Wednesday, May 13, 2020

On the scent of Wagner’s Senta in Elgar's Romanza

Senta casts herself into the sea to redeem the Dutchman
A good composer does not imitate; he steals.


Elgar’s absorption and distillations of leitmotifs from Wagner’s operas are widely acknowledged in his compositions. This impulse resurfaces in Variation XIII where the Mendelssohn quotations from a subordinate theme of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage replicate the melodic intervals and rhythmic contours of an incipit from Senta’s redemption motive in Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman. This discovery radically recasts our understanding of Elgar’s figurative and earliest reference to these Mendelssohn fragments in a May 1899 letter to Jaeger (an ardent Wagnerian) as “The pretty Lady is on the sea & far away . . .” Senta’s sacrificial and Christlike death on the sea to redeem the Dutchman and his crew from Satan’s curse deftly implicates the identity of Elgar’s secret friend immortalized in Variation XIII. The overt and covert dualism of these melodic quotations firmly implies the secretive yet famous melody of the Variations is quoted by both Mendelssohn and Wagner. The only well-known Theme cited in their symphonic oeuvre is Ein feste Burg. This solution is bolstered by Elgar’s distinctive handling of the Mendelssohn fragments that presents some striking parallels with Wagner’s treatment of quotations from Ein feste Burg in his Kaisermarsch.


There is a tantalizing yet previously unrecognized melodic nexus coursing through the works of Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, and Edward Elgar. It hinges on a four-note incipit of a subordinate theme from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage). Elgar cites it in Variation XIII, a Romanza in the Enigma Variations that has a cryptic title of three hexagrammic asterisks. He cuts short his quotation on the fourth note by curtailing Mendelssohn’s original whole note to a dotted quarter. This truncated quotation precisely reproduces the opening four notes of the apotheosis of Senta’s redemption motive in Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). First introduced in bar 65, Senta’s redemption motive appears seven times in the overture. Two of these seven incipits duplicate the melodic and rhythmic contours of Elgar’s Mendelssohn quotations and are set in 4/4 time, the same meter used by Mendelssohn, with the remaining five in 6/4 time.

The cellos introduce Mendelssohn’s subordinate theme in A major starting at bar 185 of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Wagner’s rhythmic and melodic replicas in D major occur in bars 330-331 and 334-335 of The Flying Dutchman overture. They are performed over a two-octave range by the flute, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, and bassoon. There are five other instances in the overture where Wagner presents this motive in 6/4 meter. The first three are in F major beginning at bars 65, 69, and 285. The fourth and last are in G major commencing at bars 296 and 388. Elgar’s Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII are played by the solo clarinet, twice in A-flat major in bars 506-508 and 514-516, and a third time in E-flat major in bars 538-540. There is another fragment performed in F minor in bars 520-522 by the trumpets and trombones in octaves, but it is bereft of quotations as it abandons the original major mode.
Wagner's 6/4 time signature in The Flying Dutchman overture has two more quarter beats per bar than Mendelssohn’s 4/4 meter in Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and twice the complement of beats as Elgar's 3/4 meter in Variation XIII. Senta's redemption motive first appears in bar 65 in 6/4 meter. The slower tempo and extra two-quarter beats per measure yield an augmented incipit of Mendelssohn's subordinate theme. This drawn-out aspect is retained by Elgar's quotations that are slowed down considerably from Mendelssohn’s original tempo. The tempo marking for Variation XIII is 76 quarter beats per minute. Mendelssohn’s subordinate theme is played in cut time at a brisker clip of approximately 120 half note beats per minute. In this way, Elgar duplicates the rhythmic structure of the apotheosis of Senta's redemption motive while simultaneously subsuming Wagner's slower pace and augmentation.
Elgar accommodates his Mendelssohn fragments in 3/4 time by tying the first C quarter note through the bar line to a second. His use of a tied note is not only expedient, it also encapsulates a clever wordplay on “sea tide.” Such a reading is feasible through the combination of the note C (a homophone of sea) with the word “tied” (a homophone and anagram of tide). This marine allusion is exquisitely appropriate as the Mendelssohn quotations embody a calm sea. These melodic fragments are accompanied by a soft metallic timpani roll that mimics the throb of a distant steamer crossing the open sea. The accompaniment for the first two Mendelssohn quotations includes a solo cello playing an ethereal harmonic C on the open C string, furnishing yet another nautical wordplay on “open sea.” The first sounding note of the A-flat major Mendelssohn quotations is C. It will later be shown how this letter matches the initial of a ubiquitous title for Elgar’s secret friend. More significantly, the pelagic context of Mendelssohn’s thematic fragment extracted from an overture about a sea voyage is faithfully preserved by Wagner in his opera The Flying Dutchman and Elgar in Variation XIII.
The striking similitude between the Mendelssohn quotations and Wagner’s motive from The Flying Dutchman was acknowledged by Elgar to the critic Herbert Thompson who furnished analytical notes for Caractacus Op. 35. In a postcard dated July 4, 1899, Elgar wrote:
I intended the quotation to represent the “Glückliche Fahrt” not Holländer (or 3 Blind Mice) — but, as the phrase comes in 50 things it might be worthwhile to mention which I meant.[1]
The English nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice was first published in 1609 by Thomas Ravenscroft. The original version is set in A minor and has only three notes in its opening two bars that descend stepwise by a minor 2nd followed by a major 2nd. In contrast, the Mendelssohn fragment cited by Elgar is set in a major mode and has four notes that descend stepwise by two major 2nds followed by a unison.

