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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Elgar's Enigma Theme "GAG" Ciphers

This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in great seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called.


Edward Elgar  (Turin, October 1911)



The British romantic composer Edward Elgar visited the Italian city of Turin in October 1911 to conduct a performance of the Enigma Variations. He informed his audience that the Variations were “commenced in a spirit of humour…” The irony of this explanation is that the Enigma Theme does not sound comical or even remotely whimsical. Elgar relished practical jokes that he dubbed japes, and he sometimes deployed them in his music. For instance, he mocked the prosaic compositions of Charles Villiers Stanford by enciphering the epithet “Satanford” in the Demon’s Chorus of his sacred oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. There is new evidence for Elgar's melodic japery in his Enigma Theme.

Although imbued with a sorrowful aura, the Enigma Theme has two melodic note sequences that ironically spell “gag” as G-A-G. The first sequence appears in bar 6 on beats 3-4 at the end of Section A of the Enigma Theme’s ABA’C structure. The second repeats ten bars later in bar 16 on beats 3-4 of Section A’. Elgar is known to have spelled names and words in his music. “Satanford” is one example. He also composed his Allegretto on G-E-D-G-E with a musical motif that spelled the last name of two sisters.



Merriam-Webster defines a gag as “a laugh-provoking remark or act,” a “prank” or “trick.” A gag is a synonym for jape. Unlike jape, gag is easily spelled by musical notes that are restricted to the first seven letters (A-G) of the alphabet. Elgar advised in the original 1899 program note that the Principal Theme to the Variations is not heard or played. An absent Principal Theme is a type of musical trick or prank. Tasked with preparing the program note for the premiere, Charles Ainslie Barry wrote to Elgar in an April 1899 letter in which he likened the Enigma Variations to a trick:

I will send you some Variations of mine of thirty years ago. Don’t think me impudent in saying that I think I discovered a ‘trick’, which I will impart to you. You won’t guess it, so I am glad to think that there is something enigmatical about my Variations, as well as yours.

Why would Elgar encode the word gag twice in his Enigma Theme? He advised the work was started in a humorous mood, but what could be the source of Elgar’s amusement? Elgar’s expertise in cryptography bolsters the suspicion that the G-A-G note sequences in bars 6 and 16 hint at the presence of musical ciphers. An analysis of all of the notes in bar 6 reveals that it is an ingenious musical anagram. Besides the G-A-G melodic sequence on the short score, the remaining notes in bar 6 are two E-flats, two Cs, one G, and one B-flat. In all, there are nine note letters in bar 6: ABCCEEGGG.



When treated as an anagram, these letters may be rearranged as “EE CC BG GAG.” This sequence may be sounded out as the phrase, “EE sees big gag.” A phonetic decryption is supported by Elgar’s personal correspondence that contains inventive phonetic spellings. For example, he substituted frazes for phrases, gorjus for gorgeous, and xqqq for excuse.  Another possible arrangement of the note letters in bar 6 is “CC EE BG GAG.” This may be read phonetically as “Sees EE’s big gag.” Both decryptions of the musical note anagram in bar 6 point to an enormous jape that Elgar devised and observed. Like other cryptograms within the Variations, this one divulges the initials of the composer in the decryption.  For example, the performance directions in the first bar of the Enigma Theme are an acrostic anagram of “EE’s Psalm.” The musical anagram in bar 6 does not reveal the catalyst of Elgar’s levity. The answer to that question is given in bar 16 where the second melodic sequence G-A-G is reprised.

Like bar 6, the melody line in bar 16 also spells “gag” on beats 3-4. Elgar’s explanation that the Enigma Theme began in a spirit of humor highlights the significance of this conspicuous melodic sequence. It was previously shown how the notes in bar 6 may be reshuffled to produce credible phonetic anagrams. The same analytical approach was applied to the notes of bar 16 where there are a total of 14 note letters: ABBCCDEEEEFGGG.



