Warrior of God, man’s friend, not laid below,
But somewhere dead far on the waste of Soudan,
Thou livest in all hearts, for all men know
This earth has borne no simpler, nobler man.
Too late! Too late to save him.
In vain, in vain they tried.
His life was England’s glory.
His death was England’s pride.
From a popular song commemorating General Gordon
On October 21, 1898, the British composer Edward Elgar sent a letter to F. G. Edwards, the editor of The Musical Times. In his missive, Elgar mentions a symphonic project in honor of General Gordon who died thirteen years earlier at the Siege of Khartoum. The English public revered Gordon as a crusading Christian martyr for refusing to surrender the city to Mahdist forces or convert to Islam to preserve his life. Queen Victoria grieved his tragic death and displayed Gordon’s tattered pocket Bible in an ornate crystal display case in the Grand Corridor of Windsor Castle. Elgar wrote to Edwards, “Anyhow ‘Gordon’ simmereth mighty pleasantly on my (brain) pan & will no doubt boil over one day.” Later that same evening, Elgar played the Enigma Theme for the first time on the piano for his wife. After hearing that melancholic melody, Alice inquired with an approving tone, “What is that?” He replied, “Nothing — but something might be made of it.” The private premiere of the Enigma Theme on that pivotal evening is commemorated by Elgarians every October 21 as Enigma Day.
Could these documented uses of the words “mighty” and “might” by Elgar be part of a clever Enigma Day wordplay? Exhaustive research implicates the Lutheran hymn Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. The most prevalent English translation of that title by Frederick H. Hedge is “A Mighty Fortress.” The central word of that renowned title is “mighty,” the same deployed in Elgar’s letter to Edwards on Enigma Day. Elgar also conspicuously used the word “might” when describing the Enigma Theme later that same evening. When Elgar employed the words “mighty” and “might” on Enigma Day, it is conceivable that he did so to hint at the title of the secret melody underlying the Enigma Variations.
Elgar was seriously contemplating a symphony about General Gordon whose storied career was distinguished by the capture and defense of numerous fortifications. In his famous last stand, Gordon transformed the city of Khartoum into a veritable fortress that withstood a ten-month siege before falling to Mahdist forces in January 1885. This recurring theme in his professional life furnishes a distinct association between Gordon and fortresses. Consequently, it is not a quantum leap to associate Gordon with the word fortress. From this perspective, Elgar’s description of his Gordon symphony as “mighty” may be interpolated as a subtle wordplay on a “Mighty Fortress.”
In early September 1898, General Kitchener recaptured Khartoum and held a memorial service for General Gordon in front of the palace where he fell in battle. That event was international news and a mere month before Elgar began working in earnest on the Enigma Variations. It is conceivable Elgar experimented with Ein feste Burg as a prospective foundational theme for his Gordon Symphony because of its martial associations and Gordon’s mystical Protestant faith. Elgar had a penchant for penning counterpoints to famous melodies. As a proud Roman Catholic, it would make sense for him to cloak a Protestant anthem with a contrapuntal analog because Luther was a renegade priest excommunicated for heresy. Elgar advised in his 1905 biography that the Enigma Theme “...is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard…” What likely transpired on Enigma Day is that Elgar’s counterpoint to Ein feste Burg refracted his Gordon Symphony into a series of orchestral variations about his predominantly Anglican friends.
Elgar gravitated towards leaders, composers, and poets who admired and respected Martin Luther. General Gordon esteemed Martin Luther as reflected by this excerpt from a letter to his sister dated September 25, 1878:
It is remarkable how people writing on political economy and on science have advanced in knowledge in the last hundred years, but with respect to the knowledge of God people knew as much, and even more, of the deep truths, a hundred years ago. To read a book on the state of science written long ago is like reading an elementary work on science of to-day, but of the deep things the people of Luther’s time knew as much and more than our generation.
Editor H. Mortimer Franklyn compares General Gordon to Martin Luther in the September 1885 issue of The Victorian Review:
But that Gordon ignored his instructions when they conflicted with his own views, must ever be patent to the impartial critic. The noble Christianity which governed his spiritual constitution was, perhaps, responsible for this shortcoming. It will be difficult to escape the conviction that his original as well as his final troubles were precipitated by this—under any other circumstances—sublime trait. Everyone will admire the stern and unbending asceticism which influenced him to do that which was right by every other human being, whether he were Sudanese, Chinese, or English. Had Gordon been a Martin Luther reclaiming, instead of the Governor-General of, Sudan, the workings of his mind would have dovetailed sublimity into his actions. But not so as a military or political chieftain, obeying orders which steadily came into conflict with his conscience.
There is further evidence that the British public associated General Gordon with Martin Luther. The 1887 edition of The Bookseller was a newspaper published in London that cataloged British and foreign literature. It features advertisements of “The Anecdote Series” by Dr. MacAulay that sequentially lists General Gordon and Martin Luther.
