The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
The art critic Bevis Hillier recently proposed a new solution for the secret melody to Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Hillier theorizes that the hidden melody is the Welsh tune Men of Harlech. This novel theory may only be taken seriously if it first satisfies six conditions delineated publicly and in writing by Elgar. These six criteria are recorded in four primary sources – the 1899 program note, an October 1900 interview published by The Musical Times, Elgar’s first biography released in 1905, and descriptive notes for the Aeolian Company's pianola rolls issued in 1929 and later published by Novello in 1947 under the title My Friends Pictured Within. The failure to methodically identify and define those six conditions largely accounts for the divergent panoply of conflicting melodic solutions. Elgar’s six conditions are:
- The principal Theme is famous.
- The principal Theme is not heard.
- The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the principal Theme.
- 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 consists of measures 1 through 19.
Any proposed melody that fails to satisfy just one of the above conditions may be safely dismissed as untenable.
The Acid Test
The most direct way to assess whether Men of Harlech is the secret melody of the Enigma Variations is to play it concurrently with the Enigma Theme. Even after making allowances for the Enigma Theme’s alternating minor and major modes, Men of Harlech fails to produce a credible vertical or horizontal fit. There are too many howling dissonances, and Men of Harlech is five bars longer than the Enigma Theme.
Hillier attempts to dodge this flagrant longcoming (a wordplay on shortcoming) by suggesting that the first seven notes of the Enigma Theme are a musical anagram of the opening seven notes from Men of Harlech. This analytical technique resembles my assessment of the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII that present a musical anagram of the complete concluding phrase from Ein feste Burg. The Irish poet Oscar Wilde astutely asserted, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” What Hillier attempts to describe as a musical anagram fails to form a complete phrase from Men of Harlech. This approach also overlooks Elgar’s specific condition that the Enigma Theme covers nineteen bars with 88 melody notes.
Elgar supplied explanatory notes 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 means that Elgar defined the length of the Enigma Theme as nineteen bars. 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 observation, linking the Enigma Theme and the bridge in a way not found with 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 reality 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.
Elgar’s standard reply to alleged solutions invokes this fundamental idea of a fit between the Enigma Theme and the hidden melody:
No: nothing like it.
I do not see the tune you suggest fits in the least.
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. As there is no discernible fit or counterpoint between Men of Harlech and the Enigma Theme, that Welsh tune may be safely deemed unfit.
Proving the Impossible
Many champion the impossibility of ever definitively unmasking the secretive melody to the Enigma Variations. Reputable scholars like the late Michael Kennedy opine, “People have ingeniously been trying to guess the tune ever since, a harmless but pointless recreation since the secret, if there was one, died with him.” J. P. E. Harper Scott reiterates that opinion rather more flamboyantly, “Although human nature guarantees that attempts to solve it will never end until the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are on permanent display at the British Museum…the riddle cannot be answered now its perpetrator is dead…” With few exceptions, scholars insist the correct melodic solution is impossible to discover or authenticate because Elgar ostensibly took his secret to the grave without leaving behind some viable form of confirmation. Rejecting the possibility of finding the correct solution grants a patina of credence to wildly imaginative theories like those espoused by Hillier.
This presumption of perpetual uncertainty precludes the possibility that Elgar provided a means to authenticate the solutions to his tripartite riddle revolving around a hidden melody, its “dark saying” and his covert friend memorialized in Variation XIII. This article of faith reduces any alleged solution to the level of speculative conjecture, something that imbues an errant theory like Hillier’s with a faint aura of legitimacy. Any guess appears superior to no guess at all. However, this absolute denial of certitude—a transparent contradiction—violates Elgar’s statement that the Enigma Theme’s “‘dark saying’ must remain unguessed.” The term unguessed is the antithesis of guess, an insight that verifies that these solutions are subject to discovery and proof. Elgar would not have made such a public declaration unless he furnished some way to authenticate the solutions to his three-part riddle. That would also explain why he refused to give away the answers, for those who desire to know the truth must search diligently to discover it. As Elgar’s secret friend famously said in Matthew 7:7, “Seek and you will find.”