The note totals and intervals between the opening phrase of Three Blind Mice and the two themes by Mendelssohn and Wagner are clearly divergent. Elgar’s clarification is unambiguously misleading because the fragment from Three Blind Mice is dissimilar from those by Mendelssohn and Wagner. In his deflection, Elgar clearly recognized that the thematic fragment quoted in Variation XIII originated with Mendelssohn, not Wagner. That is the thrust of his clarification, but it does not abrogate the clear resemblance between the theme from those two overtures that could not elude Herbert Thompson’s notice.
When Senta’s redemption motive is performed concurrently with Elgar’s first Mendelssohn incipit in A-flat, it produces an elegant counterpoint over bars 505-512. The motive’s eight-bar phrase forms eight melodic note conjunctions in four out of eight bars with the majority occurring with the Mendelssohn incipit. There are twenty-two shared notes between Senta’s redemption motive and harmony notes from the score reduction in all eight measures. The contrapuntal evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that Elgar covertly quotes Wagner’s Der fliegender Holländer in Variation XIII using Mendelssohn’s marine overture as a camouflage.
Igor Stravinsky confessed, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” Wagner pilfered the thematic ideas of other composers when it suited his artistic goals, and Mendelssohn’s works were enticing targets. Wagner’s youthful adulation drove him to absorb and refine elements of Mendelssohn’s music and orchestration. The overture to his opera Die Feen (The Fairies) begins with a pianissimo chord sequence that recalls the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He modeled his 1835 overture Columbus so closely after Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage that he eventually confessed to plagiarism. Thomas Grey detects Mendelssohn’s influence in Wagner’s orchestration near the conclusion of Act I of The Flying Dutchman. He observes, “As Daland and the Dutchman take leave of each other the characteristic music of these propitious winds is heard again (measures 529-34) in woodwind arpeggios and high divisi string tremolos, strongly reminiscent of the same descriptive effect in Mendelssohn’s overture Meeresstille under Glückliche Fahrt.”[2]
The unacknowledged but obvious sampling of a theme from Mendelssohn’s only marine overture to fashion an integral motive in Wagner’s only oceanic opera cannot be casually chalked up to coincidence. On the contrary, it marks the continuation of a pattern in Wagner’s storied career. Mendelssohn cast a long shadow over Wagner’s music as illustrated in two later works, the Kaisermarsch composed in 1871, and his final opera Parsifal written between 1857 and 1882. In his march that commemorates the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, Wagner quotes the hymn Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. Mendelssohn cites that same hymn in the fourth movement of his Reformation Symphony composed in 1830. In its first movement, Mendelssohn intones the Dresden Amen, a cadence formula attributed to Johann Gottlieb Naumann. Wagner attended a performance of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony in February 1876, and would later incorporate the Dresden Amen in his Grail motive for Parsifal.
Like Wagner who drew inspiration and thematic ideas from Mendelssohn, Elgar did the same and more with Wagner’s music. Barry Millington, the Editor of The Wagner Journal, remarks that Wagner’s “. . . influence on the harmonic language of composers such as Parry, Stanford and Elgar is self-evident.”[3] From 1876 through 1902, Elgar intensely analyzed Wagner’s orchestration, innovative harmonic language, and system of leitmotifs. His first documented study of Wagner was an 1876 arrangement of The Flying Dutchman overture for the Worcester Glee Club.[4] During this formative period, Elgar regularly heard Wagner’s music in London at concerts conducted by Hans Richter and August Manns. He also made numerous trips to Germany to bask in the mythical romanticism of Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth and other venues. These protracted efforts culminated in 1900 with The Dream of Gerontius, a numinous homage to Wagner’s final opera Parsifal.
There is a substantial body of scholarship on how Elgar embedded and embellished Wagnerian leitmotifs in his compositions. Peter Dennison unmasks and documents leitmotifs from Wagner’s operas in Elgar’s early choral works in his groundbreaking 1985 paper Elgar and Wagner. Dennison reasonably concludes that an intense and protracted study of Wagner's music permeated and shaped Elgar’s compositions. My own original research found that the opening ten melody notes of Chanson de Nuit (a solo violin work with piano accompaniment composed in 1889-90) are a virtual restatement of Siegfried’s Second Horn Call, a leitmotif from Wagner’s Opera Götterdämmerung.[5] This discovery affirms that Wagner’s leitmotifs infiltrated some of Elgar’s earlier solo violin pieces, a diminutive class of works overlooked by most scholars interested in hunting bigger game. Elgar would later write the more popular companion piece Chanson de Matin in 1899 shortly after completing the Variations.

