|15 July 1900 letter from Edward Elgar to August Jaeger|
The people here are much afraid I was leaving so they have started a brand new soc[iet]y “The Worcestershire Philharmonic” which I am to conduct—a sort of toy I suppose for a petulant child: I think we may do well in time.
Edward Elgar in a November 1897 letter to Joseph Bennett
A new piece of the puzzle has emerged in support of my thesis that Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) is the covert principal Theme to Edward Elgar’s orchestral Enigma Variations. When his wife Alice let slip the rumor they were searching for a house in London, Elgar’s friends banded together in the Fall of 1897 to establish a choral and orchestral ensemble called the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. Their objective was to entice Elgar to remain where his musical talents would be publicly celebrated and renumerated. They appointed him the artistic director and granted free rein with concert programming. Elgar accepted the appointment and selected the chorus “Wach auf” from Richard Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the signature song for the new society. Meistersinger is Wagner’s longest opera at almost four and a half hours without intermissions between acts. It is highly germane (pun intended) to my investigation that “Wach auf” is a poetic and musical homage to the renowned German reformer Martin Luther, the composer of Ein feste Burg.
Wagner had more than just a casual interest in Luther. He was born and raised in the Lutheran faith, a Protestant denomination that emphasizes the spiritual vitality of sacred music and congregational singing. Wagner began to associate his artistic vision with Luther at a young age. As Marcel Hérbert explains in his book Religious Experience in the Work of Wagner:
Wagner once described the intense emotion he felt at the age of eight while thinking about Martin Luther during a trip to his uncle's home in Eisleben, the great reformer’s native town. “My childhood instinct,” he said, “never led me astray. Had I not to preach a new artistic gospel? Had I not to suffer in its service, all manner of insults and to reply and turn: This is my conviction. Here. I stand; I can do no other, may God help me!”
Wagner’s fascination with Luther intensified during the 1860s and persisted throughout the remainder of his life. In his 2013 book Wagner’s Parsifal: An Appreciation in the Light of his Theological Journey, professor Richard H. Bell reports that “Wagner possessed an eight-volume edition of Luther’s works from the sixteenth century together with an eight-volume edition of selected works, a book of hymns, and a book that despite its brevity highlights how important Luther was for Wagner and for his German contemporaries.” Soon after the premiere of Meistersinger, Wagner wrote a prose sketch in August 1868 about Luther’s marriage and contemplated an opera about the Reformer’s life. That year marked the 350th anniversary of the Reformation when a Luther Monument was erected in Worms. In his 1892 book Richard Wagner: His Life and Works, Adolph Julien records that Cosima Wagner renounced Catholicism in 1872 and “adopted the Lutheran religion, which was that of her new husband.” On March 2, 1873, her diary records how she and Wagner were “deeply affected by the sacred songs of Luther.” In 1873, Wagner made a pilgrimage to Luther’s childhood home in Eisleben to pay his respects to that Meistersinger of hymnody.
Wagner acknowledged “Wach auf” is a quotation from Hans Sachs’s song on Luther (“von Sachs aus seinem Lied auf Luther”) in a February 1862 letter to Mathilde Wesendonk. A contemporary of Luther, Sachs was a cobbler who rose to fame as a German Meistersinger (master singer). The lyrics to “Wach auf” originate from the opening stanzas of Sachs’ most famous poem Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall (The Wittenberg Nightingale). Sach’s long poem was published in July 1523 and presents an eloquent defense of Luther and the Reformation.
In the score of Meistersinger, Wagner cites the opening eight lines of Sachs’ poem in quotation marks with some minor alterations to grammar and spelling. Exercising poetic license, he modernizes some spellings and adjusts the grammar. Wagner’s modifications are shown in highlighted italics alongside the original text in brackets.
“Wacht auf, es nahet genden [sich dem] Tag!
