Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.
The British composer Barnaby Martin released an informative video in June 2020 about the symphonic Enigma Variations by the British romantic composer Edward Elgar. He christened his presentation The Mystery Behind Elgar’s Enigma. It is skillfully prepared and has received in excess of 31,300 views. Martin begins, “There is something about an unsolved mystery that captures every imagination.” He narrates an incisive introduction to the Enigma Variations before directing his attention to its most “interesting riddle” in the beguiling guise of an absent Principal Theme.
What is the secret melody of the Enigma Variations? That question has mesmerized and perplexed audiences for over a century. Martin offers no new melodic solutions as he describes and dismisses three of the most popular contenders:
- Auld Lang Syne proposed by Richard Powell in 1934
- Hail Britannia proffered by Van Houton in 1976
- Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) presented by Robert Padgett in 2009
His rejections of Auld Lang Syne and Hail Britannia are cogent and justified by the record. When asked point-blank, Elgar bluntly replied, “Auld lang syne won’t do.” He repeatedly advised that a counterpoint must exist between the Enigma Theme and the covert Theme, but conspicuously did not elaborate on the species of counterpoint. This condition is solidified by his published remarks in the 1899 program note, an interview in the 1900 October issue of The Musical Times, and in his 1905 Biography by Robert Buckley. These statements make it abundantly clear that the hidden melody must play as a counterpoint above the Enigma Theme and each of the ensuing movements. When performed with the Enigma Theme, however, Rule Brittannia generates some howling dissonances and fails to produce a satisfying counterpoint. Martin’s third and final candidate is the last one still standing, Ein feste Burg by Martin Luther.
Cryptograms: A Sampling
One would naturally suspect that Martin would be sympathetic towards a composer like Martin Luther who shares his forename. He begins by cataloging a smattering of cryptograms I discovered in the Enigma Variations that encipher the title of the hidden melody. Martin briefly discusses the FAE Cipher, the Mendelssohn Fragments Cipher, the AMF Cipher, the Enigma Keys Cipher, the Enigma Psalm 46 Cipher, and mentions in passing the Enigma Theme Polybius Box Cipher. These ciphers encode a mutually consistent set of answers that narrowly revolve around Luther’s hymn Ein feste Burg. Some of the decryptions are even signed by the composer. For instance, the Enigma Psalm Cipher’s decryption bears Elgar’s initials (EE). The solution to the Enigma Theme Polybius Box Cipher goes even further by spelling out his last name (Elgar) in its solution. The only rational explanation for so many ciphers within the Enigma Variations enciphering the same discrete set of answers is that Elgar deliberately placed them there. To insist these cryptograms are contrived fails to account for their existence and breaches the boundary of confirmation bias.
Martin rashly rejects my decryption of Elgar’s musical Polybius checkerboard cipher due to its sophistication and complexity. Before rushing to judgment, he should urgently consult chapter three from Craig P. Bauer’s history of cryptography Unsolved! Elgar’s expertise in cryptography merits an entire chapter in Bauer’s treatise, and the bulk of it is devoted to his brilliant decryption of a Nihilist cipher — a derivative of the Polybius cipher. This allegedly insoluble cryptogram was hatched by John Holt Schooling and unfurled as the pièce de résistance in the final installment of four articles entitled “Secrets In Cipher” released by The Pall Mall Magazine in 1896. Elgar intently studied Schooling’s articles with a proven emphasis on the Polybius cipher and purposely retained them in his personal library for posterity to consult when trying to crack his Enigma. As an added incentive, Elgar bragged about solving Schooling’s challenge cipher in his official 1905 biography. Polybius was no stranger to Elgar when he composed the Enigma Variations in 1898-99. By comparison, Polybius remains an obscure historic relic to modern composers like Martin Barnaby.
