Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
The American film critic Tom Shone authored The Nolan Variations, the highly anticipated biography of the prestigious movie director Christopher Nolan released on November 3, 2020. The title is a transparent wordplay on the Enigma Variations by the British late-romantic composer Edward Elgar. In pulsating prose that ripples off the pages, Shone projects an overarching tenet that Nolan is an Enigma and his movies are his Variations. This literary tact naturally attracted my interest as Elgar’s most baffling symphonic work is my wheelhouse and chosen obsession. On October 22, 2020, I was surprised to receive the following missive from Mr. Shone via Twitter:
Bob I thought you might like to know that you're mentioned in a flattering light in my Nolan book re your Enigma Variations theory Tom
My curiosity was piqued by this unexpected communiqué. I quickly replied by requesting an autographed copy of his Nolan opus (which has yet to materialize). Wary of the vicissitudes of film critics, I also preordered a hardback from Amazon and waited with bated breath for its arrival. The Nolan Variations is the second book published in 2020 that mentions my original research into Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It was preempted by Bevis Hillier’s Elgarado! released on September 3, 2020. Hillier is a deft writer with a penchant for witty wordplays as evidenced by his book’s catchy title. Ever the gentleman and erudite scholar, he was kind enough to send me an autographed copy with the following inscription:
To Bob Padgett — a
toiler in the same vineyard! — with best
respects and best wishes —
September 9 2020
Hillier theorizes that the mysterious missing melody to the Enigma Variations is the Welsh tune Men of Harlech. Playing that melody concurrently with the Engima Theme produces too many dissonant clashes to be considered a serious candidate. A more rigorous refutation documents how that melody fails to satisfy explicit conditions supplied by Elgar regarding his mysterious Principal Theme.
The Nolan Variations arrived on November 3, 2020. I located my name in the index and hurriedly turned to page 308 at the tail end of Chapter 11. I was struck by that number as I was born the day the astronauts of Apollo 11 set foot on the moon. Titled Survival, Chapter 11 pulls back the curtain to divulge what happened behind the scenes in the production of Nolan’s 2017 war epic Dunkirk. The second most-read article on my Enigma Variations blog is Cameos of Elgar’s Nimrod in Nolan’s Dunkirk. I suspect that particular essay enticed Shone to shine a biographical spotlight on my original research. Chapter 11 concludes with two hefty paragraphs where Shone discusses my theory that the covert melody to the Enigma Variations is the Protestant hymn Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by the German Reformer Martin Luther.
Conscientious authors consult directly with individuals they write about beforehand to ensure accuracy. Shone made no such effort with me. As I perused his synopsis of my wanderings through Elgar’s contrapuntal Hall of Mirrors, I was astonished to encounter some errors concerning my timeline, career, and research. These mistakes would have easily been averted if Shone had reached out to me prior to finalizing his manuscript. I was also shocked to discover a missing word on page 309. Deferring to English musicologist Julian Rushton, Shone writes, “The Enigma, the professor wrote, is ‘endlessly fascinating—precisely because it’s so resistant to a solution.’” He continues, “One might say the thing [sic] about Nolan’s films...” What Shone intended to express is, “One might say the [same] thing about Nolan’s films…” This literary sin of omission could also have been avoided if I had proofread his text in advance to clarify and correct his reportage about me. I wonder how many others scoured Shone’s manuscript for errors and overlooked such an obvious solecism?
Shone’s reliance on the viewpoint of a recognized expert like Julian Rushton is understandable. Rushton has reached the pinnacle of his profession and is considered beyond reproach. In my experience, however, that scholastic breed is the most deranged and dangerous of them all. They made up their minds long ago, stubbornly clinging to their unwavering opinions and prognostications like members of a cult. Rushton prides himself on denying all attempts at resolving the Enigma Variations. That is not the dispassionate perspective of an objective observer. It is his a priori article of faith that the Enigma Variations is insoluble. To unmask its solutions would result in the disenchantment of Rushton’s world.
Based on my assessment, Rushton is far more resistant to reason than Elgar’s Enigma Variations is to a solution. For instance, he conflates the definition of simple with that for its antonym, enigma. This is a contrived and convenient ploy to dismiss any solution tinged with a modicum of complexity. I ascertain some of Rushton’s transgressions against logic in my article Shattering Rushton’s Enigma Myths. Only a highly credentialed and illustrious professor like Rushton could cook up some of the whoppers he “verboastfully” passes off as scholarship. Shone’s decision to rely on Rushton’s “expertise” is an unfortunate example of the blind leading the blind.