Wagner’s influence is readily detected in the Enigma Variations. Ian Beresford Gleaves describes how its orchestration “assimilates many of Wagner’s methods, particularly as regards the tutti.”[6] He highlights a Wagnerian modulation in bars 30-31 of Variation I that recalls bars 16-17 of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan. There are some conspicuous similarities between the scoring of the final three bars of Variation XIV (Elgar’s self-portrait that follows the Romanza) and the closing three measures of The Flying Dutchman overture. Wagner begins a two-bar crescendo from a piano tonic D major chord over a rising timpani roll on D that culminates in the last bar with a forte tutti tonic cadence followed by a minim rest with a fermata. In Elgar’s imitation, a two-bar crescendo begins on a piano tonic G above a surging timpani roll on that same note that climaxes in the final bar with a fortissimo tutti G major chord that is also followed by a half rest with a fermata. The close resemblances between these two endings is further evidence of Wagner’s enduring impact on Elgar. At the behest of Richter and Jaeger who shared the opinion that Variation XIV was too abrupt, Elgar added this Wagnerian ending as part of a 96 bar expansion to his Finale in July 1899.[7] Keep in mind the numerals 9 and 6 as they will re-emerge again in connection with the Mendelssohn fragments.
The surreptitious quotation of Senta’s redemption motive in Variation XIII radically recasts our understanding of Elgar’s earliest and figurative characterization of the Mendelssohn quotations. In a May 2 letter to August Jaeger from 1899, Elgar briefly floated the idea of excising the quotations to avert offending the acute sensibilities of his critics:
The pretty Lady is on the sea & far away & I meant this (originally) as a little quotation from Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille ū. Glückliche Fahrt. — but I did not acknowledge it as the critics — if one mentions anything of the kind — talk of nothing else — so I have cut out the reference — I think you can alter the score — in two places — it’s only Clar[ine]t! Tell me what else reminds the critics of something else. I might alter it.[8]
He quickly abandoned this scheme and kept intact his original short score and orchestration for the June 1899 premiere. Someone of Elgar’s musical genius and sensitivity would have easily spotted the telltale similitudes between the subordinate themes from marine overtures by Mendelssohn and Wagner. Senta’s theme is first hummed and then sung in Act II by the heroine who in Act III casts herself from a high cliff into the sea after professing her eternal love for the doomed Dutchman. With her declaration and sacrificial death, Senta frees the Dutchman and his crew from the curse of forever sailing the high seas on a ghastly ghost ship with a black mast and blood-red sails. Elgar’s cryptic characterization of the Mendelssohn fragments as a “Pretty Lady” who is “on the sea & far away” is richly redolent of Senta’s atoning fate. Jaeger, the recipient of the letter, was a committed Wagnerian who would have easily perceived Elgar’s nuanced metaphor.
The unmistakable Christian context of The Flying Dutchman renders Senta an analog of Christ, the secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII. Edward and Paula Bortnichak encapsulate this symbolic convergence in their essay Redeeming Senta:
. . . taking into consideration the simple facts of the plot and its presentation, without applying any filtering, we come to the inescapable conclusion that Senta’s actions and powers can only be described as ‘Christ-like’ . . . when we further recall Wagner’s original stage direction for the final tableau of the opera, with the Dutchman and Senta arising transfigured above the waves, we recognize that the Christ analogy holds even to the extent of her resurrection and the assumption after her final self-sacrifice to save the soul of the Dutchman (representing the redemption of mankind). Her female gender is irrelevant to this conclusion: she is the redeemer who is loyal to death (as Senta assures the Dutchman at the conclusion of the opera: ‘treu dir bis zum Tod!’).[9]
Wagner’s opera begins with the Dutchman scanning the horizon for a place to land after endlessly sailing his ghost ship for seven years. In the distance, he glimpses a light that pierces the night. Wagner imbues this pivotal moment with poetic assonance in an 1853 program note, “Da bricht ein Licht in die Nacht…”[10] That light radiates from Senta and is represented in the overture by incipits of her redemption motive. As Steven Vande Moortelle explains, “The ‘light’ for which the Dutchman sets sail is represented by the fourfold fragmentary return of the lyrical melody from bar 65, the Dutchman’s collapse by the diminished-seventh chord at bar 320 and his subsequent rise by the jubilant apotheosis of that same theme.”[11] Like a lighthouse, Senta is a beacon that draws the Dutchman to shore and his ultimate redemption. She is the light of his world. Two descriptions of Christ are connected with Senta’s luminescence because Jesus referred to himself as the ‘Light of the Word’ and the “Light of Life.”[12] Elgar named his first oratorio Lux Christi (Light of Christ), but Novello swayed him to adopt the English title The Light of Life.
Wagner bolsters Senta’s allegorical portrayal of Christ by naming her nurse Mary, the forename of Jesus’ mother. Elgar identified the earliest sketch of Variation XIII with a solitary capital L, the initial for such terms as Leitmotif, Licht, Light, Love, and Lord. At some later date, he added elsewhere the letters “ML” to the original L.[13] Based on these ad hoc additions, the conventional wisdom coalesced around Lady Mary Lygon as the dedicatee of Variation XIII. This turns out to be a classic case of misdirection as “Lady Mary” is one of the titles for the Virgin Mary. There were three prominent women with that same forename who attended the crucifixion of Jesus: His mother, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.[14] The first person to see Jesus after his resurrection was Mary Magdalene. The overt intimation of “Lady Mary” doubtless serves as a clue regarding the secret friend’s real identity. It is fascinating that the appended letters “ML” are the initials for Martin Luther, the composer of Ein feste Burg.
The singular capital L that marks the earliest short score of Variation XIII is preceded by “Var. in black ink and three Xs in blue pencil.[15] The separation between the L from the three Xs shows this letter stands apart from the obscured initials. If the L is an initial for Elgar’s friend, then the three Xs must stand for something else. The blue tinge of the pencil is the stereotypical color of the sea, and the three Xs are evocative of the three crosses at Christ’s crucifixion.[16] The symbol of the cross is further hinted at by the sea crossing portrayed by the Mendelssohn fragments. Elgar associated the letter X with Christ as he wrote “Xtian” in his correspondence in lieu of “Christian”.[17] Such an insight is unlikely to cross the minds of most secular scholars.

