Friday, June 4, 2021

Refuting Belanger's Enigma Theory

Getting the question right is the answer.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The acoustic designer Zachery Belanger recently proposed the song Like to the Damask Rose by Edward Elgar as the missing melody to the Enigma Variations. For this new melodic solution to be taken seriously, it must satisfy six conditions delineated publicly and in writing by Elgar. Those six criteria originate from four primary sources – the 1899 program note, an October 1900 interview in The Musical Times, Elgar’s first biography published 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. Elgar’s six exacting conditions are summarized below:
  1. The covert principal Theme is famous.
  2. The covert principal Theme is not heard.
  3. The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the covert principal Theme.
  4. The covert principal Theme is a melody that can be played “through and over” the whole set of Variations including the entire Enigma Theme.
  5. The Enigma Theme comprises measures 1 through 19.
  6. Fragments of the covert principal Theme are present in the Variations.
Are those precise parameters fulfilled by the song Like to the Damask Rose? Or does it fall short of Elgar’s criteria like so many other prior candidates? That song will be assessed according to these conditions to determine whether it satisfies Elgar’s threshold of proof. The failure to meet any one of those six requirements would disqualify Like to the Damask Rose as a viable contender for the mysterious missing melody of the Enigma Variations.

Condition 1

Elgar’s first condition requires that the covert principal Theme is famous. Does Like to the Damask Rose satisfy that criterion? Have you ever heard of it? More importantly, was it popular when Elgar composed the Enigma Variations in 1898-99? This writer must confess to being unfamiliar with that obscure song until encountering Belanger’s florid theory. Wikipedia provides a brief article about the poem that serves as the lyrics, but no standalone article about the actual song. Elgar’s lieder crops up in a solitary footnote in Jerrold Northop Moore’s biographical magnum opus Edward Elgar: A Creative Life. The trivial attention granted to Like to the Damask Rose by Wikipedia and Moore does not bode well for its alleged fame.
Elgar composed Like to the Damask Rose in 1892. It was published the following year by Asherberg, Hopwood & Crew, and later reissued in 1907 by Boosey & Company. Some of Elgar’s modulations are redolent of works by Robert Schumann, a German composer Elgar studied and admired. Press coverage of Elgar’s song was scant. A Google Books search yielded only five perfunctory mentions through 1898, the year Elgar began writing the Enigma Variations. The May 1894 issue of The Musical News remarks that Like to the Damask Rose “is musicianly written.” Such a characterization sounds like a euphemism for a moderately difficult piece. The March 13, 1897, issue of The Athenæum classifies it as “a tasteful song.” The April 1897 issue of The Musical Times reviews it more favorably as a “high-class” song with “a new and graceful lyric.” In its September 1898 issue, The Musical Times lists for sale a number of compositions by Elgar including Like to the Damask Rose.
The negligible press reviews given to Like to the Damask Rose in the closing decade of the 19th century are consistent with a pedestrian rather than a renowned piece. The respected Elgar specialist Jerrold Northrop Moore scarcely mentions it in his voluminous biography about the composer. Wikipedia does not even offer an article about that song. For such a piece to be considered remotely famous, it should rank in Elgar’s top ten works. It is nowhere to be found on such a list. Based on its cool reception and neglect by historical and academic sources, Like to the Damask Rose fails the litmus test of fame imposed by Elgar’s first condition. Before it could even exit the gates to start the race, Like to the Damask Rose is automatically eliminated from serious consideration due to its failure to meet this first and foremost condition requiring that it be famous.

Condition 2

Elgar’s second condition specifies the covert principal Theme is not heard. Although Belanger does not explicitly address this criterion, it is implied by his acknowledgment that the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the covert principal Theme. Like to the Damask Rose is not heard in the Enigma Theme and consequently would theoretically satisfy this second condition.

Conditions 3, 4 and 5

Conditions 3, 4, and 5 are interrelated and effectively applied en masse to Belanger’s attempted melodic solution. The third condition specifies that the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the covert principal Theme. The fourth condition demands that the secret melody play “through and over” the set of Variations including the Enigma Theme. The fifth condition specifies that the Enigma Theme encompasses bars 1-19. To satisfy these three conditions, Like to the Damask Rose must play “through and over” bars 1-19 of the Enigma Theme and each of the Variations as a credible counterpoint.
With a limited understanding of counterpoint, Belanger turned to conductor and composer Nicholas DeMaison to generate a contrapuntal mapping of Like to the Damask Rose with the Enigma Theme. In his mapping, DeMaison skips the introduction (bars 1-5) of Like to the Damask Rose and employs a four-bar fragment from the bass line (bars 6-9) as the covert principal Theme. DeMaison’s mapping soon breaks down after bar 4 because of excruciating dissonances between the two disparate melodies. Belanger proffered the following defense of this truncated counterpoint:
DeMaison cautions that a number of qualifications are required for this to work. The piano introduction of Like to the Damask Rose is ignored; the pairing starts when the voice comes in. Only the first six bars are used, though this boundary of the theme of the Enigma Variations has some consensus. The two pieces use different phrase lengths, and the bass line only fits for the first four bars. Some may also feel that a couple of the dissonances could be inappropriate. In response to this, DeMaison assures that, though “it does not prepare and resolve dissonances according to strict 16th century contrapuntal rules, the dissonances do fit well within a looser, more expressive late 19th century notion of consonance and dissonance.”
DeMaison’s mapping openly defies Conditions 3, 4, and 5 as it fails to play “through and over” the entire Enigma Theme (bars 1-19). A fragmentary counterpoint that covers only a fraction of the Enigma Theme is insufficient proof. Only a counterpoint that covers the entire Enigma Theme will satisfy these three conditions. Furthermore, no contrapuntal evidence is given to show how Like to the Damask Rose could conceivably play above any of the ensuing movements.

