“Now as to Gordon; the thing possesses me, but I can’t write it down yet...”
concerning a potential symphony in honor of General Gordon
Anxious for nothing in his final hour,
Brave before the onslaught of his butchers,
Inspired by his Lord’s resolute power,
Despised by Mahdists for combating slavers,
Embroiled in the doomed defense of Khartoum,
Willing to lay down his life for his friends,
Inviolable at death bereft a tomb,
The general’s General to heaven ascends,
His place in the pantheon nobly won,
Martyred for his faith in God’s only Son,
Elgar’s martial muse was General Gordon.
Robert Wayne Padgett
The British romantic composer Edward Elgar was not planning to compose a resplendent set of orchestral variations in October 1898. Instead, he had a far more ambitious project in mind — a symphony in honor of the late General Charles George Gordon who died heroically thirteen years prior at the Siege of Khartoum. Elgar proposed a symphonic work about that fallen general for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in September 1899. Gordon’s mystique stoked Elgar’s creative fires. William H. Reed, a violinist and close friend of the composer, recounted that during this period, Elgar was “...obsessed with the idea of writing a symphony, and just as Beethoven’s Eroica had a hero for its inspiration, so Elgar had a strong picture of Gordon in his mind, and meant to use the nobility of Gordon’s character as the central mood.” Such a project heralded an escalation in Elgar’s artistic ambitions as he had never composed a symphony up to that point in his career. However, those plans proved premature as a decade would pass before he finally produced his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major in 1908.
In a letter dated October 21, 1898, Elgar informed the editor of The Musical Times, F. G. Edwards, that he was planning a symphony to commemorate General Gordon. As he explained to Edwards, “Anyhow ‘Gordon’ simmereth mighty pleasantly on my (brain) pan & will no doubt boil over one day.” Something did indeed “boil over” that very evening when Elgar played for the first time at the piano the Enigma Theme for his wife, Alice. After hearing that melancholic melody, she inquired in 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 eve is commemorated by Elgarians every October 21 as Enigma Day. It marked not only a turning point in Elgar’s career, but also for Britain’s standing in the world of classical music. No longer would England be ridiculed by their continental rivals as “Das Land ohne Musik” (The Land without Music).
Could Elgar’s use of the corresponding terms “mighty” and “might” be an Enigma Day wordplay? Extensive research determined that the Lutheran hymn Ein feste Burg is the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. Frederick H. Hedge’s popular English translation of that German title is “A Mighty Fortress.” It is extraordinary that the central word of that renowned title is “mighty,” the same observed in Elgar’s October 1898 letter to Edwards. Later that same evening, Elgar also used the related word “might” rather conspicuously when assessing the potential of his Enigma Theme. It is highly plausible he used the words “mighty” and “might” on Enigma Day to hint at the title of the secret melody underlying the Enigma Variations. At the very minimum, it is a “mighty” coincidence if not a revelatory play on words.
Reed detects melodic parallels between the peroration of Variation XIV (E.D.U.) and the opening theme of Elgar's first symphony. When the concluding melody at Rehearsal 82 is reduced from whole note to eighth note values, the ensuing diminution generates the inaugural phrase of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 a seventh higher in the G minor mode.
According to Reed’s analysis, the opening melody to Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 is an outgrowth of the concluding phrase from the Enigma Variations. Through this subtle melodic projection, Elgar transmutes the ending of the Enigma Variations into the beginning of his first symphony. This phrase brilliantly recapitulates his nascent desire to compose a symphony, the contextual catalyst for the Enigma Variations. As Reed explains, “This...is an outstanding example of the continuity of thought and style which goes in an artist’s subconscious mind, and which persists in spite of all outside influences, his own development or the process of evolution.” This observation intimates there may be other subtly melodic intersections between the Enigma Variations and Elgar’s Symphony No. 1. Contrary to conventional expectations, Ein feste Burg is mapped back to front in a retrograde counterpoint above the Enigma Theme. This contrarian pairing of the concealed hymn’s ending with the Enigma Theme’s beginning is reminiscent of how Elgar transformed the Enigma Variation’s ending into his first symphony’s opening phrase.