Elgar’s comments cited in the original 1899 program note convey persuasive evidence for a major cryptogram within the Enigma Theme. The proof for such a cipher resides in his cryptic statement, “The Enigma I will not explain — its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed....” The Enigma is the title of his original Theme. The word dark may be defined as “secret” and “hidden.” When Elgar was working feverishly on penetrating Schooling’s Nihilist cipher, he likened the process to “working (in the dark).” It is significant that he used the word “dark” as a synonym for a cipher. A saying is a series of words that form a coherent phrase. When Elgar’s puzzling statement is considered within this context, the expression “dark saying” denotes hidden words within the Enigma Theme. The inescapable conclusion is that there must be a music cipher within the Enigma Theme because Elgar conceded as much by his cryptic language in the original 1899 program note.
My discovery in February 2010 of a musical Polybius cipher embedded in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme confirms the subtle impression left by Elgar’s explanatory note. This Enigma Polybius cipher obliterates the conventional wisdom that Elgar never wrote down the solution to his Variations. He did so rather brilliantly in the score itself, concealing the answer within his contrapuntal riddle. Elgar took the 24 letters of the covert Theme’s German title (Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott) and reshuffled them to form other short words and phrases in English, Latin, and what he reasonably thought was Aramaic according to popular biblical commentaries of his era. The complete decryption divulges that Elgar employed four different languages: English, Latin, German, and Aramaic. Multiple languages harden his cipher and foil decryption. There is another reason for why he selected those particular languages — their first letters are an acrostic anagram of ELGAR: English, Latin, German, ARamaic. Incredibly, Elgar autographed the decryption within a second layer of encryption to authenticate his solution. There is no conceivable way that such an intricate cipher could be faked. It is the genuine article autographed by Elgar himself to dispel all doubt. The only viable explanation for why Elgar said in the original 1899 program note that the Enigma Theme’s “‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed” is that a decryption cannot be guessed.
Nimrod with Ein feste Burg
Elgar affirmed in the original 1899 program note that the absent Principal Theme plays “through and over the set” of Variations but is not heard. Martin readily admits that there is a credible contrapuntal fit between Ein feste Burg and the most elegiac of the movements, Variation IX (Nimrod). This fact was openly conceded (and crudely parodied) by David Owen Norris and Dr. Kate Kennedy during the BBC Proms in 2019. No other famous melody has ever been mapped successfully over any one complete movement of the Enigma Variations. Only Ein feste Burg has achieved this unique status. Such an unprecedented contrapuntal coup should garner Martin’s admiration rather than guarded skepticism. It is admittedly convenient if not torpid to cast aside what one does not understand.
In contrast to his candid acceptance of my mapping of Ein feste Burg “through and over” Nimrod, Martin categorically rejects my retrograde plotting of Luther’s hymn above the Enigma Theme. His rationale is that it requires “significant manipulation of the melody.” This may come as a shock to Martin, but composers during the late Romantic period routinely manipulated melodic subjects using the standard contrapuntal techniques of stretto, augmentation, diminution, inversion, contrapuntal motion, and retrograde. Hyperlinks are furnished for his edification as these formulae were apparently neglected during his tenure at Trinity College, Cambridge, and The Royal College of Music. I also commend to him the textbook Counterpoint by Kent Kennan as an invaluable resource on this vital and relevant subject. Elgar undoubtedly contemplated a fugal treatment of the Enigma Theme because he penned “for fuga” on an early sketch. The word “fuga” means fugue. This confirms that Elgar planned to apply various fugal techniques to his Theme, and by extension, the covert Theme.
Tracking Elgar’s Clues
There are multiple lines of inquiry that support a retrograde counterpoint of the covert melody above the Enigma Theme. The first is its nebulous title. “Enigma” is defined as “something hard to understand or explain.” Elgar’s unusual title for his Theme makes clear that one should expect a complex solution rather than something elementary. This insight rules out a straightforward counterpoint that would be easy to grasp and unmask. The penultimate reason our greatest musical minds failed to uncover Elgar’s absent melody is precisely that his contrapuntal tact is not simple. Antonyms for simple are difficult, hard, complicated, complex, and elaborate. Elgar’s counterpoint must be an enigma, and one of its most baffling and rarely encountered forms is when a tune is played backward as a retrograde counterpoint. As Dr. Kennan surmises in Counterpoint:
Stretto, augmentation, diminution, and contrary motion appear very frequently in fugal writing, stretto being especially common. Retrograde motion, however, is rarely encountered.
