During railway journeys amuses himself with cryptograms; solved one by John Holt Schooling who defied the world to unravel his mystery.
Robert J. Buckley in his 1905 biography of Sir Edward Elgar
The British romantic composer Edward Elgar excelled in coding and decoding secret messages, a discipline formally known as cryptography. His obsession with that esoteric art merits an entire chapter in Craig P. Bauer’s treatise Unsolved! The bulk of its third chapter is devoted to Elgar’s brilliant decryption of an allegedly insoluble Nihilist cipher conceived by John Holt Schooling that was published in an April 1896 issue of The Pall Mall Gazette. A Nihilist cipher is a derivative of the Polybius square. Elgar was so gratified by his solution to Schooling’s reputedly impenetrable code that he specifically mentions it in his first biography released in 1905 by Robert J. Buckley.
Elgar painted his solution in black paint on a wooden box, an appropriate medium as another name for the Polybius square is a box cipher. His methodical decryption is summarized on a set of nine index cards. On the sixth card, Elgar relates the task of cracking the cipher to “...working (in the dark).” His parenthetical expression using the word “dark” as a synonym for a cipher is significant because he deploys that same phraseology in the original 1899 program note to characterize the Enigma Theme. It is an oft-cited passage worth revisiting as Elgar lays the groundwork for his tripartite riddle:
The Enigma I will not explain – it’s ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played…So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some later dramas – e.g., Maeterlinck’s ‘L’Intruse’ and ‘Les sept Princesses’ – the chief character is never on the stage.
Elgar employed the words “dark” and “secret'' interchangeably in a letter to August Jaeger penned on February 5, 1900. He wrote, “Well—I can’t help it but I hate continually saying ‘Keep it dark’—‘a dead secret’—& so forth.” One of the meanings of “dark” is secret, and a “saying” is a series of words that form a phrase or adage. Based on these definitions, Elgar’s cryptic expression—“dark saying”—is a coded way of saying there is an enciphered message in the Enigma Theme.
A decade of trawling the Enigma Variations has netted over one hundred cryptograms in diverse formats that encode a set of mutually consistent and complementary solutions. Although that sum may seem extraordinary, it is entirely consistent with Elgar’s obsession with ciphers. More significantly, their solutions give definitive answers to the riddles posed by the Enigma Variations. What is the secret melody to which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint and serves as the melodic foundation for the ensuing movements? Answer: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. What is Elgar’s “dark saying” hidden within the Enigma Theme? Answer: A musical Polybius box cipher located in the opening six bars. Who is the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII? Answer: Jesus Christ, the Savior of Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith.
The first persuasive evidence for the existence of musical cryptograms in the Enigma Variations was uncovered by Richard Santa back in 2009. A retired engineer and Elgar enthusiast, Santa (whose name means “Holy” and “Saint”) found the Enigma Theme’s opening bar encodes Pi, a mathematical constant describing the ratio of any circle’s circumference and its diameter. In his groundbreaking research, Santa determined the first four melody notes of the Enigma Theme sequentially approximate a rounded form of Pi (3.142) via its scale degrees in the key of G minor. Its opening melody notes are B-flat, G, C, and A; their corresponding scale degrees are 3, 1, 4, and 2 respectively. Santa generously shared an early draft of his paper with me during the summer of 2009 before it was published by Columbia University’s journal Current Musicology in March 2010.
Santa’s paper offered the tantalizing prospect there could be other cryptograms lurking in the Enigma Variations. That hunch was bolstered in August 2009 when Dr. Clive McClelland of Leeds University kindly forwarded me his paper Shadows of the evening: New light on Elgar’s ‘dark saying.’ Although his melodic solution fails to satisfy key conditions articulated by Elgar, I eagerly read McClelland’s essay and was impressed by some of his insights. For instance, his analysis of the Enigma Theme’s opening six bars finds circumstantial evidence for a cipher. The basis for this suspicion is that regularly spaced quarter rests at the outset of each bar suggest spaces between words. As McClelland surmises:
Elgar’s six-bar phrase is achieved by the characteristic four-note grouping, repeated six times with its reversible rhythm of two quavers and two crotchets. This strongly suggests the cryptological technique of disguising word-lengths in ciphers by arranging letters in regular patterns.
Following McClelland’s line of reasoning, quarter rests uniformly dispersed over six bars with four melodic notes per bar would suggest that Elgar’s “dark saying” consists of six words with exactly 24 letters. Such a conclusion resonates with my thesis that Luther’s Ein feste Burg is the absent Theme because its complete German title is six words with a sum total of 24 letters. The numeric parallels are far too precise to be casually chalked up to coincidence. The synergy of Santa’s and McClelland’s insights precipitated an intense search for a musical cryptogram in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme. My quest began in October 2009 and culminated in the detection and decryption of a musical Polybius box cipher in February 2010. My discovery was first announced in September 2010 and has proven to be my most popular article. A more succinct overview of my decryption was released in August 2019.