Shone’s terminological inexactitudes emerge in his introductory sentence about me on page 308: “In 2015, a Texas insurance broker named Bob Padgett, listening to music on his way to work, thought he solved a musical riddle that had stumped scholars for over a century: the ‘hidden’ theme in Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.” His first error is that I never worked as an insurance broker in Texas. His second gaffe is that the date of my melodic epiphany was February 3, 2009—the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth. In 2015, I worked exclusively as a private instructor of violin, viola, piano, music theory, and composition in Plano, Texas. From December 1993 through March 2009, I was employed full-time in the insurance sector serving in a variety of roles, primarily as a claims adjudicator. In March 2009, I was laid off from Genworth Financial in the wake of the Financial Crisis after their stock plummeted 98 percent from a high above $36 to a low below $0.90. Genworth never really recovered from the shock as its current stock valuation still languishes under $5. The irony is that I naively believed an insurance career would insulate me from the caprices of the market. It is a mistake I never intend to repeat.
I still worked as a musician during my trial by fire in the insurance industry. I played violin with the Monterey Symphony, Starlite Strings, the San Francisco Starlight Orchestra, the Bohemian Club and Bohemian Grove Orchestras. I also taught violin and viola on the side to supplement my modest income. After I performed the Enigma Variations with the Bohemian Club Orchestra in October 2006 under Maestro Richard Williams, I decided to seek out the answers to Elgar’s symphonic riddles. What is the secret melody to which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint? What is the Enigma Theme’s “dark saying”? Who is the covert friendly depicted in Variation XIII? I initially hoped the solutions to these questions would be cogently laid out in scholarly articles and books. As I sifted through every resource I could lay my hands on, my efforts were greeted by a panoply of discordant theories and tenuous speculations. My studies made it abundantly clear that the solutions to Elgar’s enigmas remained unknown and unverified. It was then that I boldly decided I would embark on a quest to find the answers for myself.
After two years of grueling study, I slowly realized I was getting nowhere fast. The more I learned, the less I knew for certain as the answers only become more mysterious and remote. I was forced to concede I was no better than my more talented and knowledgeable peers and forebears. They had all tried and failed to navigate Elgar’s contrapuntal labyrinth and were uniformly consumed by the Minotaur of ignorance. What made me think that I was somehow superior and capable of the impossible? At that dire impasse, I turned to my Heavenly Father and prayed for wisdom and discernment. I humbly petitioned Him for help to solve Elgar’s enigmas. In return, I agreed to give Him all of the glory and credit for any discoveries made by His aid. Nothing happened immediately, but soon after, my analytical processes went into hyperdrive as I began to see things from a fresh new vantage point.
On my commutes to and from work at Genworth Financial in San Rafael, California, I would listen to Sir Adrian Boult’s historic recording of the Enigma Variations. My 2002 model Toyota Corolla served as my valiant white steed and mobile concert hall. I preferred the pastoral backroads on my afternoon commute that took me along the serpentine Lucas Valley Road past Skywalker Ranch, the mountain retreat of the famed movie director and producer George Lucas. I would play the Enigma Theme over and over while simultaneously humming other famous melodies in search of a possible contrapuntal fit. On those solitary drives immersed in Elgar’s music and my thoughts, I must have listened to the Enigma Theme at least a thousand times. I was never going to give up. I was going to solve Elgar’s musical mystery or die trying.
It was on one of these routine afternoon drives in early February 2009 that I reconsidered Elgar’s anomalous quotations in Variation XIII from Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. On four separate occasions in that movement, Elgar cites a four-note melodic fragment from a seemingly extraneous concert overture by Mendelssohn. I asked myself, “Why would Elgar do that?” Those fragments are accompanied by an ostinato figure that reprises the Enigma Theme’s palindromic rhythm, establishing a discernable link between the two disparate melodies. The gears began to whirl in my mind. Then it hit me. I suddenly realized Elgar quotes Mendelssohn to hint by imitation (a common contrapuntal device) that Mendelssohn cites the famous covert Theme in one of his other symphonic works. The subtle emphasis placed on the number four by those four fragments, each comprised of four notes, further suggested that this famous Theme appears in the fourth movement of a Mendelssohn symphony. I reached that conclusion because symphonies are commonly structured in four contrasting movements. A third implication is that the famous tune could not be conceived by Mendelssohn, but quoted just as Elgar cites a melody by another famous composer.