Elgar’s first symphonic project was undoubtedly motivated by Gordon’s popularity and revered status in Victorian England. Gordon was an enigmatic personality who swam aggressively against the professional and cultural tides of his era. Although he achieved stunning successes in wartime, he disdained the regalia and vainglory of military honors. “Loathing his celebrity,” writes Dominic Green of Gordon, “he refused invitations to dinner, edited out references to his bravery from accounts of his battles, and scratched his name from the empress of China’s [golden] medal before donating it anonymously to a charity for starving cotton workers.” Gordon’s military career enjoyed many successes and few setbacks until the calamity at Khartoum.
Most generals chase after victories to secure their professional reputations and be feted with medals and honors before eventually retreating to their country estates for a life of leisure. Gordon scorned that well-worn path, choosing to wage his greatest campaigns against poverty and neglect. When not on the battlefield, he selflessly committed himself and his fortune to housing and educating impoverished orphans. He converted his Gravesend home into a school and refuge for destitute children. Gordon wandered the streets and docks in search of lost children, his “kings” and “scuttlers” who desperately needed a role model, patron, and guide. He literally lifted the jetsam and flotsam of society from the slums, giving homeless orphans a chance at life through free education and vocational training. While his military peers vied for recognition and promotion, Gordon humbled himself by helping to educate and employ the castoffs of society so callously ignored by most of his stature and influence.
Through his music, Elgar sought an artistic rapprochement between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. In a similar vein, Gordon displayed an unusually ecumenical tolerance for different branches of Christianity. Although raised and educated as a high Anglican, Gordon never joined a particular church, but he gladly attended many different congregations. As Daniel Allen Butler explains, “He was equally comfortable in the company of [an] England vicar, a Baptist pastor, a Presbyterian chaplain, a Methodist minister, or a Roman Catholic priest.” His spiritual liberality is expressed by a statement made to a Roman Catholic priest that “the Church is like the British Army, one army but many regiments.” According to Gordon’s ecclesiology, Protestant and Catholic denominations were variations on a common theme, forces united in God’s campaign against evil.
Elgar’s Christian faith is granted its fullest expression in works like Lux Christi in 1896, The Dream of Gerontius in 1900, The Apostles in 1903, and The Kingdom in 1906. In his sacred oratorios, Elgar put substantial sections of the New Testament scriptures to music. Elgar publicly shared the Gospel message of forgiveness and redemption through his art. Similarly, Gordon believed so strongly in Christianity that he printed up religious tracts and distributed them in public. He faithfully read his pocket Bible and consulted it in times of crisis. Before being called to serve at Khartoum, Gordon went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1882-83. During his sojourn, he researched locations of historic sites such as the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus. Gordon endorsed a rocky outcropping adjacent to a garden tomb as the genuine Golgotha, a place known to this day as Gordon’s Calvary. Elgar evidently identified with Gordon because of his ecumenical faith and zeal for sharing the Gospel.
Before embarking for Khartoum, Gordon was given a copy of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. Written in 1865 after Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, this poem describes the spiritual journey of a dying old man from his death bed to God before descending to purgatory. Gordon read it rapidly on his journey down the Nile as evidenced by his extensive markings throughout the text. In a foreboding act, he underscored the surname in the dedication mirroring his own: “FRATRI DESIDERATISSIMO JOANNI JOSEPH GORDON.” These annotations were later published after his death and read by a rapt British public. As consolation when Alice’s mother died, Elgar loaned his future bride his copy of The Dream of Gerontius to which he added Gordon’s annotations. Father Thomas Knight of St. George’s Church gave Elgar a published edition of Gernontius with Gordon’s markings as a wedding present in 1889.
Gordon gave his marked copy of The Dream of Gerontius to Frank Power, The Times correspondent, on the day he entered Khartoum — February 18, 1884. February 18 is an intriguing date because Elgar wrote the completion date on the last page of the original Finale of the Variations as “FEb 18 1898.” The problem with that anomalous date is that he actually completed the orchestration one year and one day later as documented on the title page of the autograph score as “FEb 19, 1899.” That anomalous completion date marked the fourteenth anniversary of General Gordon’s entry into Khartoum, an interim of 5,115 days. February 18 is also linked to Martin Luther because it is the anniversary of his death in 1546. The abbreviation “FEb” stands out because its second letter should be lower case. Remarkably, “FEb” is an anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg, the covert Theme of the Enigma Variations. Elgar’s erroneous date is an efficient, multilayered cipher that ties together General Gordon, Martin Luthe and his hymn Ein feste Burg.