The Enigma Theme’s Polybius cipher is the most sophisticated of all the cryptograms in the Variations. It uses 24 pairs of melody and bass notes to encode the 24 plaintext letters from the title Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Elgar ingeniously reshuffles those 24 letters into a series of anagrams in English, Latin, what he reasonably believed to be Aramaic according to popular biblical commentaries near the turn of the century. Four of the six anagrams are spelled phonetically, an unexpected feature consistent with Elgar’s correspondence that incorporates inventive phonetic spellings. Some examples of these atypical spellings are listed below:
Elgar’s reliance on four languages mingled with phonetic spellings was ostensibly intended to frustrate conventional decryption methods that presume a coded message is restricted to one language and accurate spellings. His education in three Roman Catholic schools ensured he was tutored in both English and Latin. He also studied German in the hopes of attending the Leipzig Conservatory founded by Felix Mendelssohn. Remarkably, the first letters of these four cipher languages is an acrostic anagram of ELGAR:
In a stunning cryptographic feat, Elgar signed the correct decryption to his musical Polybius box cipher using a second tier of encryption only revealed by successfully unlocking the first. This is Elgar’s proverbial sealed envelope bearing the melodic solution to his Enigma. Supreme confidence in his unexpected answer is assured by Elgar’s stealth signature. He autographed the solution because he recognized it would be unguessed and polemical.
Elgar deposited subtle clues on the title page of the autograph score hinting at a Polybius square cipher. The most conspicuous is a tilted square on the lower lefthand side of the cover. This geometric figure overlays the same staves on the following page where he orchestrated Enigma Theme’s opening bars that house a musical Polybius square cipher. This is the only known instance where Elgar drew a square on the cover of a symphonic score. Within his tilted square, Elgar inserted multiple anagrams of the initials “EFB” accompanied by the capital letter “L” thinly disguised as a square bracket.
Another breakthrough in 2013 unveiled the meaning and significance of the three asterisks in the cryptic title of Variation XIII (***). It was determined those absent letters are cleverly encoded by the first initials of the titles from the adjoining movements. The first initials from the titles of Variations XII (B.G.N.) and XIV (E.D.U. Finale) are an acrostic anagram of the initials for the covert Theme (Ein feste Burg). Elgar deftly frames the question posed by the three asterisks with the answer hidden in plain view.
Elgar experimented with five different orderings of the movements, a process that in retrospect was carried out to construct this particular cipher. Such a possibility eluded musicologists like Julian Rushton who irrationally speculated that Elgar lacked the time to construct any cryptograms. Such a conclusion conflicts with the historic timeline. Elgar began composing the Enigma Variations on the evening of October 21, 1898, and completed the orchestration on February 19, 1899. Later that year he appended 96 measures to the Finale between June 30 and July 20 for an additional 21 days. In all, Elgar invested 142 days composing the Enigma Variations, a period that afforded more than sufficient time and opportunity for Elgar to indulge his passion for cryptography.
The acrostic anagram in the titles of Variations XII and XIV that unveils the initials of Ein feste Burg is an elementary cryptogram labeled the Letters Cluster Cipher. Its discovery precipitated a much broader analysis of all the titles from the Enigma Variations with the goal of uncovering other meaningful and relevant groupings of proximate title letters. This approach is markedly dissimilar from Stephen Pickett’s surgical cherry-picking of single initials from titles and names to assemble a purported solution for the absent Theme. My investigation uncovered words linked to the absent Principal Theme, the Enigma’s “dark saying,” and the secret friend. The Letters Cluster Cipher proved to be the tip of a much larger iceberg of coded information.
The first step in this cryptanalysis of the Enigma Variations’ titles was to lay out the sequence and configuration of the titles as they appear in the orchestral score. The outcome is summarized in the table below. There are fifteen movements with divergent titles that have a grand total of 187 characters. There is one dash, three asterisks, fourteen pairs of parentheses for a total of 28, and 46 periods. There are nine sets of initials with 27 letters, seven words with 49 letters, and fourteen Roman numerals with 33 letters.
The first intriguing cluster of letters to emerge from the opening movements of the Enigma Variations is “CHR-ST,” a phonetic rendering of Christ. This title is drawn from the first initials of Variations I through III (CHR), and the third initials from Variations II and III (ST). The use of first (1) and third (3) initials is a coded version of the number thirteen (13), the same variation dedicated in secret to Christ. The initials “CHR” and “ST” are sequential and align in two parallel rows.
The addition of the first and third “I” from the Roman numerals “III” permits a complete anagram of “CHRISTI,” the seven-letter Latin word for Christ. Elgar’s composed his first sacred oratorio in 1896 and gave it the title Lux Christi (Light of Christ). Shortly after completing the Enigma Variations, Elgar revised Lux Christi before embarking on his magnum opus, The Dream of Gerontius.