By what cryptic means could Elgar achieve this seemingly insurmountable task that evaded detection for over a century? There is no question that Elgar excelled in coding and decoding secret messages, a discipline known formally as cryptography. His obsession with that esoteric art merits an entire chapter in Craig P. Bauer’s treatise Unsolved! Much of the third chapter is devoted to Elgar’s brilliant decryption of an allegedly insoluble Nihilist cipher conceived by John Holt Schooling that was published in an April 1896 issue of The Pall Mall Gazette. Elgar was so gratified by his solution to Schooling’s reputedly impenetrable code that he specifically mentions it in his first biography released in 1905 by Robert J. Buckley.
Elgar painted his decryption in black paint on a wooden box, an appropriate medium as another name for the Polybius checkerboard is a box cipher. His methodical solution is summarized on a set of nine index cards. On the sixth card, Elgar relates the task of cracking the cipher to “...working (in the dark).” This parenthetical expression using the word “dark” as a synonym for a cipher is significant because he employs that same phraseology in the original 1899 program note to characterize the Enigma Theme. It is an oft-cited passage that merits revisiting as Elgar lays the groundwork for his tripartite riddle:
The Enigma I will not explain – it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played…So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some later dramas – e.g., Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’ – the chief character is never on the stage.
Elgar also employs the words “dark” and “secret'' interchangeably in a letter to August Jaeger penned on February 5, 1900. He wrote, “Well—I can’t help it but I hate continually saying ‘Keep it dark’—‘a dead secret’—& so forth.” One of the meanings of dark is secret, and a saying is a series of words that form a phrase or adage. Elgar’s odd expression—“dark saying”—is code for a code, a secret message enciphered within the Enigma Theme.
A compulsion for cryptography is a reigning pillar of Elgar’s psychological profile. A decade of systematic analysis of the Enigma Variations has netted over eighty cryptograms in diverse formats that encode a set of mutually consistent and complementary solutions. Although this figure may seem incredible, it is entirely consistent with a dominant facet of Elgar’s psychological profile—an obsession with ciphers. More significantly, their solutions provide definitive answers to the core questions posed by the Enigma Variations.
What is the secret melody to which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint and serves as the melodic foundation for the ensuing movements? Answer: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. What is Elgar’s “dark saying” hidden within the Enigma Theme? Answer: A musical Polybius box cipher situated in the opening six bars. Who is the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII? Answer: Jesus Christ, the Savior of Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith.
A Mighty Fortress
The anomalous Mendelssohn fragments cited by Elgar in Variation XIII suggest by imitation that Mendelssohn quotes the covert Theme in a symphonic context. Elgar is not the progenitor of these foreign fragments, something that further implies that Mendelssohn also cites a melody he did not formulate. Four fragments allude to the movement number from Mendelssohn’s symphony that features this famous theme. The only popular melody quoted in the fourth movement of a symphony by Mendelssohn is Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. Mendelssohn introduces Ein feste Burg in the fourth and final movement of his Reformation Symphony, and that epic hymn is followed by a set of variations. The timing of this discovery is incredible because this melodic epiphany occurred on the bicentenary of Mendelssohn’s birth—February 3, 2009.
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott is commonly known as A Mighty Fortress and is Luther’s most famous and performed hymn. Based on Psalms 46, Ein feste Burg was composed around 1527 and sung to great acclaim at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 where Luther defiantly uttered his famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” It has been translated into English at least seventy times, and over the past five centuries has been performed around the world in many other languages. It is generally acknowledged Elgar was an avid disciple of the German School. His chief musical role models were Bach, Schumann, and Wagner.