Ex. 4a Original Short Score of Variation XIII

The three title elements on the original sketch of Variation XIII produce a reverse acrostic of LVX, a Latin rendition of  LUX due to the equivalence between the letters U and V in the classical Latin alphabet. This remarkable cryptogram establishes multifaceted links to Elgar's first sacred oratorio about Jesus (Lux Christi) and Wagner's Senta who symbolically radiates light.

Ex. 4b Elgar's reverse acrostic LVX (LUX)

There are other coded references in Variation XIII that implicate the Lord of Elgar’s Roman Catholic childhood education and adult faith. The sea imagery portrayed by the Mendelssohn fragments alludes to the letter C, the initial for Christ. L is a homophone of El, a Hebrew word for God. The first two melody notes of Variation XIII are G-D, a phonetic spelling of God. A core tenet of Roman Catholicism is the belief that Jesus is the physical incarnation of God. The Roman numerals X and III are a simple number-to-letter cipher (1 = a, 2 = b, 3 = c, etc.) that encode the initials for Jesus Christ (10 = J, 3 = C). This cryptogram is not a fluke as Elgar used the same device to encipher August Jaeger’s initials in Variation IX (1 = A, 10 = J). The unveiling of Jesus as the secret friend would implicitly account for the inclusion of Variation XIII at Elgar’s memorial service in March 1934.[18]
Goethe’s poetic imagery of a calm sea represents the terrible stillness of death (“Todesstille fürchterlich!”), an ominous image that establishes Elgar’s secret friend had died. All living candidates such as Lady Mary Lygon and Helen Weaver may be safely excluded on the grounds they were above ground when Variation XIII was conceived. There are other coded references to death in Variation XIII. In the fourth and fifth bars after Rehearsals 55 and 59, the bass section performs the notes D-E-A-D. There was a preternatural darkness that shrouded the landscape during Christ’s crucifixion from the sixth to the ninth hour, a period from noon until 3 PM.[19] The quotation marks enclosing the Mendelssohn fragments are shadowy silhouettes of the numbers 6 and 9. These two numbers are imbued by a scriptural significance in the Variations because the only movements with biblical names as titles are VI (Ysobel) and IX (Nimrod). Those same numerals are linked to Elgar’s addition of 96 bars to XIV. The initials of the presiding judge who consigned Jesus to death are adroitly attached to the Mendelssohn quotations with the dynamic markings pp and ppp. These are two sets of overlapping initials for Pontius Pilate (PP) who was also known by his title as Procurator Pontius Pilate (PPP).
Jesus compared his death and resurrection to the Sign of Jonah which elegantly intersects with Senta’s fate and the calm sea portrayed in Variation XIII. When God directed the prophet Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh, he fled in the opposite direction on a ship to the remote city of Tarshish. During his sea voyage, an unexpected storm threatened to engulf the boat. Suspecting the tempest was divinely directed against one of their passengers, the crew cast lots to unmask the offender. When Jonah was exposed, he prophesied the only way to save themselves was to cast him overboard. The crew reluctantly complied. As soon as Jonah hit the water, he was swallowed up by a great fish, and the storm abruptly subsided. A calm sea heralded Jonah’s three-day confinement in the belly of a whale before he was spat out on the shore to resume his mission of mercy. The sign of the Fish is one of the most widely recognized Christograms inspired by Jesus’ analogy between his entombment and the prophet Jonah’s oceanic internment. Like Jonah, Senta willingly threw herself into the sea to save the lives of the Dutchman and his crew. That act mirrors Jonah’s sacrifice that Jesus invoked as a shadow picture of his own fate.
The Mendelssohn fragments are accompanied by an undulating ostinato that reprises the Enigma Theme’s palindromic rhythm of alternating pairs of two eighth notes and two quarter notes. This combination implies a deeper connection between these fragments and the Enigma Theme. The Mendelssohn incipits are stated in the contrasting keys of A-flat major, F minor, and E-flat major. Those three key letters suggest a solution to the three asterisks as they are an anagram of a well-known music cryptogram. FAE is the initials of the violinist Joseph Joachim’s romantic motto “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely) coined in 1853. It is not coincidental that Joachim’s forename corresponds to Mary’s husband, the stepfather of Jesus.
Joachim’s motto is the foundational motive for the F-A-E Violin Sonata composed in honor of Joachim by Robert Schumann (a friend of Mendelssohn and Elgar’s youthful “ideal”), Albert Dietrich (a pupil of Schumann), and Johannes Brahms. Through the key letters of the Mendelssohn fragments, Elgar enciphered a well-known music cryptogram cited by famous German composers to honor one of the most prestigious violinists of the nineteenth century. The discovery of such a recognizable music cryptogram ensconced within the Mendelssohn fragments is notorious for two reasons. First, it is staggering that so many professional musicians and scholars failed to detect it for over a century. Second, its existence elevates the prospect that other ciphers may be lurking in the Mendelssohn fragments and elsewhere throughout the Variations. This conclusion is bolstered by some elementary ciphers already recounted in Variation XIII that pinpoint Jesus as the covert friend. These cryptograms are consistent with Elgar’s expertise in cryptography, a subject that merits an entire chapter in Unsolved!, Craig P. Bauer’s history of the world’s greatest ciphers.
