Nothing is more detestable than music without hidden meaning.
The concept of crossing is raised on at least two different occasions within the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar. The first occurs in Variation VI, an Andantino dedicated to his viola pupil Isabel Fitton. Elgar characterized its opening motive as “an ‘exercise’ for crossing the strings—a difficulty for beginners.” The second appears in Variation XIII where repeated quotations of a four-note fragment from Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage sonically portray a ship crossing the open sea. In both cases, the idea of crossing is imparted by particular musical motives cited and explicitly described by the composer.
What could be the significance of these “crossing references” in the Enigma Variations? The name Elgar bestowed on his viola pupil as the subtitle for her movement (Ysobel) originates from the Old Testament name for Aaron’s wife, Elisheba. Aaron was the brother of Moses and the first High Priest of Israel during the Exodus. The title for Variation IX (Nimrod) also heralds from the pages of Genesis. In consideration of these conspicuous Biblical references, a promising avenue of inquiry hinges on Elgar’s Roman Catholicism. In connection with the idea of crossing, it is instructive to realize that an integral and ubiquitous expression of that faith is the sign of the cross.
|Sign of the cross|
This tradition is decidedly ecumenical as it is practiced by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, and even Lutherans. Martin Luther retained and fostered this custom as a vestige of his training as a Roman Catholic priest. Whether it is something as minute as crossing strings on a viola or as vast as a steamer crossing an ocean, these two conspicuous references to crossing in the Enigma Variations invite a careful search for covert allusions to the Christian symbol of the cross. Such an avenue of inquiry would never cross the minds of secular scholars.
A careful analysis of the Enigma Variations unveils manifold coded references to the cross. For instance, the Enigma Theme’s time signature is 4/4 which is also known as common time represented by a capital C. The word cross begins with the letter c, and that religious symbol has four endpoints. Like that number, there are four movements in the Enigma Variations set in common time.
It is remarkable that the pattern for conducting common time replicates the sign of the cross.
|Pattern to conduct common time|
The symbol for common time is a capital C which represents a broken circle. In early music notation, a circle represented tempus perfectum or perfect time with three beats. A broken circle stood for tempus imperfectum or imperfect time with an added fourth beat. The word cross begins with the letter c, and a cross has four endpoints. The wafer of bread used in the Eucharist is traditionally circular, and it is broken during the ritual to symbolize the breaking of Christ’s body on the cross. There is another cryptographic link between the Enigma Theme and circles decoded by Richard Santa. He made the critical discovery that Elgar encoded the mathematical constant Pi (3.142) in the first bar of the Enigma Theme using the scale degrees of the opening four melody notes (3-1-4-2). The number Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
|A priest holding up the circular communion bread|
There are fourteen stations of the cross, and likewise, there are also fourteen numbered variations. In his personal correspondence, Elgar wrote the word Christian as “Xtian.” In recognition of Elgar's substitution of Christ with the letter “X” (an obvious symbol of the cross), the Roman numerals of Variation XIII may be viewed symbolically as the Jesuit symbol of a cross and three nails.
|IHS Christograph with the cross and three nails|
The application of an elementary number-to-letter cipher key to the Roman numerals XIII results in the decryption “JC,” the initials for Elgar’s not-so-secret friend, Jesus Christ. “X” represents the number ten, and the tenth letter of the alphabet is J. “III” stands for three, and the third letter is C. Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Variation XIII has the subtitle Romanza, a word that transparently provides a phonetic spelling of his executioners, the Romans.
In Variation XIII there are four Mendelssohn fragments. Two are performed in the keys of A-flat major, and the remaining two are played in F minor and E-flat major. The cross has four endpoints, and there are four Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII consisting of four notes each. The key letters (F, A, and E) of those fragments are not random, for they are a well-known music cryptogram “FAE” taken from violinist Joseph Joachim’s romantic motto, “Frei aber einsam.” Joachim’s motto means “Free but lonely,” and it may be directly linked to Elgar’s statement that the Enigma Theme captured his “sense of the loneliness of the artist.” Elgar’s encoding of the music cryptogram “FAE” in the Mendelssohn fragments is clearly deliberate, for it furnishes some remarkable parallels with the covert Theme. Like Joachim's three-word motto, Ein feste Burg is also three words in German. More significantly, the first three letters of einsam spell out the first word in the covert Theme’s title (Ein). There are four Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII, and the fourth syllable of Joachim's motto pinpoints the word ein. The Mendelssohn fragments are a gigantic clue because Mendelssohn quotes Ein feste Burg in the fourth movement of his Reformation Symphony which is predominantly in common time.
The Roman numerals for the two movements (VI and XIII) with overt references to crossing add up to nineteen. This is the precise number of measures for the complete Enigma Theme. This figure is significant because a detailed description of the crucifixion and burial of Christ is given in the nineteenth chapter of the book of John, the fourth Gospel. This numeric connection between the Enigma Theme’s bar length and John chapter 19 is remarkable because Elgar mentions that name in a letter to the editor of The Musical Times, F. G. Edwards. In a letter dated February 16, 1899, Elgar described how the Enigma Theme is “‘looked at’ through the personality (as it were) of another Johnny.” Like the names John and Joseph Joachim, the secret friend’s name begins with the letter J.