If there ever were a melodic cornerstone to the German School, it would have to be Ein feste Burg as it is quoted in the music of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Schumann, Nicolai, Raff, Wagner, Liszt, and Reinecke. No other melody is cited by the great German masters so frequently or famously. As late as March 1853, Robert Schumann (Elgar’s ‘ideal’) was planning to compose a sacred oratorio about Martin Luther featuring Ein feste Burg in the final climactic chorus. If Ein feste Burg was epic enough to attract the attention of some of the greatest composers of the German school, particularly those whom Elgar venerated and emulated in his own works, then the magnetic allure of that rousing hymn would not have escaped Elgar’s notice.
A preliminary mapping of Bach’s version of Ein feste Burg devoid of any rhythmic alterations “through and over” the Enigma Theme produces a remarkable horizontal fit with the opening seventeen bars, albeit not entirely free of some unwelcome dissonances. This approach was eventually revised after accounting for Elgar’s definition of the Enigma Theme’s nineteen bar duration, resulting in a retrograde mapping of Ein feste Burg over the entire Enigma Theme free of unseemly dissonant intervals. Such a backward approach was suggested by the Enigma Theme’s ABA’C structure as ABAC is a phonetic version of aback. Elgar cleverly spelled out the nature of his retrograde counterpoint using the structure of the Enigma Theme as a clue. Hearing a theme played backward is an enigmatic experience.
The acid test is to map a proposed tune through and over one of the movements from the Enigma Variations. Dr. Clive McClelland goaded me into attempting such an ambitious project after he dismissed Ein feste Burg as unfeasible. There is a compelling mapping of Ein feste Burg with Nimrod that Richard Winter-Standbridge proclaimed is as “clear as a pikestaff.” Many melodies have been floated as possible solutions, but none has ever been successfully mapped over that elegiac movement except for A Mighty Fortress. The challenge of mapping a candidate tune through and over any of the movements effectively rules out all of them except for one remarkable exception.
Elgar’s unusual title for Variation IX turns out to be an exquisite wordplay on the covert Theme’s title. Variation IX is dedicated to Elgar’s friend, August Jaeger, whose last name means “hunter” in German. Nimrod is described in Genesis 10:9 as “a mighty hunter,” and it is incredible that the first two words of the covert Theme’s title — a mighty — precede the English translation of Jaeger’s name. Nimrod was renowned for designing and building fortified cities also known as fortresses. At Rehearsal 33 where Variation IX begins, the tuning for the timpani encodes the initials for Ein feste Burg. In the span of four quarter beats, those initials appear in Nimrod’s melody as the second (E-flat), fourth (F), and fifth (B-flat) notes. The E-flat and F are on the first and third beats of Rehearsal 33, and the B-flat is on the first beat of the next bar. Those beat numbers (1 and 3) correspond to the Roman numerals of Variation XIII.
The double bar at the end of measure six demarcates an incredible series of music cryptograms within the Enigma Theme. The performance directions in the Enigma Theme’s first measure are an acrostic anagram of EE’s PSALM. That is a stunning discovery because the title of the covert Theme comes from Psalm 46. The bar lengths of the Enigma Theme’s A (6) and B (4) sections pinpoint that precise chapter (46). Elgar encodes the word locks in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme by applying a simple number-to-letter key to the separate note totals for each of the active string parts. Locks are opened by keys, a realization that led to more careful scrutiny of the Enigma Theme’s keys. That opening movement is performed in the parallel major and minor keys of G. In a stunning parallel, the accidentals for those two keys furnish the initials for Ein feste Burg. These initials are enciphered throughout the Enigma Variations by a broad spectrum of cryptograms.