I identified the basic traits of Elgar’s Mendelssohn quotations and applied them in reverse to Mendelssohn. The fragments in Variation XIII cleverly hint that Mendelssohn cites a famous theme that he did not originate in the fourth movement of one of his symphonies. These three exceedingly precise stipulations narrowed my options to only one possibility. In the fourth movement of his Reformation Symphony, Mendelssohn cites his own rendition of Ein feste Burg by Martin Luther, followed by a set of variations. When I hummed Bach’s version of Ein feste Burg along with the Enigma Theme, it fit the opening seventeen bars in a manner that convinced me that I had finally unmasked Elgar’s secretive melody. No other famous tune had ever been shown to sync so closely with such an extensive portion of the Enigma Theme. This was an unanticipated outcome as Elgar was a Roman Catholic, and Ein feste Burg is a Protestant anthem. Although the counterpoint was not flawless, it displayed so many points of congruence that I promptly prepared a brief paper announcing my unexpected discovery and published it on my blog.
Elgar was a proud Roman Catholic when he composed the Enigma Variations between October 21, 1898, and July 20, 1899. I was born exactly 70 years later to the day that he finished adding 96 bars to his martial Finale. Ample evidence for his religious fervor is furnished by his next major work, the sacred oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Inspired by Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem about a dying elderly man’s journey after death, Elgar’s greatest oratorio was so infused with Catholicism that Charles Villiers Stanford complained that it “stank of incense.” My melodic solution accounts for Elgar’s intense secrecy because Ein feste Burg was the battle hymn of the Protestant Reformation, a work composed by a renegade priest excommunicated by Pope Leo X. It also conveniently explains his adamant reluctance to divulge the secret melody during and after World War I as Ein feste Burg was a paeon of the German Imperial Army. Their Truppen bellowed Luther’s hymn before and after battles to commemorate their victories and mass slaughter of British soldiers in the trenches and wastelands between enemy lines. It would have been professional and social suicide for Elgar to acknowledge such a Teutonic provenance in his breakout work after the guns of August heralded the outbreak of the Great War.
One month after announcing my novel solution on my blog, Tim Smith of The Baltimore Sun covered my discovery in his article, “New theory for solving the mystery of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.” That summer, Dr. Clive McClelland from the University of Leeds dismissively cited my melodic solution on page 50 in the July 2009 issue of The Elgar Society Journal. In August 2009, Dr. McClelland threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to test my thesis with any of the other movements besides the Enigma Theme. He issued this ultimatum because Elgar asserted that the absent Theme must play “through and over” each of the movements. I readily accepted and promptly mapped Ein feste Burg above the most elegiac of the movements, Variation IX (Nimrod). The contrapuntal interface between Ein feste Burg and Nimrod was as clear a pikestaff. Dr. McClelland suddenly went to ground and became mute after that remarkable proof of my solution was released on YouTube. He was undoubtedly stunned that a mere commoner lacking a music degree bested him in his chosen field. I was eventually contacted by journalist Daniel Estrin in August 2016 and interviewed extensively in person over three days in preparation for his profile article Breaking Elgar’s Enigma published in The New Republic magazine on February 1, 2017. Shone drew much of his material from Estrin’s pristinely researched and written article yet somehow managed to bungle the facts and timeline. There is a rich irony in criticizing a critic.
