EDWARD ELGAR O.M.
MASTER OF THE KING’S MUSICK
PROFICISCERE ANIMA CHRISTIANA DE HOC MUNDO
[Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul]
Elgar memorial plaque, Worcester Cathedral
February 23 marks the 85th anniversary of Edward Elgar’s death in 1934 at the age of 76. A memorial service was held at Worcester Cathedral a week after his passing. The London Symphony Orchestra performed music for this solemn occasion selected by Ivor Atkins, an accomplished organist and friend of the composer. The program included the Enigma Theme, Variations I (C.A.E.), IX (Nimrod), XIII (***), and Proficiscere anima Christiana from the sacred oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Patrick Turner correctly observes that the selection of Variations I and IX demonstrated the “immense significance” exerted on Elgar’s life and work by his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar, and his friend at Novello, August Jaeger. It is difficult to imagine how Elgar could have ever ascended to the heights of international acclaim without the persistent encouragement and support of those two stalwart allies. No great man is an island, particularly a British composer with Elgar's acute sensibilities and towering genius.
Turner reasonably posits the same criterion that called for the performance of Variations I and IX at Elgar’s memorial should also apply to Variation XIII. A distinct commonality shared by Alice and Jaeger was they predeceased Elgar. His wife died in 1920, and Jaeger in 1909. In a stunning twist, the tempo marking for Variation XIII precisely matches Elgar's age at his death. Did the undisclosed dedicatee of Variation XIII also precede Elgar to the grave? The answer is yes, although it must be emphasized this covert friend miraculously rose from the dead three days after his gruesome and unjust crucifixion. It is profoundly ironic the audience remained oblivious to the secret friend's true identity while listening to the meditative strains of His Variation within the hallowed halls of a cathedral. That the secret friend is Jesus would certainly make Variation XIII de rigueur at Elgar's memorial service.
The confidential dedication of Variation XIII to Jesus is not bewildering for those who recognize Elgar was a committed Catholic when he composed the Enigma Variations during 1898-99. In his essay Measure of a Man: Catechizing Elgar’s Catholic Avatars, Charles Edward McGuire obliterates the myth that Elgar was a pro forma Catholic who did not take his faith seriously. McGuire cogently conveys the profound impact of Roman Catholicism on Elgar’s weltanschauung encompassing his family, parochial education, personal and professional relationships, and his music, particularly his sacred oratorios like The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles. He dedicated the bulk of his major works to God by inscribing the initials of the Jesuit motto Ad majórem Dei glóriam. The Society of Jesus is a Roman Catholic order of scholarly priests founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and its members are known as the Jesuits.
Elgar was raised a Roman Catholic by a zealous mother who converted to that faith shortly before his birth. One of his sisters actually became a sister when Ellan Agnes joined the Dominican Order in 1902 as a nun, adopting the name Sister Mary Reginald. She would eventually be promoted to prioress. Following in his father’s footsteps, Elgar served as an organist at Worcester parish of St. George’s from 1872 to 1889. The antithesis of a casual Catholic, Elgar was listed publicly as a “Catholic Knight” in the 1905 Catholic Directory. Modern scholars crudely recast Elgar in their own secular image as an agnostic or worse when the historic record proves he was born, educated, wed, and died a Roman Catholic.
The performance of Variation XIII at Elgar’s 1934 memorial calls for closer scrutiny of that movement, one that is markedly different from the other Variations for at least three reasons. First, the friend’s initials are shrouded in secrecy by three opaque asterisks. Second, the movement fails to cite any discernible thematic material from the Enigma Theme. Third, Elgar inserts three melodic fragments enclosed by quotation marks from Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Among the Variations, XIII harbors a panoply of puzzling anomalies that set it apart from the set.
The first two thematic snippets appear in A-flat major, and a third in E-flat major surfaces near the end of the movement. There is also a variant of the Mendelssohn fragment in F minor performed by the brass section which lacks quotation marks because it departs from the original major mode. The relative keys of A-flat and E-flat major are F and C minor respectively. It is fascinating that the key letters of those relative major and minor modes are an anagram of FACE. Incidentally, the first four written notes performed in Variation XIII by the B-flat solo clarinet are also an anagram of FACE. Is there some plausible explanation for why Elgar would covertly encode the word FACE using the Mendelssohn fragments? There is, and it hinges on his Roman Catholic faith and lifelong obsession for cryptograms.
Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture was inspired by two short poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe titled Meerestille (Calm Sea) and Glückliche Fahrt (Prosperous Voyage). Goethe reinterpreted the serene imagery of a calm sea to symbolize the dreadful silence of death (Todestille fürchterlich!). From a letter cited in the original 1899 program note, Elgar likens the absent principal Theme to the main protagonist who never appears onstage in two plays by Maurice Maeterlinck, L’Intruse and Les Sept Princesses. That absent character is Death. Elgar's references to two plays and two poems are united by a common theme—death. The invocation of this grave symbolism in Variation XIII bolsters the impression that Elgar’s secret friend must have died.
Through his deft use of literature, Elgar drives home a consistent message. The silent principal Theme and his friend’s absent initials allude to mortality, a leitmotif at the core of the poetic works cited by Elgar in the original program note and Variation XIII. Absence is also equated to death by the Apostle Paul who explains, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” Elgar's literary allusions regarding the Enigma Variations are easily tied to the death of Jesus. That historic event recorded by Josephus and other contemporary historians is commemorated by the Eucharist, a hallmark ritual of the Roman Catholic mass. When the scribes and Pharisees demanded a sign as proof of his divine authority, Jesus invoked the prophet Jonah as a prefiguring of his own death and resurrection. He explained, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Whales travel the seas like large ships, and the marine atmosphere of Variation XIII intersects with the Sign of Jonah. The sonic portrayal of a ship crossing a calm sea is deeply symbolic because the sign of the cross is a universal and integral expression of Roman Catholicism and other faith traditions including Lutheranism.
Yet another literary reference to death occurs at the conclusion of the original Finale where Elgar penned an Italian paraphrase from La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by the epic Christian poet from Torquato Tasso. He wrote, “Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio.” After the Tasso fragment, he added sic 1595 in parentheses and the name Tasso enclosed by brackets. On the reverse of the same page, he included the nine-word translation, “I essay much, I hope little, I ask nothing.” The year 1595 it is inaccurate because Jerusalem Delivered was published in 1581, a discrepancy of fourteen years. Elgar’s parenthetical remark sic shows he recognized the publication date was not 1595, for that was the year when Tasso, the prince of poets, met his earthly finale. The use of the Latin term sic in reference to the year of Tasso’s final illness furnishes an overlooked example of Elgar’s penchant for wordplay. The deathly stillness portrayed in Variation XIII may be tied to Tasso’s passing because he was 51 years old when he died, and there are 51 measures in that movement. That was also the same age at which another one of Elgar’s heroes, General Gordon, fell in battle at Khartoum in January 1885.
The death year assigned to the Tasso fragment is not an isolated anomaly tied to misdating in the Master Score of the Enigma Variations. Elgar also erroneously dated the completion of the Enigma Variations as “FEb. 18, 1898.” The orchestration was actually finished on February 19, 1899, a difference of one year and one day. Elgar did not openly begin work on the short score until October 21, 1898, or 246 days after the incorrect date. The coded significance of the wrong completion date is that February 18 marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s death. Elgar’s incorrect abbreviation of February as “FEb” employs a capitalized E rather than the customary lower case because it is the first letter in a title. Those three letters are the initials of Luther’s greatest hymn, Ein feste Burg, the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. The placement of this anomalous completion date on the final page of the Master Score mirrors the Tasso fragment’s position at the end of the original Finale paired with an inaccurate year that corresponds with that notable person’s death. Two incorrect dates, two plays, and two poems are united by a common theme—death.
The Mendelssohn quotations sonically portray a calm sea, and it is conspicuous that in them Elgar places a coded emphasis on the letter c. This is most clearly exhibited by the two A-flat major Mendelssohn quotations played by a plaintive solo clarinet, an instrument name that begins with the letter c. The first note of these two fragments is also C, and they are accompanied by the Timpani performing a droning metallic roll on C in unison with a C played by the solo cello, another instrument that starts with c. The accompaniment includes the viola section performing the Enigma Theme’s palindromic rhythm as an ostinato of alternating sixths with C serving as the lowest and highest notes. The viola part is written in alto clef which is also known as the C clef. There are still other examples, but these should suffice in illustrating multifarious references to the letter c within the Mendelssohn quotations.