Elgar’s “dark saying” mentioned in the 1899 program note turns out to be a musical Polybius square cipher formed by pairs of melody and bass notes from the Enigma Theme’s opening six measures. This is the same type of cipher constructed by John Holt Schooling in 1896 that Elgar bragged about solving in his 1905 biography. The detection of this cryptogram was sparked by the realization that there are 24 melody notes dispersed over six bars, and 24 letters in the six-word title of the covert Theme. The oddly placed double bar at the end of measure 6 conveniently demarcates the extent of this and other cryptograms. Using the proven code-breaking technique of frequency analysis, it was determined that Elgar rearranged the 24 letters of the covert Theme’s title into a grand anagram of phonetically spelled words and phrases in four distinct languages: English, Latin, German, and Aramaic. The solution is confirmed by the first letters of those four languages which are an anagram for ELGAR. In a brilliant cryptographic feat, Elgar signed the decryption using a code wrapped within another. A Polybius square is also known as a box cipher. In the context of the Enigma Theme, Elgar’s “dark saying” may be labeled literally as a Music Box Cipher. Such a playful description bears all the hallmarks of Elgar’s known affinity for wordplay.
There is an explanation for why Elgar suspected the hidden theme would soon be exposed. He was profoundly grateful to Richter for agreeing to conduct the premiere of the Enigma Variations. As a token of his gratitude, Elgar presented him with a copy of Longfellow’s Hyperion. In a letter accompanying the book, Elgar wrote, “I send you the little book about which we conversed & from which I, as a child, received my first idea of the great German nations.” Little did Richter know the unstated Principal Theme to the Enigma Variations and its composer are mentioned within its pages. No wonder Elgar thought the answer would soon be discovered, for he literally gave it away to an eminent musician who should have recognized it if he ever bothered to read the book. Being a renowned conductor in great demand, there is no indication he ever did.
There is no doubt that Martin Luther’s hymn Ein feste Burg was popular when Elgar composed the Enigma Variations in 1898-99. Hans Richter began conducting regular concert series in 1877 at St. Jame’s Hall in London that regularly featured Wagner’s music. Richter was a Wagner’s protégé who enjoyed immense popularity with British audiences. These and other concerts led by Richter routinely included Wagner’s Kaisermarsch, a piece that quotes Luther’s Ein feste Burg. One of numerous instances took place when Richter conducted a performance of Kaisermarsch at the Crystal Palace 0n November 17, 1899. Five months earlier in June 1899, Richter conducted the premiere of the Enigma Variations.
In the Royal life of England, Ein feste Burg was given a prominent place of honor as shown by the coronations of 1902 and 1911, global events in the Edwardian era attended by leaders and representatives from around the world when the sun did not set on the British Empire. At the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII, Ein feste Burg was performed multiple times, first as a hymn during the processional, and later in Wagner’s Kaisermarsch. This same hymn was performed at the 1911 coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, again as part of the processional music and also in the homage anthem composed by Sir Frederick Bridge “making liberal use of Ein’ feste Burg.”
Wagner conducted his Kaisermarsch at Royal Albert Hall in May 1877. Hubert Parry attended a rehearsal on May 7, and recounted in his diary, “The Kaisermarsch became quite new under his influence and supremely magnificent. I was so wild with excitement after it that I did not recover all the afternoon.” Parry later played a role in furthering Elgar’s career as a composer. Elgar would express his gratitude by orchestrating Parry’s hymn Jerusalem which is traditionally performed at The Last Night of the Proms.
Elgar certainly heard if not performed Ein fest burg on numerous occasions in the years preceding the genesis of his Enigma Variations partly because of the Bach resurgence that swept England and the rest of the Western world. Bach's works were routinely performed at the Three Choirs Festival beginning in the early 1870s. In 1871 Bach's St. Matthew's Passion was first performed there, and music by Bach and Mendelssohn was commonplace in England throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Elgar played violin in the Festival orchestra in 1878. The Monthly Musical Record documents Bach’s Cantata A Stronghold Sure (Ein feste Burg) was performed at the Three Choirs Festival on September 10, 1890.