Shone continues polluting his prose with needless errors as he continues, “After seven years of work, and more than 100 blog posts, Padgett believed he had finally found the counter-point Elgar intended: the nineteenth-century Mendelssohn version of the hymn, which, when played backward, seemed to fit perfectly.” I began earnestly analyzing the Enigma Variations in the Fall of 2006, and my work continues today for a total of fourteen years, not seven. My blog posts have surpassed 170 with total pageviews exceeding 463,000 from a global audience. The retrograde counterpoint of Ein feste Burg that I meticulously mapped above the Enigma Theme is assembled from distinct phrases plucked from three contrasting versions by Martin Luther, J. S. Bach, and Felix Mendelssohn. The construction of this unique “tribrid” of Ein feste Burg is indeed an “original theme” that was ostensibly designed to foil attempts at contrapuntal decryption. Elgar concocted this conglomeration in accordance with the popular German aphorism, “Alle guten Dinge sind drei.” This saying literally translates into English as, “All good things are three.” Elgar’s covert Theme is a melodic Trinity that pays stealth homage to the great masters of the German School. This is consistent with Elgar’s openly declared allegiance to the German School. I did not arrive at this contrapuntal solution quickly or easily. Ascending to the pinnacle of Elgar’s contrapuntal conundrum was akin to climbing Mount Everest.
My preliminary mapping in February 2009 of Bach’s version of Ein feste Burg over the Enigma Theme persuaded me that I was on the right track. However, blistering critiques from Dr. McClelland and Dr. Julian Rushton persuaded me that further research and experimentation were required to arrive at the final and correct mapping. Merrian-Webster defines enigma as “something hard to understand or explain.” A straightforward mapping of Luther’s hymn over the Enigma Theme would be elementary and easily detected. Elgar’s unusual title for his Theme strongly suggests he deployed a far more advanced contrapuntal method to conceal his source melody. Counterpoint offers some advanced devices to obscure a theme. I am no amateur when it comes to the art of counterpoint as illustrated by my Sinfonia No. 1 in E minor. According to Kent Kennan, the author of the textbook Counterpoint, the rarest type is retrograde motion when a melody is played in reverse. Kennan writes:
Retrograde motion (cancrizans) is rare in tonal music. Not only is it difficult to write, but the average ear has trouble recognizing a melodic line when it is played backwards; consequently the point of the device tends to be lost.
The word cancrizans is medieval Latin for crab, a crustacean recognized for its ability to travel backward. The Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII sonically portray a calm sea, furnishing a subtle link to that marine creature. The word “sea” is a homonym of c, the first letter in the words cancrizans and crab. There are other more subtle links between the term cancrizans and the Mendelssohn quotations. The letter c appears twice in cancrizans, and that same note letter is stated precisely twice in the Mendelssohn fragments. The note C is the first heard in the opening two quotations in A-flat major. Just as there are two Mendelssohn fragments in A-flat major, the letter a also appears exactly twice in cancrizans. Could these parallels be merely a series of coincidences or something far more suggestive and significant?
Multiple lines of inquiry converged to justify the suspicion that Elgar mapped the covert Theme backward above the Enigma Theme. The first concerns its ABA’C structure. Bars 1-6 in G minor comprise Section A. This is followed by Section B in bars 7-10 in the parallel major. In bars 11-16, Section A’ returns to G minor in a more fully developed fashion before cadencing in G major in bar 18 as a Picardy third. A chain of ties across the barline connects this cadence to a bridge in bars 18-19 that is Section C.
It is an absolute certainty that the bridge section is the final piece of the Enigma Theme based on Elgar’s explanatory notes published posthumously by Novello in 1946 under the title My Friends Pictured Within. Regarding the first variation he advised, “There is no break between the theme and this movement.” The first iteration of the Enigma Theme’s melody appears in bar 20. Consequently, Elgar’s disclosure confirms that the Enigma Theme does not terminate until the first variant of the Enigma Theme is introduced. The inescapable conclusion is that the Enigma Theme spans bars 1-19. This insight is vital for determining the extent of the contrapuntal mapping. Any mapping that omits bars 18-19 may be safely dismissed as inadequate.
The letters ABAC are a phonetic spelling of aback, a word that archaically refers to the seafaring phenomenon when the wind blows a ship’s sails backward into the mast. This marine term is another sea allusion that may be tied (pun intended) to the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII. In modern usage, aback is defined as “backward” and “by surprise,” definitions that aptly characterize a retrograde counterpoint. Everyone naively expected that Elgar would start his counterpoint with the secret melody’s opening phrase rather than its concluding one. Like his father, Elgar worked as a church organist where it is standard practice to play the ending phrase of a hymn as an introduction before the congregation joins in. Elgar left a contrapuntal smoking gun at the beginning of the Enigma Theme that blatantly hints at a retrograde counterpoint for the covert Theme. The first six notes of the Enigma Theme’s bass line are the last six notes of the ending phrase from Ein feste Burg in reverse order.