Ich höre singen im grünen Hag
Ein’ [Die] wonnigliche Nachtigall;
Ihr Lied durchklinget Berg und Tal [Thal]
Die Nacht neigt sich zum [gen] Occident,
Der Tag geht auf von Orient,
Die rotbrünstige [rothbrünstige] Morgenröt [Morgenröth’]
Her durch die trüben Wolken geht[,]!”
“Awake, the dawn is drawing near!
I hear a blissful nightingale
singing in the green grove,
its voice rings through hill and valley;
night is sinking in the west,
the day arises in the east,
the ardent red glow of morning
approaches through the gloomy clouds!”
In his sweeping 700-line poem, Sachs likens Luther to “the blissful nightingale” (Die wonnigliche Nachtigal) whose singing “rings out over hills and valley” (ihr Lied durchdringet Berg und Thal). The allegorical image of a singing nightingale alludes to 36 hymns composed by Luther that communicate the gospel message in song with lyrics in the German vernacular. That sum is conspicuous as the opus number of the Enigma Variations is also 36. Key allegorical elements from the opening of Sachs’ poem are depicted on the letterhead of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. The scene shows a sunrise with a nightingale perched above the letter “E” in the word “SOCIETY” singing his song over the hills and valleys. Elgar used the initial “E” to refer to himself in his correspondence.
“Wach auf” is sung by the assembly in Act III Scene 5 immediately after the grand procession of the Meistersingers Guild. Kothner is the standard bearer, carrying the Meistersingers banner that towers over the rest and is emblazoned with an image of King David playing the harp. The image of David the Psalmist is prominently displayed moments before the people sing the chorus “Wach auf” that applauds Luther. This association between King David and Luther robustly points to Ein feste Burg, Luther’s most famous hymn inspired by Psalm 46, a chapter known as “Luther’s Psalm.” The Banner Motive played during this part of the opera is heard throughout the Meistersinger prelude. The following is a program note for the prelude which was first performed November 1, 1862, at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig:
The piece begins (Sehr mässig bewegt, C-major 4-4 time) with the grandiose theme typical of the Mastersingers. After this has been heard there is brought forward a tender little theme (flute and clarinet) suggestive of the romance between Eva and her lover, Walter. This lasts for only fourteen measures, and another characteristic of the Mastersingers appears in the wind, a motive of which is intended to depict the banner of the Mastersingers, whereupon is emblazoned King David playing the harp, an outward and visible emblem of the pride and dignity of the Corporation. There is much working over of this majestic subject; and, at length, there appears (in the first violins) a theme taken from the prize-song, and intended to represent the love of Eva and her knightly Walter. The passionate expression of this division is suddenly interrupted by a new section, in which there is a humorous treatment of the opening subject jerky staccato notes played by the woodwind. Soon there is a thunderous outburst in which the massive subject of the Mastersingers appears in the brass fortissimo. This leads into a remarkable contrapuntal combination of the three principal themes, a restatement of the “Banner” motive in the brass, and concluding presentation of the imposing subject with which the Prelude opened.
The German romantic poet Heinrich Heine claims Ein feste Burg was sung by Luther and his followers in April 1521 when he entered the city of Worms to answer charges of heresy before the Imperial Diet. The earliest surviving copy of this hymn is found in a 1531 hymnal by Andrew Rauscher. Ein feste Burg is cited by such giants of the German school as Dieterich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Georg Phillip Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friederich Händel, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. As a disciple of the German school, Elgar was undoubtedly affected by these widespread quotations of Luther’s greatest hymn. Elgar’s Catholicism readily accounts for why he would quote Ein feste Burg as a concealed retrograde counterpoint to the Enigma Theme. The hymn is expertly camouflaged by playing backward in free rhythm “through and over” the Enigma Theme. The Enigma Theme’s ABAC structure cleverly hints at this devious stratagem as it is a phonetic spelling of aback, a term that means backward.