Jesus is the secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII. His initials are transparently encoded by the Roman numerals for that movement using a simple number-to-letter key. “X” represents ten, and the tenth letter of the alphabet is “J.” “III” stands for the number three, and the third letter is “C.” Consequently, “XIII” is a coded form of the initials “JC.” This is not an isolated instance because Elgar utilized the same number-to-letter key to encode the initials for his friend August Jaeger via the Roman numerals for Variation IX, a movement given the unusual title Nimrod. The three asterisks (***) for Variation XIII do not represent the covert friend’s initials, but rather the absent initials of the absent Theme as confirmed by the Letters Cluster Cipher and other cryptograms in Variation XIII.
The discovery of the mathematical constant Pi in the Enigma Theme’s first measure is reiterated by a coded form of that number in the opening titles of the Variations. It is possible to spell “PI” using the neighboring title letters “P” in Variation II (H.D.S-P) and the “I” from Variation I.
A related word that may also be formed from the initials and Roman numerals in Variations I and II is “PIE.” This term is spelled by the “P” from Variation II (H.D.S-P), the Roman numeral “I” and the initial “E” from Variation I (C.A.E.). Pie is the Latin word for pious which is nearly approximated as Pi with the e omitted.
The discovery of the title anagrams for “PIE” and “CHRISTI” has a musical pedigree tracing back to the Requiem Mass. A Requiem is a “Mass for the dead” and is typically held for a funeral. Musical settings of the Requiem Mass commonly employ the final couplet of the hymn Dies Irae is the Latin phrase “Pie Jesu” that means “Pious Jesus.” The most famous setting is Gabrielle Fauré’s Requiem in D minor. Other notable exemplars of the Requiem were composed by Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Brahms using the Lutheran Bible, and Dvoŕăk.
The Enigma Theme’s first bar enciphers a rounded form of Pi (3.142) by means of its four melodic intervals (3-1-4-2). That is the same bar in which a musical Polybius box cipher encodes “GSUS,” a phonetic spelling of Jesus. The combination of these two decryptions in the Enigma Theme’s opening measure generates “Pi Gsus,” a variant of “Pie Jesu.” The positioning of the letters needed to spell Pie and Christi in close proximity within the opening titles of the Enigma Variations affirms this coded association is not fortuitous. Multiple cryptograms enciphering the same set of answers is a convergence that defies a random origin. These overlapping and synonymous solutions are prima facie evidence of deliberate design and authenticate these ciphers as genuine.
Another related word formed by initials from Variations I through III is “ABIDE.” The letters for this anagram come from the “E” in Enigma, the middle initials of Variations I (C.A.E.), II (H.D.S-P.), and III (R.B.T.), and the “I” from Variation II.
There are distinct theological connections between Jesus and the word abide. Jesus taught his disciples in John 15:4:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
Starting at the age of 15, Elgar worked as the assistant organist at St. George’s Church in Worcester under his father. At age 27, Elgar took his father’s place and served as chief organist for five more years. Based on Elgar’s employment history, it is perfectly understandable why his personal library housed several hymnals. His copy of the encyclopedic Hymns: Ancient and Modern has numerous hymns with the word “abide” in their titles and lyrics. For instance, Hymn 11 is “Abide with Us.” Each stanza of Hymn 14 concludes with the refrain “abide with me.” Other hymns from that popular work make extensive use of the word abide. In July 1923, Elgar orchestrated Sir Ivor Atkins’ anthem “Abide with me” first released in 1908. Atkins served as the choirmaster and organist at Worcester Cathedral between 1897 and 1950. The proximity of the terms Christ and abide encoded within the opening movements of the Enigma Variations has a robust foundation in scripture and hymnody.
Finally, it is feasible to obtain from proximate title letters in the first four movements the phrase “PIE CHRISTI ABIDE.” The translation reads, “Pious Christ Abide.” The languages for this bilingual anagram are English and Latin. The initials of those two languages spell “EL,” the Hebrew word for “God.” A central tenant of Roman Catholicism is the belief that Jesus is the incarnation of God.
The covert dedication of Variation XIII to Jesus would explain why that movement was performed at Elgar’s Memorial Service in March 1934.
Richard Powell, the husband of Dora Powell (née Penny), observed that the vast majority of Elgar’s friends depicted in the Enigma Variations “...were not of his religion.” He candidly acknowledged that virtually all of Elgar’s friends were Anglican who did not share his Roman Catholic faith. However, everyone portrayed in the Enigma Variations was Christian and acknowledged Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. This unifying trait powerfully hints at the identity of Elgar’s secret friend. Elgar’s unexpected choice of a Protestant anthem as the covert Theme is emblematic of his circle of friends who were predominantly Protestant. This readily explains why he teased Dora Penny about being the one to guess the absent tune. Why? Because Dora was the daughter of an Anglican Rector and an avid singer who participated in congregational singing. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.