Elgar’s reliance on a retrograde counterpoint for the secret melody over the Enigma Theme achieves multiple cryptographic goals. First, it is the rarest form of counterpoint and the least likely to be suspected. Before me, no one ever attempted a retrograde counterpoint of any prospective melody above the Enigma Theme. Second, it cloaks the Principal Theme in a veil of confusion by playing it backward rather than forward in the ordinary manner. This explains why Troyte Griffith was unable to recognize the covert Theme after playing it on the piano for Elgar who had placed numbered bits of paper on various keys and directed him to play them in the prescribed order. Third, everyone casually assumes that Elgar must start the counterpoint between both themes using their corresponding beginning phrases. Elgar leverage that presumption to harden his contrapuntal cipher against straightforward decryption. Fourth, Elgar enjoyed practical jokes, and a retrograde counterpoint would be an exquisite jape, particularly one involving a famous Protestant hymn. No one would ever suspect a proud Catholic would turn to such a heretical tune as his verboten muse. That would explain why Elgar advised the solution “must be left unguessed.”
In October 1911, Elgar visited the Italian city of Turin to conduct a performance of the Enigma Variations. He informed his audience that the Variations were “commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in great seriousness…” The irony of this explanation is that the Enigma Theme does not sound remotely comical. Elgar relished practical jokes that he dubbed japes and sometimes deployed them in his music. For instance, he mocked the pedestrian compositions of his academic nemesis, Charles Villiers Stanford, by enciphering the epithet “Satanford” in the Demon’s Chorus of his sacred oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. There is also evidence for Elgar's melodic japery in his sublime Enigma Theme.
Although imbued with a sorrowful aura, the Enigma Theme has two melodic note sequences (G-A-G) that spell gag. The first appears in bar 6 on beats 3-4 at the end of Section A of the Enigma Theme. The second repeats ten bars later in measure 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 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 explained 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 where 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 explained the work began 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 hints at the presence of musical ciphers. Immediately preceding the second appearance of the melody sequence G-A-G are a cluster of notes: E-flat, F, and B-flat. Those note letters are the initials for Ein feste Burg, the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. The decryption reads, “EFB gag.” When the initials are expanded, it reads, “Ein feste Burg gag.” The unlikely covert Theme with its retrograde mapping is undoubtedly Elgar’s bemusing jape.
This evaluation of Shone’s account about my discovery of Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme to Elgar’s Enigma Variations is riddled with errors. Shone cites the wrong year (2015), location (Texas), and profession (Insurance Broker). The actual year was 2009, the place was Northern California where I was then employed as a Long Term Care Insurance Adjudicator, and I also worked as a freelance musician in addition to teaching violin and viola on the side. Shone truncates the length of my research to seven years when it has surpassed fourteen. He mentions my blog has over 100 posts when the actual total now exceeds 170. Shone mischaracterizes the version of Ein feste Burg that plays in retrograde above the Enigma Theme as solely Felix Mendelssohn’s adaption. My independent research determined that Elgar pieced together discernable fragments from Luther’s original version and renditions by J. S. Bach and Mendelssohn to produce a unique “tribrid.” Shone shies away from my extensive cryptographic discoveries that authenticate my melodic solution as genuine. The most advanced cipher is a musical Polybius box cipher situated in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme. These cryptograms are a critical piece of the puzzle because they record for posterity the answers to Elgar’s enigmas. The solutions were ingeniously recorded within the score to ensure their survival and eventual discovery. The Enigma Variations is an extraordinary exhibition of Elgar’s cryptographic genius and gift for that esoteric art.
Despite Shone’s slipshod inaccuracies, it is still flattering that he draws attention to my original research into the Enigma Variations in his intriguing biography of Christopher Nolan. For that, he has my sincere gratitude and thanks. No author is perfect, and even I have perpetrated my fair share of grammatical missteps. My father told me years ago that there is no such thing as bad press as long as they spell your name correctly. Shone’s coverage of my research was just the catalyst I needed to begin work on my own book to set the entire record straight and lay out the answers to Elgar's enigmas in exquisite detail. My goal is to sweep away the lies and nonsense proffered by “hackademics” with a tsunami of facts, analysis, and insights. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.