Like the four endpoints of the cross, four subtitles in the Enigma Variations form an acrostic of the word Frei. Elgar was an aficionado of wordplay who enjoyed crossword puzzles, puns, anagrams, acrostics, phonetic spellings, and ciphers. What makes this ordering of these four subtitles even more amazing is that it includes the Italian word for but (ma) followed by a phonetic version of einsam (eanzam). The configuration of “eanzam” outlines a cross with the horizontal beam symbolically placed on the subtitle Romanza. The encoding of Joachim’s motto in these four subtitles was made possibly only after the discovery of the “FAE” Cipher in the Mendelssohn fragments of Variation XIII. The discovery of one cipher facilitated the recognition and decoding of another more sophisticated anagram.
The languages of Elgar’s Frei Acrostic Cipher are German and Italian with two words spelled correctly and a third phonetically. This use of multiple languages with phonetic spellings are features of a Polybius Square Music cipher embedded in the opening six measures of the Enigma Theme. This is the Enigma Theme’s “dark saying” first mentioned in the 1899 program note for the premiere of the Variations. Elgar’s penchant for wordplay is on full display because another name for a Polybius Square is a Box cipher, so it may aptly be described as a Music Box cipher. Elgar read about the Polybius Square from an 1896 edition of The Pall Mall Magazine in the fourth installment of a series called “Secrets in Cipher.” A Polybius Square is decrypted by identifying the plaintext in a checkerboard grid resembling a chessboard. Each cell may contain a solution letter, and the decoding process involves the act of crossing because each solution letter is revealed by the intersection or crosspoint of a vertical column and horizontal row In his first biography published in 1905, Elgar bragged about solving a supposedly insoluble cipher presented at the end of that very article. That perplexing cryptogram was a Nihilist cipher, a variant of the Polybius Box cipher. Elgar’s personal copy of that article is now housed at the Elgar Birthplace Museum.
There is a particular melodic sequence in the Enigma Theme’s contrasting G major section (measures 7-11) known as a rosalia. The musical term rosalia is reminiscent of the word rosary, a beaded necklace with a cross worn by Catholics that is used during the recitations of various prayers. In German, this modulation technique is known as Schusterflecke, and was championed in the works of Robert Schumann whom Elgar proudly proclaimed as “my ideal!” Schumann contributed an Intermezzo and a Finale to the four movement F-A-E Sonata for violin and piano. Elgar emulated his ideal by also including an Intermezzo (X) and Finale (XIV) in the Enigma Variations. The sum of the Roman numerals for those movements is 24. This is the same number of letters in the complete six-word title of the covert Theme as well as the sum of the melody notes in the Enigma Theme’s opening G minor section (measures 1-6) and contrasting G major section (measures 7-11). This emphasis on the number 24 is not a coincidence, for it is encoded extensively throughout the Enigma Theme.
The cross is a symbol of mortality, and the specter of death looms over the Enigma Variations. The silence of the principal Theme is evocative of a passage from Psalm 37:17 that mentions the silence of the grave. For Elgar, there was an indelible link between music and death, for as a boy, he studied musical scores at a local churchyard while resting on a tombstone. In Variation XIII, Elgar repeatedly quotes a fragment from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt) to portray a ship crossing the open sea. This sonic symbolism was inspired by the poetry of the famed German playwright Goethe whose seemingly benign image of a boat adrift on a windless sea actually depicts the stillness of death (Todesstille). In the original program note for the 1899 premiere of the Enigma Variations, Elgar likens the absent principal Theme to the mysterious protagonist who never appears on stage in various dramas by the Belgian playwright Maeterlinck. That absent character is death, a central element in Maeterlinck's works described as "marionette" plays as the characters rarely move. Two distinct ciphers in Variation XIII encode references to the Turin Shroud and a “Dead God,” providing further cryptographic evidence for the brutal crucifixion of Elgar’s divine friend.
In the overt references to crossing in the Enigma Variations, the prevalence of the letter C is often subtle but unmistakable. In Variation VI the string crossing figure begins with the notes G, C and E introduced first by the viola section. These three notes outline the C major chord. A beginner would play this figure in the first position on the G, C and D strings, the lower three strings of the viola. The first two Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII are introduced on the note C by the clarinet, an instrument whose name begins with the letter C. The first two Mendelssohn fragments descend stepwise from C, B flat to A flat, covering an interval of a major third. These fragments are accompanied by the viola section playing alternating sixths which replicate the palindromic rhythm of the Enigma Theme above a pedal tone produced by a soft timpani roll on C. The first letter from the English title of Mendelssohn’s concert overture (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) is also C. Of course, the marine atmosphere of Variation XIII symbolizes the sea, a word that is the phonetic equivalent of the letter C. This is the first letter in the words Christ, cross, counterpoint and cipher.
There is also a coded emphasis on the number six in connection with the crossing references in the Enigma Variations. The string crossing figure is introduced by the violas in Variation VI, and alternating sixths are played by the violas in Variation XIII below the Mendelssohn fragments. Both the number six and the letter C receive a distinctive emphasis in these crossing references. One likely explanation is that this is an amusing Elgarian wordplay because the combination of C with the number six is phonetic for “Sea sicks.” Elgar was prone to this marine malady. On his first voyage to America aboard the SS Deutschland in June 1905, Elgar suffered from a bout of seasickness.
The concept of crossing is openly conveyed by musical motives found in Variations VI and XIII of the Enigma Variations. Elgar’s Roman Catholicism invites interpreting these crossing references as allusions to the cross. Musical and cryptographic features of the Enigma Variations lend ample credence to the effectiveness of this analytical approach. One objective of this presentation is to make the case that Elgar’s use of cryptography and Christian symbolism in the Enigma Variations is far more sophisticated and extensive than popularly believed by secular scholars who are often ill equipped to identify and decode them. To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
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