuine hope of unmasking the correct melodic solution. As an astute philosopher observed, “Getting the question right is the answer.” Getting Elgar’s conditions right is pivotal in this quest for clarity. In private and public venues Elgar consistently explained the Enigma Variations are based on a famous clandestine melody. The dedicatee of Variation X, Dora Powell (née Penny) categorically stated, “Elgar told me personally more than once that the enigma concerned another tune.” His first public remarks in the 1899 program note for the premiere makes this fact unequivocal:
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 – its ‘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.
Elgar plainly states the Theme may be played through and over the entire set of Variations, yet remains silent with often the slightest connection between them. Only a musical theme may be played, unlike those of a literary, symbolic or mathematical nature. In 1923 Troyte Griffith, the friend portrayed in Variation VII, asked if the missing melody was God save the King. Elgar replied, “No, of course not; but it is so well-known that it is extraordinary no one has spotted it.” Rushton mistakes such a statement to mean the melodic solution should be obvious, but that is not the crux of Elgar's response. His reply to Troyte confirms the obvious fame of the absent Theme, suggesting that fragments of it must be present in the Variations, for otherwise there would be nothing to spot. What those fragments are is not so obvious. This hunch is bolstered by the original program note that describes the link between the absent Theme and the Variations as being “. . . often of the slightest texture . . .” Merriam-Webster defines slight as “very small in degree or amount,” and one definition for texture is “the various parts of a song . . . and the way they fit together.” Elgar’s judiciously parsed words specify the discernable bond between the Variations and the absent Theme is comprised of short sequences of shared notes or fragments. This condition is further alluded to by the brief four-note Mendelssohn fragments quoted in Variation XIII.
In an interview published in the October 1900 issue of The Musical Times, Elgar clarified how the absent Theme fits into the overall design:
In connection with these much discussed Variations, Mr. Elgar tells us that the heading ‘Enigma’ is justified by the fact that it is possible to add another phrase, which is quite familiar, above the original theme that he has written. What that theme is no one knows except the composer. Thereby hangs the ‘Enigma.’
Notice the terms phrase and theme are used interchangeably in the context of a melody that may be added above the original Enigma Theme. This narrative dovetails precisely with the original program note stating “. . . through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played . . .” Only a musical theme can be played, a quality irreconcilable with something symbolic, figurative, mathematical, or literary. The insistence by some that the solution could be something other than a famous melody is utterly incompatible with this stipulation.
More evidence confirming the enigma must be a melody is found in Elgar’s 1905 biography compiled by Robert J. Buckley. As the music critic for The Birmingham News, he first met Elgar in 1896 and knew him for almost a decade prior to publication. In the introduction Buckley confidently declares:
Whatever this book states as fact may be accepted as such. The sayings of Elgar are recorded in the actual words addressed directly to the writer, and upon these I rely to give to the book an interest it would not otherwise possess.
This biography was available during Elgar’s lifetime, and it is important to recognize he never disputed or disavowed any part of Buckley’s reportage. Dora Powell confirmed the biography was sanctioned by the composer. Buckley could not have offered such intimate details such as quotations, anecdotes, personal photographs, and copies of unpublished scores without Elgar’s personal assistance. Following Buckley’s introduction, Elgar’s cooperation is established by a facsimile of a handwritten autographed note in German and English. On the subject of the Enigma Variations Buckley records Elgar’s description as follows:
The ‘Enigma’ orchestral-piece is Op. 36. What the solution of the ‘Enigma’ may be, nobody but the composer knows. The theme is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard, the variations are the theme seen through the personalities of friends, with an intermezzo and a coda, the last added at the request of friends aided and abetted by Dr. Richter, who accepted the work on its merits, having received the score in Vienna from his agent in London, and who at the time had not met with the composer.