With so many allusions to the letter c embedded in the A-flat major Mendelssohn fragments, what is it that Elgar wants us to see? The most apparent answer is that c is a homophone of sea, the imagery conveyed by the four-note Mendelssohn fragments. C is also is the phonetic equivalent of see. A more subtle explanation is that particular letter is the initial for one of the secret friend’s paramount titles, the Christ. This comports with Goethe’s poetry that likens the ocean calm to a “deathly stillness,” a foreboding image that makes plain that Elgar’s secret friend had died. All living candidates may be safely excluded on the grounds that they were above ground when Variation XIII was conceived. The Roman numerals for that movement (XIII) transparently encode the secret friend’s initials using a simple number-to-letter key. X represents ten, and J is the tenth letter. III stands for three, and C is the third letter. The Roman numerals XIII are an elementary cipher that encodes the initials for Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of Elgar’s faith. For those who fail to grasp the semantic link between Jaeger (“Hunter” in German) and Nimrod (“A mighty hunter” in Genesis 10:9), Elgar employed the identical cipher key to encode August Jaeger’s initials in the Roman numerals of Variation IX.
There is a robust theological connection between the number thirteen and Jesus. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus lowered himself to the level of a common servant at the Last Supper—the template for the Eucharist—by washing the feet of his twelve disciples. He even washed the feet of Judas, the one who would betray him that very eve. Through this selfless act typically performed by a lowly household servant or slave, Jesus effectively ranked himself the least and consequently the last in this assemblage of thirteen. In an interview printed in October 1900 issue of The Music Times, Elgar specifically mentions the “ill-luck” associated with the number thirteen in connection with the Enigma Variations. That ominous figure clearly weighed on his mind as he composed his breakout symphonic masterpiece.
Buried in the lowest staff of the score of Variation XIII, the bass section plays the notes D-E-A-D in measures 498 and 499, and again in 533 and 534. Incredibly, the bass part literally spells out what Elgar sonically portrays with the Mendelssohn fragments. Who is dead? The answer is given using the same enciphering method by the flute, oboe, and clarinet in the measures that immediately follow the bass part. In measure 500, the first flute and oboe play the notes G and D, and these are repeated by the clarinet in bar 501. This same pattern is repeated in measures 535 and 536. Elgar’s musical response to the question is G-D, a phonetic version of God. Three repetitions of the notes G-D allude to the Trinity. Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith leaves only one credible candidate for a God who died, and his initials are disclosed by the XIII Roman Numerals Cipher. Elgar raises a question by encoding the word DEAD in the lowest part of the score and then answers it in the three highest staves with three codes references to G-D.
The theological term holy means sacred and set apart for the service of God. It is revealing that the solo B-flat clarinet opens Variation XIII by playing the notes G and D in concert pitch, a phonetic spelling of God. In many ways, Variation XIII is set apart because it does not clearly state a variant of the Enigma Theme and cites melodic quotations from an outside work by a foreign composer. Various cryptograms referring to Jesus in this movement further establish a special sense of holiness. Variation XIII also makes subtle coded references to His Holiness Pope Leo XIII, the presiding pontiff when Elgar composed the Enigma Variations. Pope Leo XIII (born Count Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci) was the first pontiff to be filmed in 1896 by the inventor of the motion picture camera, W. K. Dickson. The film Santitá papa Leone XIII may be viewed on YouTube. He was also the first pope whose voice was recorded for posterity.
There are at least seven pieces of evidence in Variation XIII that point to Pope Leo XIII. The first and most obvious is the corresponding Roman numerals XIII. The second is that Elgar identified the earliest sketch of Variations XIII with a capital L, confirming that it is an initial and the first letter in a name. The third centers on the three asterisks in the title which suggest the number of letters in Leo. The fourth is the hexagrammic shape of those asterisks as they appear on both the original short score and published score because the coat of arms for Pope Leo XIII prominently displays a hexagrammic star. The fifth is the suggestive subtitle Romanza, for Leo was a Roman Catholic pontiff. The sixth is Elgar’s use of three X’s on the original sketch of Variation XIII in place of three asterisks. The X is a form of the cross, a symbol carried and invoked by the pope during prayer.
It is incredibly revealing that Elgar substituted the letter X for Christ in his correspondence. For instance, in a letter to Jaeger written in September 1899, Elgar substituted the term Xtian for Christian. In 1904, he wrote Xtianity instead of Christianity in a letter to his friend Arthur Troyte Griffith, the dedicatee of Variation VII. The three X’s on the earliest sketch of Variation XIII are also enormously evocative as there were three crosses at the crucifixion of Christ. A plausible decryption of the three cryptic asterisks is LEO.