General Gordon's popularity with the British public lived on long after his death. He was commemorated at a 1933 London Centenary celebration as “The Christian General.” The Duke and Duchess of York attended a memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral, and a wreath was laid at his statue in Trafalgar Square. The Royal Berkshires Regiment paraded before a monument of General Gordon in an annual tribute documented in this 1934 newsreel.
Elgar studied and admired the music of J. S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. Despite dominating different genres from Baque to Romantic, those three leading composers of the German School embraced a common theme by quoting Luther’s Ein feste Burg in their music. Composed for Reformation Day, Bach’s sacred choral cantata Ein feste Burg plumbs the depths of that historic hymn with a series of contrasting contrapuntal variations. It was the first of Bach’s cantatas to be published in 1821. Mendelssohn composed his Reformation Symphony in 1830 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a founding document of the Lutheran faith. This was the last of Mendelssohn’s symphonies to be published posthumously in 1868. The fourth movement introduces Luther’s hymn Ein feste Burg followed by a set of variations. Wagner wrote his Kaisermarsch in 1871 to celebrate Prussia’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War. In this rousing march popular at Richter Concerts, Wagner cites phrases from Ein feste Burg. In setting Ein feste Burg as the melodic cornerstone of the Enigma Variations, Elgar covertly embraces and emulates those great German masters.
One of Elgar’s favorite poets was the American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His affinity for Longfelow’s verse was nurtured and fed in early childhood by his mother, Ann Elgar, who saturated her brood with Longfellow’s artistic weltanschauung through regular readings of his works. She was not alone in her admiration for that great American poet and ambassador of Christianity. Two years after his death, a memorial bust was erected in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey next to no less than Chaucer. During his burgeoning career as a composer, Elgar turned to Longfellow’s works to stoke his creative output. Michael Pope concludes, “...Longfellow possessed the imponderable spiritual qualities required to fire Elgar’s imagination.”
Longfellow’s writings were a formative stimulus for at least five of Elgar’s compositions. The first is Spanish Serenade Op. 23, a work for chorus and orchestra written in 1892 based on Act I of Longfellow’s play The Spanish Student. The second is The Black Knight Op. 25, an oratorio composed in 1893 and inspired by Longfellow’s translation of Uhland’s “Der schwarze Ritter” from his novel Hyperion. The third is Rondel Op. 16 No. 3, a song for voice and piano set in 1894. The fourth is The Saga of King Olaf, a cantata composed in 1896 that was inspired by Longfellow’s epic poem by the same title. The fifth is The Apostles, a sacred oratorio premiered in 1903 that was based in part on Longfellow’s The Divine Tragedy (1871). Longfellow’s epic Christian poem is part of a trilogy with The Golden Legend (1851) and The New England Tragedies (1868).
Following the successful premiere of the Enigma Variations in June 1899, Elgar was urged by Hans Richter and August Jaeger to expand the final movement. Between June 30 to July 20 of that same year, he added 96 bars to the Finale and capped it off with a quotation from Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse: “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” Longfellow was clearly on Elgar’s mind when he put the finishing touches on the Enigma Variations. Remarkably, Longfellow lauds Luther and his most famous hymn in multiple works. One example surfaces in the following passage of his novel Hyperion:
The congregation began to assemble, and Flemming went up with them to the house of the Lord. In the body of the church he found the pews all filled or locked; they seemed to belong to families. He went up into the gallery, and looked over the psalm-book of a peasant, while the congregation sang the sublime old hymn of Martin Luther,
"Our God, he is a tower of strength,
A trusty shield and weapon."
Elgar was grateful to the German conductor Hans Richter for agreeing to conduct the premiere of the Enigma Variations. As a token of his gratitude, he presented Richter 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 identity of the famous secret melody to the Enigma Variations lurked within its page. Longfellow’s “sublime old hymn” is Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress). In Christus: A Mystery, Longfellow wrote a Second Interlude describing Martin Luther at Wartburg Castle. He mingles his poetry with each stanza of Ein feste Burg in a glowing tribute to the great German Reformer.
Bach, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Longfellow, and Gordon shared a common respect for Martin Luther. Bach, Mendelssohn, and Wagner openly cite Luther’s hymn Ein feste Burg in their music. Through these musical homages, Luther is elevated to the status of a founding member of the German School. Longfellow cites the title and stanzas of Ein feste Burg in the pages of Hyperion and Christus: A Mystery. General Gordon praised Luther in his correspondence which was published shortly after his death in 1885 and read by a rapt English public. Gordon’s religious zeal was also likened to Luther’s calling. These towering examples or leaders, composers, and poets were familiar to Elgar and likely motivated his selection of Ein feste Burg as the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations. By quoting Mendelssohn’s music in Variation XIII and Longfellow’s poetry at the end of the Master Score, Elgar hinted that these two artists cite the covert Theme in their oeuvre. Elgar’s conspicuous use of the words “mighty” and “might” on Enigma Day subtly hints at the title of his elusive Principal Theme: A Mighty Fortress. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.