As a young protégé of Mendelssohn, Joachim famously performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in London on May 27, 1844. Just shy of his thirteenth birthday, Joachim was granted a special dispensation from a rule barring child prodigies from that prestigious stage. He quickly became a perennial favorite of Queen Victoria and the British public. It is befitting that Elgar encoded Joachim’s romantic motto with melodic fragments composed by Mendelssohn, his momentous mentor and champion. Arthur Reynolds observes that Joachim was “arguably the most highly esteemed performing musician of his time.”[20] Elgar’s deep admiration bordered on “hero-worship” as illustrated by his reference to one of Joachim’s discarded E-strings as a “precious relic.”[21] This unbridled respect for Joachim undoubtedly emanated from Elgar’s youthful aspiration to become a famous violinist, a plan thwarted by insufficient funds and instruction. One of Joachim’s most eminent pupils, Leopold Auer, lauded his instructor’s divine sound. “Whenever I had an opportunity of hearing Joachim play,” Auer recounted, “I always felt as though he were a priest, thrilling his congregation with a sermon revealing the noblest moral beauties of a theme which could not help but interest all humanity.”[22] Joachim’s interpretive mastery mesmerized audiences throughout Europe and England.
The FAE cipher entwined within the Mendelssohn fragments firmly implies the covert Theme’s name is three words in German. The German language is granted a conspicuous prominence in Variation XIII. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt inspired Mendelssohn’s overture by the same title. The title of Wagner’s marine overture is also three words in German. There are other Germanic references in the Variations. The English word enigma is identical to its German counterpart and was penciled on the original manuscript by Jaeger, Elgar’s only German friend depicted in the Variations.[23] For the title of his own movement, Elgar phonetically realized his German nickname (Edoo) using in place of his actual initials the first three letters (EDU) from the German rendering Eduard. The Variations are bookended by German titles with the first covert and the second overt. This dualism of the hidden mingled with the revealed pervades the Variations as illustrated by the Mendelssohn fragments.
In citing a theme by Mendelssohn, Elgar suggests by imitation (a common contrapuntal device) that the source melody is quoted elsewhere by Mendelssohn. Elgar’s transparent restatement of Senta’s redemption motive bolsters the same hunch that Wagner too quotes the covert Theme. The orchestral context of the Mendelssohn quotations insinuates these invocations of the hidden melody occur in a symphonic setting. The sum of the Mendelssohn fragments suggests a fourth work, a fourth movement, or number of quotations of the famous tune. Only one viable candidate satisfies those precise criteria: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. It appears in the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony followed by a set of variations. Senta's Redemption motive that duplicates the Mendelssohn quotations comes from The Flying Dutchman, Wagner's fourth opera. Wagner cites four phrases from Ein feste Burg in his Kaisermarsch. The martial bearing of Variation XIV that follows the Romanza is reminiscent of Wagner’s popular military march, a mainstay at London Richter Concerts frequented by Elgar.
The covert melody’s composer and the secret friend’s identity are deftly attested to by the open references to Mendelssohn and coded allusion to Joachim. These renowned musicians were Jewish converts to the Lutheran faith, a branch of the New Covenant founded by Jesus, a Jew. This Jewish context is symbolized by the hexagrammic asterisks on the original short score and published score that duplicates the Star of David. These three hexagrams allude to three Messianic Jews: Mendelssohn, Joachim, and Jesus. Mendelssohn was baptized a Lutheran on March 21, 1816, the birth anniversary of another famous Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Joachim embraced Lutheranism on May 3, 1855.[24] Following his baptism and first communion, the King of Saxony presented Joachim with a Bible, a repeating watch, and a stone from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested the night before his crucifixion. It is incredibly revealing that Joachim’s initials duplicate those of an alias adopted by Martin Luther while a fugitive from the Edict of Worms that condemned him to death for his alleged heresies. Abandoning his monk’s habit and clean-shaven face, Luther donned noble attire and grew a beard to assume the identity of Junker Jorg which is German for “Knight George”.[25] There is a bearded similitude between Joachim and Cranach’s 1522 woodcut portrait of Luther as Knight George. During that perilous period, Luther hid out at a mighty fortress called Wartburg Castle.