There is a seventh connection between Pope Leo XIII and the marine imagery of the Mendelssohn fragments. Let us play a Catholic word association game. As previously observed, the word sea is a homophone of see. This presents a translucent association in Catholicism between the word see and the Holy See, the Vatican presided over by the pope. It was also shown how the major and relative minor keys of the Mendelssohn quotations are an anagram of the word FACE. There is a robust association in Catholicism between face and holy because of the Devotions to the Holy Face. In 1885, Pope Leo XIII canonically established the Archconfraternity of the Holy Face.
Some religious relics are identified as Acheiropoieta, a Greek term meaning “made without hand.” These sacred artifacts are believed to possess miraculous depictions of the face of Jesus. The most sensational relic is the Holy Shroud of Turin, an ancient Jewish burial cloth possessing the faint ventral and dorsal images of a crucified man whose wounds correspond precisely with those attributed to Jesus in the Gospel accounts. When the Italian amateur photographer, Secondo Pia, took the first official photographs of the Turin Shroud in May 1898, he made the startling discovery that the dim likeness on the Shroud was a negative that appears as a lifelike positive on the developed photographic plates.
After observing Pia's photographic negative, Pope Leo XIII declared that the image on the Shroud was “a means well-adapted in our time to stimulate everywhere a revival of the religious spirit.” Pia’s photographic negative of the Turin Shroud received approval from the Catholic Church to serve as part of the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. This astonishing discovery was granted widespread coverage in the secular and Catholic press and transpired just five months before Elgar began feverishly composing the Enigma Variations. The miraculous photographic negative revealed for the first time what many devout Catholics regarded as the actual image of the crucified Christ. Seeing was truly believing. Elgar’s unwavering faith is demonstrated by coded references to the Turin Shroud, Secondo Pia, and Pope Leo XIII in the Enigma Variations.
Now consider the terms linked overtly and covertly to the Mendelssohn sea fragments: Face, See, and Holy. These may be rearranged to produce the phrase “See Holy Face.” Is that not an exquisite coded reference to the miraculous image on the Turin Shroud? The key signature for the A-flat major Mendelssohn fragments consists of four flats: B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat. That sequence of letters represents the correct order of flats and spells BEAD. Prayer beads are a common accessory implemented in devotions to the Holy Face. The puzzling Mendelssohn sea fragments quoted in Variation XIII turn out to be a secret musical devotion to the Holy Face of Elgar’s greatest friend.
Variation XIII is clearly not dedicated to Pope Leo XIII who did not pass away until 1903. Covert references to Pope Leo XIII highlight the special connection between a pontiff and Elgar’s not-so-secret friend. One of the pope’s many titles is the Vicar of Christ, the human representative of Jesus on Earth. It is the famous figure whom the pope personifies that is the intended dedicatee. The name Leo means lion. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called the Lion of Judah. There is another explanation for Elgar’s coded references to the presiding pontiff when he composed the Enigma Variations. The name Leo turns up in a pivotal moment in the life of Martin Luther who was excommunicated in 1521 by Pope Leo X. Luther is the composer of the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations, Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress).
The favorite poets of Pope Leo XIII were Dante and Virgil, renowned artists who serve as central protagonists in The Divine Comedy. There are numerous coded allusions to that great poetic work in the Enigma Variations. In May 1879, Pope Leo XIII elevated the famous Anglican priest and convert John Henry Newman, to the rank of cardinal. Elgar’s greatest sacred oratorio was inspired by The Dream of Gerontius, a highly regarded poem composed by Newman in 1865 that was read and underlined by General Gordon before his untimely demise at the Fall of Khartoum. Like much of the British public, Elgar admired Gordon who died a heroic martyr’s death after refusing the Mahdi’s repeated demands to convert to Islam. When presented with General Gordon’s personal Bible in February 1885, Queen Victoria proudly exhibited it in an ornate rock crystal display case in the Grand Corridor of Windsor Castle. Elgar planned to write a Symphony in honor of General Gordon in October 1898 when he abruptly redirected his efforts towards the Enigma Variations.
Elgar’s death in February 1934 marked the end of a man, but not of his music which still reverberates throughout the world’s most prestigious concert halls. His sublime themes also emerge in the soundtracks of epic films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The vain efforts of secular academics to minimize and ignore the profound impact of Roman Catholicism on Elgar’s art barred them from detecting and decrypting a symphonic homage to his faith and passion for cryptography. Their unbelief is their undoing, for as the Psalmist warns, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The See Holy Face Cipher in Variation XIII is just one example that serves as a remarkable testimony to Elgar’s innermost self that reached its greatest outward expression in The Dream of Gerontius. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.