The scarcity of retrograde counterpoints should be recognized as a substantial clue. Before my original research, no one seriously considered a retrograde treatment of the covert Theme or made any attempt to reconstitute one above the Enigma Theme. That oversight represents a failure of imagination by generations of musicians and musicologists. They were too deeply mired in their own assumptions to consider a counterintuitive alternative. Emerson sums up that vulnerability with his popular statement, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
The Enigma Theme is formulated in an ABA’C structure. This revealing letter sequence is a phonetic spelling of aback. A phonetic decryption is warranted by Elgar’s use of inventive spellings in his correspondence. For example, he substituted “frazes” for “phrases”, “gorjus” for “gorgeous”, and “xqqq” for “excuse.” Aback is defined as “backward” and “by surprise.” A retrograde counterpoint satisfies both of these meanings as it is literally “backward” and comes as a “surprise” to those who presume Elgar’s counterpoint must play forward in a simplistic ordinary manner. His professional career attests that Elgar was far from ordinary. He was an autodidact who never attended conservatory. He was born a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Anglican society. He rose from the lower middle class to fame and fortune. He was also obsessed with ciphers.
The first six notes of the Enigma Theme’s bass line are the last six notes of the hidden tune’s ending phrase in reverse order in the parallel minor mode. These six bass notes are a contrapuntal smoking gun that implicates a retrograde counterpoint. A coded version of the covert Theme’s ending is played in conjunction with the Enigma Theme’s beginning. A similar mapping reappears at Rehearsal 68 in the Finale, Elgar’s musical self-portrait. At Rehearsal 68 the beginning of the Enigma Theme is stated with augmented triplets accompanied by a rhythmic descending G major scale as a countermelody. The back to back triplets suggestsElgar’s initials, for 33 is the mirror image of two capital cursive Es. A careful study of the countermelody at Rehearsal 68 reveals it starts and ends with the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg.
Elgar explained that the Enigma Variations “commenced in a spirit of humour…” This statement seems at odds with the Enigma Theme’s sublime and elegiac strains without the slightest hint of hilarity. What could be the provenance of Elgar’s amusement? The melody line features the note sequence G-A-G twice, first in bar 6 and again in bar 16. Those three notes spell gag, a word that may be defined in a comedic context as “a laugh provoking remark or act”, “trick” or “prank.”
A careful analysis of all of the note letters in bar 6 reveals they are the phonetic anagrams of two interrelated phrases: “EE sees big gag” and “Sees EE’s big gag.” The dual Es are undoubtedly the initials of the composer. Indeed, a distinct subset of cryptograms bears the composer’s name or initials. As noted earlier, Elgar liked to sign his handiwork. The most impressive example is how he interwove his last name into the decryption of the Enigma Theme Polybius box cipher.
What could be the nature of Elgar’s musical jape? His prank was exposed by his public acknowledgment that the Enigma Theme is not the Principal Theme, but instead a counterpoint to it. Elgar’s trick was to conceal the actual Theme behind a modal and contrapuntal camouflage. In bar 16, the note letters encode the phase, “Ed sees big EFB gag - EE.” The letters EFB are the initials for the covert Theme, Ein feste Burg. Elgar’s selection of that Protestant anthem is a jape because he was a proud Roman Catholic composer in 1898-99 when he composed the Enigma Variations. Nobody would ever guess that Elgar surreptitiously quotes a Lutheran hymn composed by a renegade priest excommunicated by Pope Leo X. The Protestant nature of the covert Theme would explain why Elgar initially resorted to such secrecy.
Precisely in the score where Elgar encodes a message implicating Ein feste Burg as the hidden melody, the countermelody in bar 16 states the first four notes of its ending phrase in the parallel minor mode. This foreshadows Elgar’s four-note quotations in Variation XIII from Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Meerestille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage).