For Elgar to openly acknowledge Ein feste Burg as the source melody to one of his greatest symphonic works would certainly conflict with his Roman Catholicism. This necessitated the veil of secrecy achieved by substituting an ingenious counter melody in place of the original principal Theme. It would be inconceivable for Elgar to openly quote the battle hymn of the Reformation, a work composed by a heretic excommunicated by the Pope. His staunch refusals to reveal the hidden theme begin to make complete sense when considered in this context. As a form of penance for his indulgence with such a Protestant theme, he promptly composed The Dream of Gerontius shortly after finishing the Enigma Variations in July 1899.
For an October 1911 performance in Turin, Elgar explained in the program note how the Enigma Variations “...commenced in a spirit of humor & continued in deep seriousness….” There is a definite comic element to Elgar’s choice of Luther’s Ein feste Burg as no one would ever guess that a practicing Roman Catholic would contemplate a work composed by a German heretic excommunicated by Pope Leo XIII. There are multiple allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Enigma Variations that further account for this humor aspect. Elgar’s puzzling description serves as a dual allusion to the Enigma Variations ironic covert Theme and a great fount of artistic and spiritual inspiration, The Divine Comedy. Like Luther, Dante was critical of the corruption and hypocrisy that plagued the Roman Catholic Church.
Another compelling reason why Elgar staunchly refused to disclose the identity of the missing principal Theme, particularly after 1914, was its overwhelmingly Teutonic character. Following the deaths and maiming of millions of British soldiers in World War I (1914-1917), anything remotely German was intensely reviled by the people of England. After World War I, there was no possible way for Elgar to divulge the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations without risking his status in British society and the arts. During the war, August Jaeger’s widow changed her last name to Hunter to avoid suspicion, Hans Richter and Max Bruch renounced their honorary doctorates from Cambridge, and Gustav von Holst dropped the “von” from his name.
It would have been social if not artistic suicide for Elgar to acknowledge such a German melody as the inspiration for one of the great English symphonic works. Ein feste Burg was not only the Marseillaise of the Reformation but also a very popular war song among German soldiers. When war between Germany and France erupted in 1870, Ein feste Burg was played in Berlin during a grand concert to commemorate the march on Paris. After taking Paris and concluding a punitive peace, Wager commemorated their victory with his famous Kaisermarsch that liberally quotes Ein feste Burg. In English society, the robust association between Ein feste Burg and the German military was widely recognized.
Dora Penny (1874–1964) was the daughter of the Anglican Reverend Alfred Penny of Wolverhampton. Following the death of his first wife, Reverend Penny wed the sister of William Meath Baker, the person portrayed in Variation IV of the Enigma Variations. Dora made numerous attempts to guess the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations. After speculating in vain, she begged Elgar for the answer. He replied, “Oh, I shan’t tell you that, you must find it out for yourself.” “But I’ve thought and racked my brains over and over again,” she replied. He confessed, “Well, I’m surprised. I thought that you of all people would guess it.” The daughter of an Anglican Rector would be the one to guess a famous hymn.
Concerning her movement, Elgar wrote in 1927 that the “…inner sustained phrases at first on the viola and later on the flute should be noted.” His brief remarks draw attention to the inner melody line without providing any explanation. Following the discovery of Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme, the reason becomes perfectly clear. The first four notes of the concluding phrase of Ein feste Burg are quoted twice by that inner countermelody. No wonder Elgar told Dora that of all people she would be the one to correctly guess the melodic solution.
Ein feste Burg is an enduring standard in Anglican hymnals. Of all the variations, Dorabella directly quotes the first four notes of Ein feste Burg's concluding phrase, expertly camouflaged in an augmented form by the inner voice. Like those melodic fragments surreptitiously cited in Variation X, the Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII are also four notes in length. A prevalent error committed by enigma sleuths is to overlay the opening phrase of a prospective tune with the Enigma Theme’s beginning phrase. Elgar’s retrograde mapping of Ein feste Burg “through and over” the complete 19 measures of the Enigma Theme render all such efforts futile. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed. Like my heavenly Father’s gift of salvation, the price is free.