It is remarkable that the melodic GAG sequence in bar 16 is immediately preceded by the notes E-flat, F, and B-flat. Those particular letters are an anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg, the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. The proximity of these two note sequences—EFB and GAG—suggests “EFB gag” or “Ein feste Burg gag.” A consideration of all of the note letters in bar 16 permits the larger anagram “ED CC BG EFB GAG EE.” This may be decrypted phonetically as the phrase, “Ed sees big Ein feste Burg gag” with the initials “EE” appended at the end in lieu of a signature. Elgar commonly signed his correspondence using his initials. A subset of cryptograms in the Variations is initialed or signed by Elgar as a stealth form of authentication. From the note letters in bar 16, it is equally possible to fashion the alternative anagram, “ED CC EE BG EFB GAG.” This may be decrypted phonetically as “Ed sees EE’s big Ein feste Burg gag.”

Elgar was a proud Roman Catholic when he composed the Enigma Variations in 1898-99. It is immensely ironic that the Variations surreptitiously cites the battle hymn of the Reformation. Ein feste Burg was composed by Martin Luther, a renegade priest excommunicated by Pope Leo X. This explanation easily accounts for the comedic impetus behind the Enigma Variations. Elgar’s inventive music anagram ciphers in bars 6 and 16 reveal the precise nature of his musical jest, for no sensible person would suspect that a Roman Catholic composer would cite a notorious Protestant hymn.

The thrust of Elgar’s musical jape is that he, a prominent Roman Catholic composer, covertly cites a Lutheran anthem in the Enigma Variations. The initials of Ein feste Burg are encoded in bar 16, a measure with five discrete performance directions: rit., unis., mesto, pp, and dim. The first letters of these performance terms are an acrostic anagram of “rumpd”. This is a phonetic spelling of “rumped.”



The term “rumped” is derived from “rump” which is defined as the buttocks or backside, or “a small inferior remnant or offshoot.” The Music Anagram GAG Ciphers in bars 6 and 16 point to Ein feste Burg as the butt of Elgar’s musical joke. When used as slang, “rumped” refers to someone exposed to another’s bare posterior. In this context, it suggests that Elar is exposing the butt-end of Ein feste Burg in bar 16. Consistent with this interpretation, the descending four-note figure G-F-E-flat-D in Enigma Theme’s countermelody replicates the first four notes from Ein feste Burg’s ending (Phrase B) transposed into the parallel minor mode.



This coded emphasis on the ending of Ein feste Burg is significant because research confirms that Elgar began his counterpoint with the Enigma Theme using that final phrase. This is contrary to the customary expectation that the beginning of the hidden melody must start with the opening of the Enigma Theme. In an unexpected move, Elgar mapped Ein feste Burg above the Enigma Theme as a retrograde counterpoint. Rather than playing forward in the ordinary manner, the secret melody plays in reverse from the end to its beginning. This rarely used contrapuntal technique amply deserves the title “Enigma.” Playing the secret melody in reverse above the Enigma Theme is tantamount to a musical trick or prank.

The adjacent notes E-flat, F, and B-flat in the first and second violin parts of bar 16 are just one of three ways in which Elgar encodes the initials of Ein feste Burg in that measure. E-flat, F, and B-flat sound together on beat 1  where the violas play E-flat and B-flat as the second violins and cellos play F. The written notes F, B-flat, and E-flat also populate the second beat of bar 16. The clarinets have a written F natural (sounding a 2nd lower as E-flat), the French horns a written B-flat (sounding a 5th lower as E-flat), and the second violins and cellos an E-flat. Although these three concert pitches are all E-flat, they appear in the written score as E-flat, F, and B-flat. The unison E-flat played by the second violins and cellos on beat 2 suggests the composer's initials. In the full score, the clarinets are identified as B-flat Clarinets and the French horns are labeled Horns in F. The combination of the concert pitch E-flat with the key letters of the clarinets (B-flat) and horns  (F) further implicates the initials of the covert Theme.