The suspicion that Elgar may have been unaware of the connection between the chorus “Wach auf” and Luther is unsupported by the historical record. He immersed himself in a thorough study of Wagner’s operas during his musical apprenticeship spanning nearly three decades between 1873 and 1902. An early example is an arrangement Elgar made of the overture to Der fliegende Hollӓnder (The Flying Dutchman) for the Worcester Glee Club in October 1876. As a sectional violinist with Stockley’s Birmingham orchestra in the 1880s, he performed popular orchestral excerpts by Wagner. He regularly attended programs that included Wagner’s music at the Crystal Palace directed by August Manns, and St. James’ Hall concerts conducted by Hans Richter. In July 1889, Elgar attended three performances of Meistersinger at Covenant Garden. During the Fall of 1889, Elgar again heard selections from Meistersinger at the Crystal Palace. Between 1892 and 1902, he traveled to Germany on six occasions to attend productions of Wagner’s operas. In July 1892 he visited Bayreuth to see Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and Meistersinger. For that excursion, he purchased and read printed analyses of each opera. A comprehensive and protracted study of Wagner’s operas with an emphasis on Meistersinger assures that Elgar was cognizant of the link between “Wach auf” and Luther.
Elgar conducted the inaugural concert of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society on May 7, 1898. The main work for that program was the cantata Die Wahlfahrt nach Kevlaar by Engelbert Humperdinck with a libretto based on a poem by Heine. The cantata reflects a Catholic perspective regarding an intercessory role played by the Virgin Mary. A glowing review in the June 1898 issue of The Musical Times confirms that “Wach auf” was also on that program.
Rosa Burley, headmistress of The Mount School in Malvern where Elgar served as a music teacher, paints an amusing picture of that first concert:
We started with immense enthusiasm. Edward had been given a completely free hand in the choice of the programme and, although he had selected Humperdinck’s Die Wahlfahrt nach Kevlaar for the first concert, and insisted on doing it in German—a language of which ninety-nine percent of the choir knew nothing—the practices were well attended and the work attacked with good humoured determination. That the result was more satisfactory musically than linguistically is not surprising when one remembers that the conductor knew little more German than his choir. Alice of course spoke it fluently as did Miss Norbury (one of the secretaries), but for the most part strange chewing noises were produced that sounded like no known European language. Nevertheless a success was made with the local public.
Elgar’s interest in the music of Humperdinck yields multifaceted links to Wagner. Humperdinck worked with Wagner at Bayreuth in 1880-81, assisted in the production of his final opera Parsifal, and served as a music tutor to Wagner’s son Siegfried. The text for Die Wahlfahrt nach Kevlaar was written by Heine who famously described Luther’s Ein feste Burg as “the Marseillaise of the Reformation.” Born Jewish, Heine converted to Lutheranism in 1825, adopting the Christian name Heinrich. While residing in Paris between 1839 and 1842, Wagner met and befriended Heine, a fellow German speaker, artist, and expatriate.
Leah Garret explains that Heine “. . . taught Wagner to turn to German myths as a well source for motifs that could be used in his operas as a means to showcase his interest in German Romanticism and the perpetuation of volk nationalism.” Heine was instrumental in persuading Wagner to compose Der fliegende Hollӓnder, the earliest of his operas deemed worthy of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Paul Lawrence Rose summarizes Heine’s special role during that pivotal period in Wagner’s career:
The composer had dedicated his musical setting of Les deux grenadiers to the poet in January 1840; in March 1841 Heine had passed favorable judgments on Wagner’s own efforts at story-writing; and Wagner had come to “an understanding” with Heine about his project for an opera on Der fliegende Hollӓnder, a theme inspired by Heine’s own account of the legend in Schnabelewopski. There was such a rapport that Heine uncharacteristically became involved in lending money to Wagner in March 1841.
167 days after the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society’s first concert, Elgar officially began composing the Enigma Variations on October 21, 1898. He directed a second society program on January 7, 1899, 78 days after he started sketching the short score of the Enigma Variation. He orchestrated the short score between February 5 and 19, 1899.
A third society concert was held on May 4, 1899 — 46 days before the premiere of the Variations in London under Hans Richter who coincidentally shares the same first name as Hans Sachs.