Elgar’s handling of the Mendelssohn fragments supplies some extraordinary parallels with Wagner’s treatment of quotations from Ein feste Burg in his Kaisermarsch. The first and most obvious linkage is the quotations come from alien works with German titles. A second correlation centers on the number of quotations. There are four citations of Ein feste Burg in Kaisermarsch, and four from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in Variation XIII. A third overlap is these four melodic fragments are framed in three contrasting keys. Wagner selected the major modes of B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat. Elgar opted for the major keys of A-flat and E-flat, matching two of Wagner’s three key choices. His divergent key choice of F minor is closely associated with Wagner’s B-flat major quotation because that phrase half cadences in the parallel key of F major.
A fourth tie-in concerns the distribution of the melodic fragments. Three of Wagner’s quotations are of the first phrase of Ein feste Burg (Phrase A), and the fourth of its second, the ending phrase (Phrase B). Although Elgar’s citations are uniform in that they rely on the same melodic fragment, they possess a similar distribution as three fragments are in a major mode and one is in a minor key. Wagner’s fourth and final fragment from Ein feste Burg is in E-flat major. This poses a fifth convergence as Elgar’s fourth and final Mendelssohn quotation is also in that same key.
A sixth similarity is the number of notes in Wagner’s quotations equals the sum of those in Elgar’s clarinet solos beginning with the Mendelssohn quotations. There are ten notes in Wagner’s quotation of Phrase A from Ein feste Burg. There are four notes in Elgar's Mendelssohn quotations in A-flat major, and this solo is extended by the addition of six more notes to form a complete phrase of ten notes. There are nine notes in Wagner's quotation of Phrase B from Ein feste Burg. Elgar's Mendelssohn fragment in F minor has four notes that are elaborated with the inclusion of five more to form a complete nine-note soli by the brass section. A seventh resemblance is how Wagner and Elgar orchestrated their quotations. The trumpets and the trombones predominate as they perform the melody an octave apart in Wagner’s quotations of Ein feste Burg. Elgar reprises this technique with the F minor Mendelssohn fragment that is also played in octaves by the trumpets and trombones.
An eighth conjunction is the discrete concluding notes from each set of melodic fragments encode the initials of a relevant three-word German phrase. The final unique notes of Wagner’s melodic fragments of Ein feste Burg in order of appearance are F, B-flat, and E-flat. Those note letters are an anagram of the initials for his source melody. The last distinct notes of the Mendelssohn fragments are A-flat, F, and E-flat. As formerly observed, these note letters are an anagram of Joachim’s personal romantic motto, “Frei aber einsam.” The unmistakable parallels between these two “dark sayings” in terms of their corresponding language and word aggregates imply an equivalence between them. As one set may be substituted for the other, what emerges is a melodic solution to Elgar’s Enigma.
There is another intriguing cryptographic link between Wagner's and Elgar’s melodic quotations because both sets encode the initials for Ein Feste Burg. In Wagner's Kaisermarsch, the three Phrase A quotations of Ein feste Burg are presented in three contrasting keys: B-flat major (bars 42-46), E-flat major (bars 61-66), and A-flat major (bars 183-187). Each Phrase A quotation concludes with a half cadence a fifth above the starting key. The B-flat major fragment half cadences in F major, the E-flat major fragment in B-flat major, and the A-flat major fragment in E-flat major. The keys of these half cadences correspond with the final notes of each quotation. The key letters of those three half cadences (F, B-flat, and E-flat) are an anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg. Wagner’s quotations are drawn from Bach's version from the final movement of his sacred cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Mendelssohn and Wagner revered Bach, a Lutheran composer who encoded words in his music.
Elgar enciphers the same three initials highlighted by the enigmatic title (***) through his handling of the Mendelssohn fragments. The key to decrypting his cipher is rather simple. The number of statements of a fragment in a given key designates the corresponding scale degree of that key as the solution letter. Two fragments in A-flat major identify the second scale degree of that mode (B-flat). One fragment in F minor pinpoints the first scale degree of that key ( F). One final quotation in E-flat major designates the first scale degree of that mode (E-flat). Those three note letters are the absent initials indicated by the three mysterious asterisks in the title of Variation XIII. This solution is affirmed by an acrostic anagram in the titles of the movements immediately before (XII B.G.N.) and after (XIV E.D.U. & Finale) Variation XIII. Elgar experimented with the order of the movements five times ostensibly to construct this cipher with B.G.N. and E.D.U. grouped together on the first two orderings, and *** sandwiched between them on the fourth and final lists.[26]
Elgar wrote the start and end dates of the Variations’ orchestration as “FEb 5th” and “FEb 19th” on the cover of the Master Score. “FEb” is an anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg. He also penned “FEb 18, 1898” at the conclusion of the original manuscript. This date is blatantly erroneous as the Variations were completed one year and one day later. There are no other known cases of inaccurate completion dates on Elgar’s scores. This glaring exception could only have been the product of design, meaning he intentionally wrote the wrong date. For those dying to understand why, the answer lies is a second inaccurate date on that same page. Elgar consciously attached an incorrect year to an Italian paraphrase sourced from Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). He inscribed “(sic 1595)” fully cognisant that Tasso’s epic Christian poem was published fourteen years earlier. The Latin term “sic” is a homophone of “sick”, a suggestive wordplay as Tasso’s final illness claimed his life in 1595. That death year relates to Elgar’s incorrect completion date because 18 February marks the anniversary of Martin Luther's death. One wrong date helps right our understanding of another.
Coded references to the covert Theme’s initials are not confined to the front and back pages of the Master Score. At Rehearsal 33 (the mirror image of Elgar’s cursive initials), the timpani’s tuning for Nimrod is shown as E-flat, B-flat, and F. That is yet another anagram of E.F.B. This cryptogram was ridiculed by Dr. Kate Kennedy in the Proms Plus segment of the 2019 BBC Proms 35. During the broadcast, she even sang a duet with David Owen Norris of my contrapuntal mapping of Ein feste Burg with the opening eight bars of Nimrod. A complete mapping of Mendelssohn’s version of Ein feste Burg over a piano reduction of Nimrod is publicly accessible on my YouTube channel.[27] This contrapuntal mapping was prepared in response to a challenge from Dr. Clive McClelland who dared me to plot the covert Theme’s course through any of the Variations. The most elegiac of the movements was selected as the first acid test for my thesis. The reader is invited to view my audiovisual presentation and decide whether it is capricious or commendable. Ein feste Burg stands in a class all its own as it is the only famous melody ever contrapuntally mapped successfully with Nimrod.
Elgar’s unusual nickname for Jaeger’s movement is actually an ingenious wordplay cipher on the covert Theme’s title. Jaeger is the German word for hunter, and Nimrod is described in Genesis 10:9 as “a mighty hunter before the LORD.” The opening two words of that biblical description furnish in order the first two words of the hidden melody’s name: A Mighty. Nimrod’s reputation as a builder of fortified cities injects the final piece of the puzzle (fortress) to complete the famous title of Luther’s hymn. There is a famous medieval castle on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon called Nimrod Fortress. Elgar exploits the overlapping meanings of the biblical Nimrod to cull together the hidden melody’s title. The final step is to translate the English version into German, a conversion implied by Jaeger’s ethnicity.
The anomalous Mendelssohn fragments spurred me to unmask Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations on February 3, 2009. Although I was blissfully unaware of it at that time, that auspicious date was the bicentenary of Mendelssohn’s birth. Dr. McClelland soon mentioned my melodic solution in the July 2009 issue of The Elgar Society Journal.[28] His skepticism was warranted as my nascent research was only just beginning, and I would not discover until late 2015 that Ein feste Burg plays as an augmented retrograde counterpoint “through and over” the Enigma Theme’s nineteen measures. This span includes the two-bar bridge preceding Variation I.[29] Elgar’s retrograde counterpoint is a “tribrid” of identifiable phrases from three different versions of Ein feste Burg by Luther, Bach, and Mendelssohn. This melodic patchwork is a stealth homage to three German masters. Mapping a melody in reverse culled together from three divergent samples hardened Elgar’s contrapuntal cipher and rendered the unexpected source melody virtually impervious to discovery. For these reasons, the title “Enigma” is amply justified.
Elgar eradicated any ambiguity about the Enigma Theme’s true length in his explanatory notes for the Aeolian Company’s player-piano rolls released in 1929. In his published remarks about Variation I, he advised, “There is no break between the theme & this movement.”[30] The two-bar bridge obscures the separation, but a double bar at the end of measure 19 makes clear Variation I does not start until bar 20 with the first iteration of the Enigma Theme. A retrograde counterpoint is a melody played in reverse, a seldom used technique due to its complexity. The Enigma Theme’s ABA’C structure alludes to this elusive technique as it is a phonetic spelling of aback. This seafaring term refers to when a ship’s sails are blown backward into the mast. That marine context is tantalizing because the sounding notes of the A-flat major Mendelssohn quotations (C, B-flat, A-flat, A-flat) are an anagram of the Enigma Theme’s ABA’C structure.