Before Frank Powers perished with General Gordon at Khartoum, he mailed Gordon’s annotated copy of Gerontius to Mary Murphy, his sister in Dublin. On April 6, 1885, she forwarded the book with a letter to Cardinal Newman that began, “Seeing that you are a large subscriber to the ‘Memorial Fund’ for General Gordon, it strikes me, that you would be pleased to see the enclosed little book.” The Cardinal promptly replied on April 7:
Your letter and its contents took away my breath. I was deeply moved to find that a book of mine had been in General Gordon’s hands, and that, the description of the soul preparing for death.
Shortly after completing the Enigma Variations in 1899, Elgar composed his sacred oratorio The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38 which premiered in October 1900. The intimate link between Newman’s poem and General Gordon’s death at Khartoum qualifies Elgar’s greatest oratorio an ersatz “Gordon” choral symphony. Newman’s allegorical depiction of the soul navigating the netherworld is heavily indebted to the vivid imagery from the Divine Comedy by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. There are coded allusions to that medieval masterpiece in the Enigma Variations with Variation IX (Nimrod) serving as an excellent illustration. In Canto XXXI of the Inferno, Dante ridicules the babbling giant Nimrod blowing his horn in the Ninth Circle of Hell. In deference to Dante’s account, Elgar gave Variation IX the title Nimrod, a movement that symbolically ends with a loud blast from the brass section. At the Tower of Bable, God sowed confusion among the people by causing them to speak many different languages. This event is called the Confusion of Tongues. Variation IX (Nimrod) is followed by an Intermezzo with a motif that imitates Dora Penny’s stutter, a veritable “confusion of tongues.”
The British public revered Gordon as a crusading Christian martyr for refusing to surrender the city of Khartoum to Mahdist forces. When Muhammad Ahmed sent emissaries demanding that he convert to Islam or face certain death, Gordon vehemently refused and remained committed to his Christian faith. Tragically, British relief troops arrived two days too late to save Gordon from a brutal beheading and dismemberment at the hands of frenzied Mahdists. Between 5,000 and 10,000 residents of Khartoum and The Times correspondent, Frank Powers, were slaughtered with General Gordon. Gordon’s head was crudely paraded around on a pike, and his desecrated body ignobly cast down an abandoned well. Gordon’s head and body were never recovered, lost to the desert and the sands of time. Queen Victoria grieved his death and displayed Gordon’s tattered pocket Bible in an ornate crystal display case in the Grand Corridor of Windsor Castle. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The grass withers, and the flower fade, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
It is incredibly coincidental that at the same time Elgar composed his Enigma Variations — his first extended symphonic work — he was also contemplating a “Gordon” Symphony. Is it possible these two projects spontaneously combusted into something fresh and innovative? As Elgar mulled over prospective melodic subjects for his “Gordon” Symphony, it is possible he was drawn to Ein feste Burg because of its Protestant and military connotations. Gordon was a high Anglican and accomplished general. A Mighty Fortress became the defiant hymn of the Reformation before it was adopted as a paeon by various Teutonic armies. The overt Christian and martial associations of Ein feste Burg would make an ideal theme to honor General Gordon’s service and sacrifice.
General Gordon’s 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 the Mahdist horde in January 1885. This recurring theme in his professional life presents a distinct association between Gordon and fortresses. It is not a quantum leap to associate Gordon with the word fortress. From such vantage point, Elgar’s description of his Gordon symphony as “mighty” may be interpreted as a subtle wordplay on a “Mighty Fortress.”