The timeline confirms that Elgar conducted “Wach auf” in May 1899 a little over five months before starting the Enigma Variations, a second time in January 1899 as he was sketching that work, and a third time in May 1899 less than two months before its premiere. Luther obviously weighed on Elgar’s mind in the months before, during, and after he composed the Enigma Variations. His choice of a Wagnerian chorus in honor of Luther as the signature song for the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society resonates with the discovery of Luther’s hymn Ein feste Burg as the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations.
Elgar’s interest in Luther during 1897-98 was plausibly motivated by plans to write a symphony in honor of General Gordon for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in September 1899. An accomplished soldier and high Anglican, Gordon was a Christian mystic and ecumenical crusader for biblical ideals. He died the death of an imperial hero at the Siege of Khartoum after refusing to convert to Islam and surrender the city to Mahdist forces. In his defiant last stand, Gordon transformed Khartoum into a fortress that withstood a 10-month siege before collapsing against overwhelming odds. The military and Protestant aspects that sharply defined Gordon’s life and death would be aptly symbolized by Ein feste Burg, a martial anthem cited by Wagner in his 1871 Kaisermarsch.
Elgar notified the editor of The Musical Times about his ambitious orchestral project in a letter dated October 21, 1898. As he explained to F. G. Edwards, “Anyhow ‘Gordon’ simmereth mighty pleasantly on my (brain) pan & will no doubt boil over one day.” Something did indeed “boil over” that same evening when Elgar played the Enigma Theme on the piano for his wife. Elgar’s use of the term “mighty” on that day of days pinpoints a keyword from the secret melody’s title. Frederick H. Hedge’s popular English translation of that German title is “A Mighty Fortress.”
NPR reporter Daniel Estrin reports the respected musicologist Julian Rushton “. . . doubts a Roman Catholic composer such as Elgar would have embraced a Protestant anthem such as Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’ . . .” Rushton’s protestation is obliterated by Elgar’s selection of the Lutheran paean “Wach auf” as a signature theme for the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. In view of his impressive curriculum vitae, Rushton’s failure to grasp something so obvious is “too stupid to be stupid.” Lamentably, it is not an isolated lapse in judgment. In Variation XIII (✡ ✡ ✡), Elgar cites a four-note fragment from the concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was baptized a Lutheran at the age of seven and remained a committed protestant throughout his life. Consequently, it is firmly established that Elgar cites the music of a Lutheran composer in the Enigma Variations. Rushton and his secular peers missed the proverbial boat regarding the significance of the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII.
Mendelssohn composed the Reformation Symphony in 1830 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. That primary confession of the Lutheran church is a founding document of the Protestant Reformation. In the rousing Finale to his Reformation Symphony, Mendelssohn cites Luther’s Ein feste Burg followed by a set of variations. Elgar cites the music of Mendelssohn in an orchestral context to intimate by imitation how Mendelssohn quotes the hidden melody in another symphonic work. Four Mendelssohn incipits in Variation XIII deftly hint at the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony that quotes Luther’s iconic hymn. The discovery of a Lutheran hymn as the hidden melody explains Elgar’s seemingly extraneous quotations.
The chorus “Wach auf” is not the only tribute to Luther in Wagner’s Meistersinger. Following the brilliant contrapuntal prelude, Act I opens with the congregation at St. Catherine’s Church (Katharinenkirche) singing the quasi-Lutheran hymn Da zu dir der Heiland kam (When the Savior came to thee) accompanied by the organ. Wagner specifies the date as St. John’s Eve, the day before the Feast of St. John. Wagner’s hymn is a masterful pastiche of a Lutheran chorale that commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan that marked the beginning of his public ministry. A transcription of the organ part is displayed below in ABCDAE format with the excision of intervening leitmotivs between its four-bar phrases.