The performance directions in bar 16 (rit., unis., mesto, pp, dim.) are an acrostic phonetic anagram of rumped. That term is associated with exposing the end of something. That is exactly what Elgar does by interweaving the opening four notes of the covert Theme’s ending phase in bar 16. That four-note fragment represents the proverbial rump of Ein feste Burg.
Elgar first mentioned the Variations to his friend August Jaeger in a letter dated October 24, 1899. He disclosed that his nickname for Jaeger’s variation was “Nimrod.” He continued, “...I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ – I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the var: him (or her) self & have written what I think they wd. have written – if they were asses enough to compose…” Elgar’s use of the word “ass” turns out to be a multipronged wordplay. The letters in that word form in order the initials of A Safe Stronghold, a popular English translation of Ein feste Burg. An ass may be defined as the buttocks or behind. This is strikingly similar to rumped, a term encoded by the performance directions in bar 16 of the Enigma Theme that is accompanied by a four-note fragment of Ein feste Burg’s ending phrase or backend. A retrograde counterpoint would begin with the posterior or “ass” of A Safe Stronghold.
The ABA’C structure of the Enigma Theme is a thinly veiled form of the word aback. This is a maritime term that refers to when the wind blows a ship’s sails backward into the mast. Elgar alludes to sailing in Variation XIII by quoting a passage from Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. These Mendelssohn fragments are accompanied by an ostinato figure that reprises the Enigma Theme’s palindromic rhythm. The marriage of these Mendelssohn fragments with the Enigma Theme’s rhythmic implies that there is an organic connection between the Mendelssohn fragments and the Enigma Theme. It leaves the distinct impression that Mendelssohn cites the covert Theme in one of his own symphonic works. Elgar cites Mendelssohn because Mendelssohbn cites the hidden melody.
Those who naively insist Elgar would never seriously consider the music of a Lutheran as his hidden Theme must grapple with the fact that Elgar quotes the music of Mendelssohn. That great Jewish composer was baptized a Lutheran and remained a passionate Protestant in adulthood. Far from being extraneous to the Variations, Elgar’s four Mendelssohn fragments (each of which has four notes) hint at the fourth movement of the Reformation Symphony that cites Ein feste Burg followed by a set of variations. With such blatant clues, Elgar feared the solution would soon be uncovered. He ultimately demonstrated that one of the most effective ways to conceal something is by hiding it in plain sight. The Mendelssohn quotations are a compelling example of this stratagem.
Variation XIII had an enigmatic title of three asterisks (***) in place of three absent initials. Those missing letters are provided by the Mendelssohn fragments that encode the initials of Ein feste Burg in reverse order as BFE. This cipher relies on the number of statements of each Mendelssohn fragment in a given key to specify the corresponding scale degree and absent note letter. There are two Mendelssohn quotations in A-flat major, and the second scale degree of that mode is B-flat. There is one Mendelssohn fragment in F minor, and the first scale degree of that key is F. The final Mendelssohn quotation is in E-flat major, and the first scale degree of that mode is E-flat. The enciphering of the absent Theme's initials in reverse order above an ostinato figure that replicates the Enigma Theme's palindromic rhythm strongly implies a retrograde counterpoint with the Enigma Theme.
The discrete keynotes of those Mendelssohn fragments in order of appearance (A-flat, F, and E-flat) form the tail end of Ein feste Burg’s ending phrase from Mendelssohn’s version. This cryptogram is known as the Mendelssohn Keynotes Cipher. Elgar’s Mendelssohn fragments invite the listener to grab his mighty theme by the tail.
The first and third clarinet solos that introduce and elaborate the Mendelssohn quotations are each a music anagram of the concluding phrase from Ein feste Burg. The notes of these clarinet solo passages in Variation XIII may be rearranged to form the ending of the covert Theme. This ingenious Music Anagram Cipher encodes the entire concluding phrase of Ein feste Burg. This discovery complements the Mendelssohn Keynotes Cipher that unveils the last three notes of that same ending phrase.
Elgar provided written explanatory notes for the Enigma Variations that were later published by Novello under the title My Friends Pictured Within. He advised in his comments about Variation X (Dorabella), “The inner sustained phrases at first on the viola and later the flute should be noted.” Elgar’s use of the word “noted” patently suggests to scrutinize the notes of these inner phrases.