Like Gordon, another character known for designing and building fortresses is the Old Testament figure Nimrod. According to the Biblical tradition, Nimrod directed the construction of the Tower of Bable and the fortified cities of Akkad, Babel, Calneh, and Uruk. Nimrod is so closely associated with fortifications that a medieval castle built on the south slopes of Mount Hermon is known to this day as Nimrod Fortress. Elgar gave Variation IX the moniker “Nimrod” to serve as a coded wordplay on the covert Theme’s title. That elegiac movement also has certain features that suggest a stealth homage to General Gordon. In the final bar of Variation VIII, a solitary G is held by the first violins across the barline to usher in the serene and hymnodic beginning of Nimrod. These two melodic Gs tied together suggest the dual initials for General Gordon, another builder and attacker of fortresses. Variation IX is the only movement set in the key of E-flat major. That is the same key of Gordon’s favorite hymn, Abide with Me. Like Variation IX, the first melody note of that hymn is G.
Elgar admired and studied the music of J. S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. Despite dominating different genres from the Baroque to the Romantic, those three leading composers of the German School gravitated towards 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 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 faithfully attended by Elgar, 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.
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 more 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 with 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 laid a wreath at his statue in Trafalgar Square. The Royal Berkshires Regiment paraded before a monument of General Gordon in an annual tribute documented in a 1934 newsreel. Charlton Heston brilliantly portrayed General Gordon in the 1966 film Khartoum. Heston previously attained international acclaim for his dramatic role as Moses in the epic 1956 film The Ten Commandments directed by Cecile B. Demille. Casting Heston as Gordon reinforced the religious dimension of Gordon’s character as a desert prophet and leader seeking freedom for a nation of slaves.
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. Gordon’s favorite hymn, Abide with Me, was performed on that solemn occasion. 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 military pedigree and Gordon’s fervent 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 excelled at cryptography, the discipline of coding and decoding secret messages. His obsession with that esoteric art receives 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 by John Holt Schooling unveiled in an April 1896 issue of The Pall Mall Gazette. Elgar was so pleased with his solution that he mentions it in his first biography published in 1905 by Robert J. Buckley. Elgar painted the solution in black paint on a wooden box, an appropriate medium as another name for the Polybius square is a box cipher due to its checkerboard configuration.
Elgar’s methodical decryption of Schooling’s conundrum 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 use of the word “dark” as a synonym for a cipher is apposite to this investigation because this same adjective turns up later in Elgar’s 1899 program note for the premiere of the Enigma Variations. It is an oft-cited passage that warrants revisiting as he lays the groundwork for his threefold 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 composed the Enigma Variations in 1898-99. That extraordinary work elevated him from provincial obscurity to international acclaim, transforming his career from an itinerant music teacher to a celebrated composer. Extensive research has uncovered scores of cryptograms within the orchestral score. A discrete set of ciphers is embedded within the titles of the Variations based on proximate letter anagrams. Their decryptions provide the title of the covert Theme, the secret friend, and other relevant terms and phrases. Remarkably, it is possible to assemble the title of Gordon’s favorite hymn from proximate title letters in the opening five movements of the Enigma Variations. The word “ABIDE” is encoded as an anagram by continuous letters from the titles Enigma, Variation I (C.A.E.), II (H.D.S-P.), and III (R.B.T.).
The second word “WITH” is enciphered as an anagram by title letters from Variation II (H.D.S-P.), III (R.B.T.), and IV (W.M.B.).
The spelling of “ME” is not possible with neighboring title letters in the opening movements. This anomaly suggests some alternative is accessible. Remarkably, it is possible to realize the German translation of “ME” as “MIR” from adjacent letters in the titles of Variation III (R.B.T.), and IV (W.M.B.).
The three-letter German translation of “ME” as “MIR” parallels Elgar’s decision to identify himself as “E.D.U.” — the three-letter abbreviation of Eduard, the German translation of his first name. A coded reference to Gordon’s favorite hymn within the titles of the Enigma Variations furnishes tantalizing hints about the nature of the hidden melody. Like the hidden melody, “Abide with Me” is a hymn. Another parallel is that the titles of “A Mighty Fortress” and “Abide with Me” consist of three words. The finishing touch is the German translation of “ME” as “MIR” which intimates the title of the hidden melody is also in German.