A counterpoint is by definition a counter-melody, so logic requires the unstated principal Theme must also be a melody. This condition is consistent with Elgar’s character as a composer for he composed counterpoints to famous themes like Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. A counterpoint requires both a vertical and horizontal fit between the two themes. Like a home resting on its foundation, the Enigma Theme rests on its foundational principal Theme. This demands that each share the same length to ensure a precise horizontal fit. The long and short of it is that one tune cannot be longer or shorter than the other. Elgar’s standard reply to enigma solutions invokes this fundamental idea of a fit between the two melodies:
No: nothing like it.I do not see the tune you suggest fits in the least.E.E.
Merriam-Webster defines the verb fit as “to be suitable for or to harmonize with,” and “to conform correctly to the shape or size of.” Elgar’s language leaves no room for doubt. Both themes must be the same length with a suitable counterpoint.
The final condition comes from explanatory notes Elgar supplied for a set of pianola rolls published in 1929. Concerning the first Variation he wrote, “There is no break between the theme and this movement.” That disclosure is crucial because it confirms the Enigma Theme does not end until Variation I begins. As the first variant of the Enigma Theme is not introduced until measure 20, this would mean he defined the length of the Enigma Theme as the opening nineteen measures. The two-bar bridge in measures 18 and 19 does not belong to Variation I (something deceptively implied by the layout of the score), but rather represents an elaboration of the Enigma Theme’s closing cadence. A conspicuous tie between the notes of measures 17 and 18 supports this conclusion, linking the Enigma Theme and the bridge in a way not found in Variation I. The bridge serves to unwind the Picardy cadence, returning it back to the minor mode in preparation for the first variation from which it is separated by a conspicuous double bar. At first glance measure 17 only appears to mark the end of the Enigma Theme, but in light of Elgar’s published statement, it is in actuality a faux ending. The correct melodic mapping of the covert principal Theme must account not only for the Enigma Theme’s Ternary ABA structure in measures 1 through 17, but also the two-bar bridge (Section C) in measures 18 and 19 that precede the launch of Variation I.
A meticulous analysis of four primary sources – the original 1899 program note, the October 1900 interview in The Musical Times, the 1905 biography, and descriptive notes for the 1929 pianola notes – yields six conditions capturing the relationship between the Enigma Variations and the covert principal Theme. Those six conditions are summarized below:
- The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the principal Theme.
- The principal Theme is not heard.
- The principal Theme is famous.
- Fragments of the principal Theme are present in the Variations.
- The principal Theme is a melody that can be played through and over the whole set of Variations including the entire Enigma Theme.
- The Enigma Theme comprises measures 1 through 19.
Any alleged solution that violates just one of these six conditions may only be proffered in direct conflict with the recorded words of the composer by multiple, independent, unimpeachable sources. This includes all of the purported melodic solutions assessed by Rushton in his treatise because they invariably overlook the bridge in measures 18 and 19. That his analysis was restricted to a pool of false solutions ensured Rushton would inevitably arrive at the conclusion that the answer was elusive. If only he had granted due consideration to Ein feste Burg, the one solution he would never guess because of its apparent incompatibility with Elgar's Roman Catholic faith. Such an unexpected choice would explain why Elgar insisted the answer must remain unguessed. To learn more about the secrets of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
Footnotes Rushton, Enigma Variations, 77.
 The Elgar Society Journal, November 2010 Vol. 16 No. 6, p. 3.
 Rushton, Elgar: Enigma Variations, 70.
 Ibid, p. 47
 Ibid, p. 65
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Ibid, p. 65
 The Musical Times 80 (1939), 60.
 Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing an unsourced letter by Elgar.
 Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, 66.
 The Musical Times (October 1, 1900), 647.
 Turner, Elgar's ‘Enigma’ Variations - a Centenary Celebration, 51.
 Buckley, Sir Edward Elgar, xi.
 Rushton, Elgar: Enigma Variations, 105.
 Buckley, Sir Edward Elgar, ix.
 Ibid, ix.
 Turner, Elgar's ‘Enigma’ Variations - a Centenary Celebration, 146.=
 Elgar, My Friends Pictured Within, 6.
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