Why would Elgar draw attention to this inner line? The reason is that it twice states in an augmented form the first four notes of the ending phrase from Ein feste Burg. His first stealth quotation of Ein feste Burg occurs 6 bars before Rehearsal 42. The second clandestine quotation begins 6 bars before Rehearsal 45. Each fragment of Ein feste Burg is four notes in duration and framed in a markedly slower tempo than the original hymn. These features — four-note fragments set in a slower tempo — parallel Elgar’s treatment of the four-note Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII. The Mendelssohn fragments have four notes and are played more slowly than the original subordinate theme.
Like the Enigma Theme and Variation XIII, Variation X also provides a coded emphasis on the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg. Now there should be no question why Elgar teased Dora about being the one to guess the hidden melody. She was the daughter of an Anglican Rector and a trained vocalist who helped lead her father’s congregants in hymn singing. Martin Luther’s most popular hymn is a fixture in the pages of the Anglican hymnal. If only Dora had listened to her inner voice in Variation X, she would have easily spotted the concluding phrase of A Mighty Fortress. Like so many others before and after, she was preoccupied with locating the beginning of a prospective tune rather than its ending. A retrograde counterpoint places the proverbial horse before the cart.
Connecting the Dots
Can Martin connect the following data points? The title “Enigma” means “something hard to understand or explain.” The Enigma Theme’s ABA’C structure alludes to the word aback which is defined as “backward” and “by surprise.” A retrograde counterpoint is difficult to understand and explain because it is backward and a surprise to those who expect a more conventional mapping. The word aback is also a sailing term that refers to the sails of a ship being blown backward into the mast. The Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII originate from an overture about a sailing voyage. The Mendelssohn fragments encode the initials of Ein feste Burg in reverse order as BFE. The keynotes of those Mendelssohn fragments provide in order the last three notes of Ein feste Burg’s ending in E-flat major. The notes of the first and third clarinet solo passages that commence with a Mendelssohn quotation are anagrams of the complete ending phrase of Ein feste Burg. The inner voice of Variation X plays on two occasions an augmented four-note fragment from the ending phrase of Ein feste Burg. These cryptograms impose a marked emphasis on the covert Theme’s ending phrase. Their decryptions bolster the belief that Elgar began his counterpoint with the Enigma Theme using the covert Theme’s ending phrase, thereby implicating a retrograde counterpoint.
There are many other pieces of the puzzle that imply a retrograde counterpoint for the hidden tune above the Enigma Theme, but one more should suffice to drive this point home. At the conclusion of the extended Finale, Elgar penned the following excerpt from Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” This seemingly innocent statement adroitly alludes to the significance of the ending over the beginning. In a retrograde counterpoint, the ending is played first and the beginning follows last.
A Retrograde Solution
The ultimate test of my thesis is to map Ein feste Burg in retrograde over the Enigma Theme. It is possible to play the covert Theme in reverse above the entire Enigma Theme from bars 1 through 19. This mapping of Ein feste Burg in retrograde necessitated the application of free rhythm, a process that involves the standard techniques of augmentation and diminution. The use of free rhythm is consistent with Dr. Clive McClelland’s cogent conclusion, “Most of the solvers make the false assumption that the hidden melody fits in real time with Elgar’s theme; but…a precise metrical alignment with a well-known tune is unlikely.” The prominence of augmentation echoes the elongated fragments of Ein feste Burg's ending phrase in Variation X.
This retrograde mapping of Ein feste Burg over the Enigma Theme mirrors the alternating minor and major modes employed by Elgar to camouflage the original key of the covert principal Theme. Remarkably, the accidentals for these alternating keys of G minor (B-flat and E-flat) and G major (F-sharp) encode the initials for Ein feste Burg. Some notes in the covert Theme were lengthened or shortened to facilitate this mapping. These are the standard contrapuntal techniques of augmentation and diminution. Those who insist Elgar would never employ those tried and true methods in his counterpoints are demonstrably ignorant of his work. Elgar used both augmentation and transposition to insert the melody of God save the King as a counterpoint to the 5/4 waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. He deliberately altered the key and note values of his national anthem to accommodate another melody. Consequently, one may reasonably expect the same flexible approach towards his contrapuntal treatment of the covert Theme with the Enigma Variations.