The orchestration on the first and second beats of bar 16 features the concurrent written and/or sounding notes E-flat F, and B-flat. These two coded references to the initials of the covert Theme on beats 1-2 of bar 16 immediately precede the melodic note sequence GAG on beats 3-4. With these same notes played by the first and second violins, Elgar encodes the initials for Ein feste Burg in three different ways on the opening two beats of bar 16.

There is credible evidence that Elgar encoded his first name in two different ways in bar 16 where he positioned his musical notes anagram cipher. The short form of Edward (Ed) is spelled on the second and third beats by the notes in the second violin and cello lines (E-flat and D). On the third beat, the notes D and E-flat sound concurrently for another coded rendition of Ed. Elgar signed his cryptogram, a phenomenon found with other ciphers in the Variations. The term mesto appears above these two coded forms of Elgar's first name. Mesto means sad and pensive. Elgar explained that the Enigma Theme “expressed when written...my sense of the loneliness of the artist.” Feelings of isolation and abandonment are bound to impart sadness.

Concluding Remarks

Elgar advised that the Enigma Variations were commenced in a spirit of humor. In stark contrast to that disclosure, the mood of the Enigma Theme remains solemn and meditative. What could be the source of Elgar’s humor? An analysis of the melodic line revealed that the word “gag” is spelled by the note sequence G-A-G on beats 3-4 of bars 6 and 16. A gag is a practical joke or prank, something that would be humorous and consistent with Elgar’s description of the genesis of the Variations. This discovery is consistent with Elgar’s known record of spelling names and words in his music.

An analysis of the nine note letters in bar 6 shows they are the foundation of two related phonetic anagrams. The first is “EE sees big gag.” This statement conveys Elgar’s inside knowledge of his musical jest. The second is “Sees EE’s big gag.” This phrase describes the vantage point of those who detect and decrypt his musical cipher. The source of Elgar’s amusement is encoded in bar 16 where the second melodic G-A-G sequence resurfaces. The initials of Ein feste Burg, the covert Theme, are encoded in bar 16 immediately before the word “gag.” Like the note letters in bar 6, the note letters in bar 16 form a phonetic anagram that forms a short note. It reads, “Ed sees big EFB gag,” and is signed with the initials “EE.” The source of Elgar’s gag is that he, a Roman Catholic,  secretly cites a renowned Protestant hymn.

The performance directions in bar 16 are an acrostic anagram of “rumpd,” a phonetic spelling of “rumped.” This term refers to revealing the backside of someone or something. Consistent with this definition, the opening four notes of the ending phrase from Ein feste Burg are played in the parallel minor mode by the countermelody in bar 16. This is the precise place in the score where Elgar enciphered the initials of the covert Theme in three different ways. On the downbeat, the violas play E-flat and B-flat as the second violins and cellos play and F. On the second beat, the first violins play B-flat as the second violins, cellos, clarinets, and principal horn play a concert E-flat. The written notes for the B-flat clarinets and F horn on beat two of bar 16 are F and B-flat respectively. The combination of the concert pitch with these written notes encodes the initials of Ein feste Burg.

The music anagram GAG Ciphers in bars 6 and 16 of the Enigma Variations furnish a credible explanation for the source of Elgar’s humor. Elgar was a confident Roman Catholic when he composed the Enigma Variations, and yet he unexpectedly turned to a famous Protestant anthem for its melodic foundation. This is the origin of his musical jape. The initials of Ein feste Burg are encoded in bar 16 in conjunction with a four-note fragment of its endings phrase in the countermelody. These discoveries further seal the case for Luther’s most popular hymn as Elgar’s elusive tune.

Dora Powell (née Penny) is the dedicatee of Variation X. She surmised in her memoir Memories of a Variation, “My own opinion is that when the solution has been found, there will be no room for any doubt it is the right one.” For my critics who have chided and belittled my research, my modest reply is to invoke that timeless adage, “He who laughs last laughs best.” Elgar’s gag is on the career academics who failed to perceive something so obvious as a melodic note sequence that spells “gag.” Pulling on that melodic thread unraveled a mystery. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

Soli Yah Gloria

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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.