The application of more than one language in the “ABIDE WITH MIR” cipher is consistent with the multilingual decryption of Elgar’s musical Polybius square cipher ensconced in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme. “Mir” is a homonym of the first syllable of “Meere” (seas), the first word in the German title of Mendelsohn’s concert overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage). Elgar conspicuously quotes an incipit of a subordinate theme from that overture in Variation XIII, a movement secretly dedicated to Christ. The title “Abide in Mir” appears to be a German wordplay on “Meeres” that suggests Elgar’s friend is resting at sea. This marine symbolism meshes with Jesus likening his entombment to the prophet Jonah who spent three days and three nights at sea in the belly of a great fish (see Matthew 12:40).
The title of Gordon’s favorite hymn is embedded within the opening titles of the Enigma Variations. Are there any other Gordensque encryptions? During his service at Khartoum, General Gordon went by the title “Gordon Pasha.” Remarkably, it is also feasible to assemble “Pasha” from proximate title letters in the first three movements:
General Gordon was an eccentric and selfless iconoclast, and his shadow looms over key parts of the Enigma Variations. The majority of its titles consist of initials, and Gordon’s initials are encoded by the keys of the opening movement. The Enigma Theme is framed in the parallel keys of G minor and G major. Those two contrasting keys furnish the initials for General Gordon.
There is persuasive evidence that Variation XIII was partly inspired by General Gordon’s murder by Mahdists. In that perplexing movement dedicated to a secret friend, Elgar cites a melodic incipit from Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) to depict the “deathly stillness” (Todesstille) of a calm sea so vividly described in Goethe’s original poem. Elgar began composing the Enigma Variations thirteen years after Gordon’s death, the same number assigned as Roman numerals (XIII) to that ominous movement. Like the Enigma Theme, that maritime movement begins and ends in the key of G major. The repetition of that key at the beginning and end of that variation suggests the dual Gs that comprise General Gordon’s initials. There are thirteen letters in “General Gordon” and his popular nickname “Chinese Gordon.”
Gordon was 51 years old when he was savagely cut down at Khartoum in January 1885. In an intriguing parallel, Variation XIII is exactly 51 measures in length. Elgar’s measured gesture towards Gordon’s death is redolent of Psalm 39:4: “Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” Even more remarkably, the note sequence “DEAD” is played by the contrabass section twice in Variation XIII. The first instance occurs four bars after Rehearsal 55 which marks the beginning of this movement. This first “DEAD” note sequence cadences on a G major chord. The letter of that chord gives the initial for General.
The second instance transpires in the recapitulation four measures after Rehearsal 59. Like the first rendition, this “DEAD” note sequence cadences on a G major chord that provides the second initial for Gordon.
These “DEAD” note sequences are symbolically played by the lowest voice of the string choir. Various scriptural passages place death within the interior of the earth called Sheol. When Korah led a rebellion against Moses (Numbers 39), the Lord judged the rebels by opening up the earth and burying them alive in the depths of Sheol. Isaiah 14:15 also asserts this imagery by referring to death as “the pit.” The encipherment of the word “DEAD” in the bass line alludes to the shadowy depths of death.
The martial flare of the final movement sounds like a march that robustly alludes to Elgar’s military muse. This association is reinforced by the chord sequence at Rehearsal 62 where Elgar introduces the triumphant opening phrase of the main subject. The chord letters beginning one bar before Rehearsal 62 present in order the initials for General George Charles Gordon.
The initial for General is given by the G sustained Major 7 chord in the bar immediately preceding Rehearsal 62. Gordon’s rank as a Major General is suggested by the major mode of that chord. The initial for George is furnished by the sforzando G major chord on the downbeat of Rehearsal 62. The initial for Charles is given by the sforzando C major chord on the third beat of Rehearsal 62. The initial for Gordon is provided by the G major chord on the second beat of the second bar of Rehearsal 62. The initials for “General George Charles Gordon” are presented in order by the sustained chord sequence beginning one bar before Rehearsal 62. The meter in this section is Alla breve or cut time (2/2) with two half note pulses per measure. The semblance between “Alla” and “Allah” is astonishing as Gordon was literally “cut” down in the name of that Mahdist deity.