The construction of this retrograde mapping relied predominantly on pinpointing shared sequential notes between Ein feste Burg and the score of the Enigma Theme. In the following exhibits, shared melody notes are identified by diamond-shaped note heads and shared harmony notes by triangular-shaped note heads.
There are 26 shared melody notes shown by diamond-shaped note heads. These melodic note conjunctions are present in 16 out of 19 measures of the Enigma Theme, or 84 percent of the movement for an average of 1.37 per bar. Measures 6, 11, and 17 have no shared melody notes between Ein feste Burg and the Enigma Theme. Measure 8 has the highest number with 3 melodic conjunctions. There are 51 shared harmony notes indicated by triangular shaped note heads. These harmonic note conjunctions are present in 18 out of 19 measures with an average of 2.68 notes per bar. Only measure 19 has no shared notes between Ein feste Burg and the Enigma Theme’s harmonic structure. In all, this contrapuntal mapping produces 77 shared notes between Ein feste Burg and the Enigma Theme’s score. That figure is congruent with the hypothesis that the two falling melodic sevenths in the Enigma Theme encode that number of shared notes between the Enigma Theme and the covert Theme.
Falling Sevenths Cipher
In explanatory notes for pianola rolls of the Enigma Variations produced by the Aeolian Company, Elgar offered an unusual statement regarding the Enigma Theme. He wrote, "The drop of a seventh in the Theme (bars 3 and 4) should be observed." Elgar draws attention to these falling sevenths without providing any explanation. There are two back-to-back descending sevenths in bars 3 and 4. The first melodic seventh descends from G to A. The second seventh falls from F to G. These two descending sevenths share the same melodic interval and the note G. The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the covert Theme, and these two melodies fit together as a counterpoint with some shared notes. The shared note between the two descending sevenths intimates that there are 77 total note conjunctions between the covert Theme and the Enigma Theme’s score. As there are 88 melody notes in the Enigma Theme, these shared notes with the covert Theme must consist of a mixture between the Enigma Theme’s melody and harmonic structure. Consistent with this decryption of Elgar’s cryptic explanatory note, a retrograde mapping of Ein feste Burg over the Enigma Theme produces exactly 77 shared notes. That is far too precise to be a fortuitous formation.
The relatively uniform distribution of shared melody and harmony notes between Ein feste Burg and the Enigma Theme is prima facie evidence for a retrograde counterpoint with the source melody’s notes and phrase structure in sequence and intact. More importantly, this series of corresponding notes silence any objections based on too many lingering dissonances. Any dissonances may only be attributed to Elgar’s grand design. Consequently, rejecting this mapping due to some dissonant intervals would require rejecting Elgar’s similar use of dissonance within the Enigma Theme. Martin’s dismissal of my retrograde mapping on the grounds of “significant manipulation of the melody” betrays a surprising unfamiliarity with the basic tenets of counterpoint. Martin’s objection is unsupported by Elgar’s documented history of manipulating melodic subjects to satisfy his artistic goals. My research confirms that the melodic solution to the Enigma Theme is nothing less than a contrapuntal cipher. Those who foist Occam’s razor on a work with the title “Enigma” are at risk of slashing their own intellectual wrists.
Some Nimrod Ciphers
There are other unusual aspects of the Enigma Variations that implicate Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme. The unusual sobriquet Elgar gave to his friend August Jaeger in Variation IX – Nimrod – is an example of an anomaly that turns out to be a multilayered cryptogram. In the Genesis account, Nimrod is described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” A cursory explanation for Elgar’s odd nickname is the German word Jaeger means hunter, a description associated with Nimrod. Elgar’s focus on the word hunter is significant since it implies this peculiar moniker is a promising place to hunt for the solution. Nimrod’s biblical depiction is six words in length (“a mighty hunter before the Lord”), a characteristic also shared by the full title for A Mighty Fortress (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott). Notice also that the first two words of Nimrod's biblical description are exact sequential matches with the title A Mighty Fortress.