The acid test is to play Like to the Damask Rose above the entire Enigma Theme to assess whether there is any evidence of a horizontal and vertical fit between the two melodies. Even when allowances are made for the Enigma Theme’s alternating G minor and major modes, Like to the Damask Rose produces no less than 31 dissonant intervals. The absence of a horizontal and vertical alignment between these two melodies confirms that the Enigma Theme is not a counterpoint to Like to the Damask Rose.

Condition 6

Elgar’s final condition specifies there should be fragments of the covert principal Theme within the Enigma Variations. This criterion is implied by an exchange in 1923 between Elgar and Troyte Griffith, the friend portrayed in Variation VII. Troyte asked if the absent melody was God save the King. Elgar replied, “No, of course not; but it is so well-known that it is extraordinary no one has spotted it.” Besides establishing its fame as required by the first condition, such a response implies that fragments of the absent Theme are present in the Variations, for otherwise there would be nothing to spot.
This hunch is bolstered by the original program note that describes the link between the absent Theme and the Variations as being “. . . often of the slightest texture . . .” Merriam-Webster defines slight as “very small in degree or amount,” and one definition for texture is “the various parts of a song . . . and the way they fit together.” Elgar’s judiciously parsed words specify that an identifiable bond between the Variations and the absent Theme is made up of short sequences of shared notes or fragments. This condition is further alluded to by brief four-note fragments quoted in Variation XIII from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt), Op. 27.
Belanger does not acknowledge Condition 6 nor make any attempt to identify note sequences from Like to the Damask Rose in the Enigma Theme or any of the other movements. An analysis of the short score failed to identify any melodic petals from Like to the Damask Rose in the Enigma Theme. As Elgar composed that song and the Enigma Variations, it is probable that these two works share some similar note sequences. However, no discernable melodic fragments have yet been expressly identified in the Enigma Variations that would implicate Like to the Damask Rose as the covert Theme. Consequently, Elgar’s final condition remains unmet by Like to the Damask Rose.


This evaluation of Like to the Damask Rose revealed it only meets one of six conditions supplied by Elgar that define the unique relationship between the covert principal Theme and the Enigma Variations. Condition 1 requires that the covert Theme must be famous. Like to the Damask Rose received modest reviews and scant media coverage between 1893 and 1898. Jerrold Northrop Moore grants it a passing mention in his prodigious biography. Wikipedia does not provide an article about that song which fails to appear among Elgar’s top ten works. Like to the Damask Rose was not famous at the close of the 19th century, nor it is well known or often performed today. For these reasons, Like to the Damask Rose falls short of Elgar’s first condition requiring that the covert principal Theme must be famous.
Condition 2 advises that the covert principal Theme is not heard. Like to the Damask Rose is not played in the Enigma Theme and consequently would satisfy this condition. Conditions 3, 4, and 5 require that the covert principal Theme must play as a counterpoint above the Enigma Theme and each of the Variations. DeMaison’s contrapuntal mapping of Like to the Damask Rose only addresses bars 1-6 of the Enigma Theme, ignoring bars 7-19. When played with the entire Enigma Theme, Like to the Damask Rose generates 31 dissonant intervals even when modified to accommodate the alternating modes of G minor and major. There is no compelling evidence for a vertical or horizontal fit between these two themes. Condition 6 requires that there must be fragments of the hidden melody in the Enigma Variations, yet Belanger provides no evidence for any fragments of Like to the Damask Rose from the score.
Belanger’s melodic solution to the Enigma Variations fails to fulfill five of six conditions supplied by Elgar. Therefore, Like to the Damask Rose may be confidently dismissed as a credible solution. If Elgar was still with us today, his response to Belanger’s theory would undoubtedly be:
No: nothing like it.
I do not see the tune you suggest fits in the least.

Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress)

My white paper presents evidence that shows how Luther’s epic hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott satisfies all of Elgar’s exacting conditions. Commonly known as A Mighty Fortress, Luther’s most famous and performed hymn was composed around 1527. Inspired by Psalm 46, it was 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. Elgar was an avowed disciple of the German School.
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 featured Wagner’s music. Richter was Wagner’s protégé and enjoyed immense popularity with British audiences. These and other concerts led by Richter 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.
There is another 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 Hyperion by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 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. Elgar proved that sometimes the best way to hide something is in plain sight.
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 multiple occasions in the years preceding the genesis of his Enigma Variations 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 1870's. In 1871 Bach's St. Matthew's Passion was first performed there, and music by Bach and Mendelssohn was commonplace in England throughout the 1880's and 1890's. 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. It was also performed at the 1905 commencement at Yale University when Elgar received an honorary Doctor of Music.
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 framework. As a form of penance for his indulgence with such a Protestant theme, he promptly composed The Dream of Gerontius shortly after completing the Enigma Variations.
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.”
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 featured in Anglican hymnals of that era. 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. DeMaison’s mapping of Like to the Damask Rose with the opening bars of the Enigma Theme is one of many examples of this flawed approach. 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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating- but I still wonder why staunch catholic Elgar would bring the *heretic* Luther into it

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.