In his correspondence, Gordon used the apotropaic “D.V” in brackets concerning possible future events. Those initials represent the Latin phrase “Deo Volente” (God Willing). Those same initials are components in the title of Elgar’s self-portrait, the Finale of the Enigma Variations. The letters “D” and “V” encompass the initial “E” in Variation XIV (E.D.U.). In the old Latin alphabet, the letters U and V are equivalent. Consequently, the sequential initials “D.U.” may also be read as “D.V.” In the final movement that begins as a military march, Gordon’s apotropaic “D.V.” is encoded in two different ways within the title.
Numerous memorials were erected in the aftermath of Gordon’s death. In 1888, a sculpture by Hamo Thornycroft was placed in Trafalgar Square atop an 18-foot pedestal situated between the fountains. The memorial was later relocated to the Victoria Embankment in 1953. In 1892, a mural monument of bronze was placed in the northwest tower chapel near the west entrance of Westminster Abbey. Other statues and memorials were erected in England, Australia, and Khartoum. As Gordon’s head and body were never recovered, a memorial reminiscent of a crusader’s tomb was installed at St. Paul’s Cathedral under the auspices of Gordon’s only surviving brother, William. The monument shows General Gordon in perpetual repose with his right hand resting securely on the Bible. Visible wear on Gordon’s hand shows where pilgrims placed their hands in spiritual solidarity with their fallen hero. Like the grave of Christ, Gordon’s memorial tomb has no body and remains symbolically empty.
With so many monuments honoring General Gordon’s life and death, it is befitting that Elgar would stealthily erect one of his own in the guise of the Enigma Variations. Gordon was surely an enigma among his military peers and contemporaries. Although he excelled on the battlefield as a supreme tactician and commander, he did not covet medals or commendations. Rather than chasing after honors and personal gain, Gordon selflessly donated his time and fortune to care for and educate orphans. As a religious mystic and ecumenical crusader for Christian ideals, Gordon died publicly for his faith. In his defiant last stand, Gordon transformed Khartoum into a fortress that withstood a 10-month siege before collapsing. In combination with Gordon’s Protestant faith inviting repeated comparisons to Luther, this daring action undoubtedly attracted Elgar’s interest in Ein feste Burg as a martial anthem with Christian overtones for his “Gordon” symphony.
Eerily reminiscent of how Gordon was beheaded at Khartoum, Elgar severed the principal Theme from the Variations. He accomplished this unprecedented feat by composing the Enigma Theme as a countermelody to a famous tune that is not heard but may play “through and over” each movement as a counterpoint. The symbolic decapitation of the covert principal Theme from the body of the Variations may be likened to Gordon's fate. Absent the main theme or “face” of the work, one struggles to unmask its true identity. Elgar’s decision to conceal the principal Theme was also likely spurred by his Roman Catholic faith because “A Mighty Fortress” was composed by a renegade priest excommunicated by Pope Leo X.
This overview identified some coded allusions to General Gordon in the Enigma Variations. The Enigma Theme is written in the parallel modes of G minor and G major, two key letters that provide the initials for General Gordon. The title of Gordon’s favorite hymn, “Abide with Me,” lurks behind the titles of the Enigma Variations as a bilingual anagram of proximate title letters. Gordon’s title “Pasha” is also enciphered by proximate title letters in the opening three movements. The stillness of death is sonically portrayed by the out-of-place Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII (***). This overt gesture towards mortality is covertly affirmed by the contrabass part that performs the note sequence “D-E-A-D” twice in that movement followed by G major chords that provide the initials for General Gordon. Variation XIII consists of 51 bars, a number that matches Gordon’s age when he was cut down at Khartoum. As a musical tribute to General Gordon, the rousing Finale has the martial flare of a march. Similar to the Enigma Theme, the initials for “General Charles George Gordon” are enciphered by the chord sequence at Rehearsal 82 of Variation XIV. Even Gordon’s favored apotropaic “D.V.” is encoded twice in the title of that concluding movement. As this assessment has shown, General Gordon casts a long and lasting shadow over the Enigma Variations. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.