Nimrod founded a vast kingdom where he designed and built fortified cities like Babel and Nineveh. According to extra-biblical tradition, he oversaw the construction of the Tower of Babel. The name Nimrod is so closely associated with fortifications that a medieval castle on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon is called Nimrod Fortress. By combining the first two words of Nimrod’s biblical description (“a mighty”) with a term synonymous with his name (fortress), it is possible to construct the title A Mighty Fortress. Variation IX is dedicated to Elgar’s German friend, so translating this English reconstruction into German yields the covert Theme’s common three-word title, Ein feste Burg. This code is known as the Nimrod Cipher. The tuning of the timpani for Variation IX is shown on the score as E-flat, B-flat, and F. Those three note letters are an anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg. This cryptogram is positioned at Rehearsal 33. The number 33 is a coded version of Elgar’s initials because that number is the mirror image of Elgar’s initials, two capital cursive Es.
At Rehearsal 33, Elgar begins his directions for the timpani’s tuning with “(in E…” The parenthesis signals the presence of a cryptogram, a common feature of virtually all of the titles of the Variations such as (***). In his notes documenting how he cracked Schooling's challenge cipher, Elgar used parentheses to identify working “(in the dark)” of a cryptogram. The letters “in E” are a thinly veiled anagram of “Ein”, the first word in the covert Theme’s title. The first three letters in “Enigma” also spell “Ein” as an anagram.
Elgar’s Program Anagram
Elgar furnished written remarks for the historic June 1899 premiere of his Enigma Variations in a letter to Charles Ainslie Barry. Elgar’s commentary is cited in the original program note in which he refers to the Belgian playwright Marice Maeterlinck and two of his plays, L’Intruse (The Intruder) and Les sept Princesses (The Seven Princesses). For a symphonic work dedicated to his friends, it is decidedly odd that the only person named in Elgar’s comments is a foreign poet and dramatist. Why would Elgar refer to a stranger to characterize a work dedicated to his friends? One explanation draws on his expertise in the art of encoding and decoding secret messages. As an accomplished cryptographer, Elgar devised impenetrable coded messages like the Dorabella Cipher. Could Elgar’s anomalous references to Maeterlinck and two of his plays be a cipher? And could it be connected to the secret melody of the Enigma Variations and the hidden friend pictured in Variation XIII?
Elgar’s conspicuous phrase in the 1899 program note — Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’ — stands out because it is set apart by dashes, refers to a stranger rather than a friend, and mentions to two plays with foreign language titles. When distilled down to its discrete initials, it harbors a reverse spelling of PSALM (Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’). The encoding of psalm backward hints at a retrograde counterpoint. This cipher is reminiscent of another acrostic anagram within the seven performance directions of the Enigma Theme's opening measure that also spells psalm. These coded references to psalm are significant because the title of the hidden melody (A Mighty Fortress) originates from the first line of Psalm 46. In a stunning convergence, the seven-word phrase (Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’) has exactly 46 characters excluding spaces. This presents another stunning parallel with the seven performance directions in the first bar of the Enigma Theme that also has 46 characters. Remarkably, the first two initials in this phrase (Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’) furnish the initials for Martin Luther.
The German title of the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations is Ein feste Burg. The German initials for Elgar’s secret melody (E.F.B.) are ingeniously enciphered by Elgar’s unusual mention of Maeterlinck and his plays. Elgar is an English composer whose explanatory notes for the Enigma Variations are in his native language. In his remarks, Elgar refers to the Belgian playwright Maeterlinck and the French titles of his plays. These three nationalities (English, French, and Belgian) are an acrostic anagram of the initials for the covert Theme. The encoding of the word psalm, the number 46, the initials for Ein feste Burg and its composer, Martin Luther, cannot be causally attributed to coincidence. Indeed, it is a remarkable display of Elgar’s gift for cryptography. These program note ciphers are labeled as Elgar’s Maeterlinck Enigma Ciphers. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.