Julian Rushton counters that an avowed Roman Catholic like Elgar would never contemplate “a Protestant anthem” as the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations.[31] On the contrary, Elgar’s decision to cite Mendelssohn’s music in Variation XIII resoundingly refutes that objection as Mendelssohn was baptized a Lutheran and composed the Reformation Symphony. That someone of Rushton’s reputation would publicly entertain such an objection is a genuine enigma. Though separated by centuries, Luther (1483-1546) and Mendelssohn (1809-1847) shared a common faith, language, and artistic vision. They spoke German, helped erect the German School of composition, and espoused the sharing of Christianity through hymns and other sacred music. Elgar learned to write and speak German, embraced Christianity as a Roman Catholic, and disseminated the gospel message through his sacred oratorios such as Lux Christi, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, and The Kingdom.
This overview identified an overlooked symmetry between Elgar’s quotations from Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and Senta’s redemption motive from Wagner’s maritime overture The Flying Dutchman. Wagner absorbed and elaborated thematic ideas from Mendelssohn, and Elgar’s impulse to adapt and graft Wagnerian leitmotifs into his own compositions is extensively documented. Elgar’s earliest known study of Wagner’s music was an arrangement of The Flying Dutchman overture in 1876. The three Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII are a covert restatement of the apotheosis of Senta’s redemptive motive from that overture. Elgar identified his earliest draft of Variation XIII with a sole capital L, the initial for Leitmotif, and the same Rehearsal Letter in Wagner’s overture where Senta’s redemption motive duplicates the melodic and rhythmic contours of the Mendelssohn quotations. Elgar’s handling of the Mendelssohn incipits mirrors Wagner’s treatment of quotations from Ein feste Burg in his Kaisermarsch, a military march alluded to by the martial flare of Variation XIV.
Senta’s sacrificial death galvanized by her undying love for the beleaguered Dutchman implicates Jesus as the secret friend whose death is memorialized in Elgar’s Romanza. That subtitle is a clever wordplay as Jesus was executed by the Romans. In the original 1899 program note, Elgar likens the absent Theme to the protagonist in Maeterlinck’s plays “L’Intruse” and “Les sept Princesses” who never appears onstage.[32] That missing character is Death. Elgar’s belated mention of “Lady Mary” and covert allusion to Joseph Joachim’s romantic motto conveniently furnish the forenames of Jesus’ earthly parents. The Roman numerals XIII may be reinterpreted as representative of the cross and three nails, prominent elements of the official Christogram of the Jesuits who are known as “God’s Marines” for their desire to venture anywhere on earth. The sonic imagery of a sea crossing is emblematic of the cross, and its meaning and significance are enlarged further through the contextual prism of the Sign of Jonah. The discovery of Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme lends further evidence in favor of Jesus as the covert friend because his name is cited in its lyrics.
The goal of this paper is to merely scratch the surface of my research into the Enigma Variations because an adequate presentation would burst the bonds of any periodical and require a book. Big things have small beginnings, and towering edifices start with the laying of a cornerstone. Elgar laid his melodic keystone when he played a piano reduction of the Enigma Theme for his wife on the evening of October 21, 1898. This private premiere is commemorated by devout Elgarians every October 21 as Enigma Day. In a letter written earlier that fateful day to F. G. Edwards of The Musical Times, Elgar mused that a prospective symphony in honor of General Gordon “simmereth mighty pleasantly in my (brain) pan & will no doubt boil over one day.”[33] An orchestral masterpiece did indeed erupt that evening. The conspicuous appearance of the word “mighty” in Elgar’s correspondence on that day of days is a revelatory slip of the pen. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.[34]

Soli Yah Gloria

[1] Postcard, University of leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections MS361.

[2] Thomas Grey, Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 47.

[3] Barry Millington, The sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, his work and his world  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 254.

[4] Raymond Monk, Elgar Studies (New York: Routledge, 2016), 9.

[5] Robert W. Padgett, Wagnerian Leitmotifs in Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit (November 20016) published at

[6] Ian Beresford Gleaves, ‘Elgar and Wagner’, The Elgar Society Journal, Vol. 15 No. 2 ( July 2007), 22.

[7] Michael Kennedy, The Life of Elgar (Cambridge University Press, 2004 ), 69.

[8] Jerrold Northrop Moore, Elgar and his Publishers: Letters of a Creative Life Vol I 1885-1903 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 122.

[9] Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak, ‘Redeeming Senta’, The Wagner Society Journal, 13 (March 2019), 27-28.

[10] Steven Vande Moortele, “Form, Narrative and Intertextuality in Wagner’s Overture to Der Fliegende Hollander”, Music Analysis, 32/i (February 2013), 51.

[11] Ibid, 50.

[12] John 8:12

[13] Julian Rushton, Elgar: ‘Enigma’ Variations (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 8.

[14] John 19:25-27



[16] Luke 23:33 states that Jesus was crucified between two criminals.

[17] Moore, Elgar and his Publishers, 136.

[18] Kennedy, The Life of Elgar, 29.

[19] Mark 15:33

[20] Arthur S. Reynolds, “Elgar and Joachim”, The Elgar Society Journal, 2 (July 2007), 27.

[21]  Ibid, 29.

[22] Leopold Auer, Violin Playing As I Teach It (New York: Dover Publications), 6.

[23] Jerrold Northrop Moore, Elgar: A Creative Life (Oxford University Press, 1984), 266.


[25] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 238.

[26] Julian Rushton, Elgar: ‘Enigma’ Variations, 59.


[28] Clive McClelland, “John M. Rollett: New Light on Elgar’s Enigma”, The Elgar Society Journal, 2 (July 2009), 50.


[30] Mike Smith, “Friends Revisited: An edition of Elgar Birthplace EB722”, The Elgar Society Journal, 2 (July 2009), 11.

[31] Daniel Estrin, “Breaking Elgar’s Enigma”, The New Republic (February 1, 2017), see

[32] Moore, Elgar: A Creative Life, 270.

[33] Moore, Elgar and his Publishers, 94.


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About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker (a student of Leopold Auer), 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.