Wagner’s effusive praise for Luther in Act III Scene 5 in the chorus “Wach auf” enhance the prospect there may be fragments of Ein feste Burg in his Lutheran-style hymn that opens Act I. To assess that possibility, three different versions of Ein feste Burg with its ABABCDEFB phrase structure are shown below. The original by Luther is juxtaposed with Bach’s isometric rendering from his Cantata BWV 80, and Mendelssohn’s adaption from the Reformation Symphony. Some note values in Mendelssohn’s version were compressed to facilitate comparison.
An analysis of the hymn Da zu dir der Heiland kam uncovered fourteen discernable melodic fragments from Ein feste Burg. The first in bars 1-2 is a five-note excerpt (C-G-A-B-C) from Phrase A. The second in bars 2-3 is a four-note retrograde section (C-D-E-F) from Phrase B. The third in bars 5-6 is a three-note portion (G-C-B) from Phrases A and B. The fourth in bars 5-8 is a six-note section (C-B-C-B-A-G) from Phrases D and E.
The fifth in bars 8-10 is a four-note excerpt (G-A-B-C) from Phrase D. The sixth in bar 10 is a three-note extract (C-D-E) from Phrase B. The seventh in bars 11-12 is a three-note snippet (E-D sharp-E) from Phrase D transposed upwards a major sixth. The eighth in bar 13 is a thee-note extract (A-B-C) of Phrase D. The ninth in bar 14 is a three-note retrograde excerpt (F-G-A) from Phrase B.
The tenth in bars 14-16 is a five-note tonal fragment (C-B-A-G sharp-A) from Phrase B. The eleventh in bars 17-18 is the recapitulation with a restatement of a five-note excerpt (C-G-A-B-C) from Phrase A. The twelfth in bars 18-19 is a four-note retrograde section (C-D-E-F) from Phrase B. The thirteenth in bars 12-22 is a four-note portion (F-E-D-C) from Phrase B. The fourteenth in bars 23-24 is a three-note snippet (C-B-C) from Phrase D transposed up a perfect fourth.
There are 52 sounding notes in the melody of Wagner’s quasi-Lutheran hymn. Based on the above analysis, 50 of those notes representing 96 percent of the melody are recognizable fragments from Ein feste Burg. Two excerpts from Phrase D are transposed up a major 6th (bars 11-12) and a perfect 4th (bars 23-24). These two transpositions of a fourth and sixth are conspicuous because together they form 46, the chapter from the Psalms that inspired Ein feste Burg. The following table summarizes the location, note length, origin, and probability of each fragment from Ein feste Burg in Da zu dir der Heiland kam. The complete German title for that hymn is six words, a parallel shared with Wagner’s Lutheran-style rendition.
Melodic extracts from Ein feste Burg come in six three-note snippets, six four-note sections, one five-note excerpt, and one six-note fragment. These fragments are sourced from four of six phrases from Ein feste Burg: A, B, D, and E. The probability of randomly assembling a three-note fragment by chance is one divided by eleven unique pitches (1/11) from the chromatic scale multiplied by itself three times for one out of 1,331 possible outcomes or 0.075 percent. The likelihood of constructing a four-note sequence by chance is one out of 14,641 possibilities for a 0.006 percent probability. The chance of assembling five sequential notes is one out of 161,051 possible note configurations for a cumulative probability of 0.0006 percent. The odds of reproducing a six-note fragment is one out of 1,771,561 possibilities for a 0.000056 percent probability. Based on these exceedingly remote probabilities, one is forced to conclude that Wagner deliberately inserted melodic fragments from Ein feste Burg into his Lutheran-style chorale.
These fourteen melodic extracts from Ein feste Burg are contextually appropriate as they appear in a quasi-Lutheran hymn sung by congregants in a Lutheran church accompanied by the organ. Elgar’s expertise assured he would have perceived these fragments of Ein feste Burg in Wagner’s operatic hymn. Elgar was fully aware that Wagner cites Ein feste Burg in Kaisermarsch, a work composed in 1871 to commemorate Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussion War. In his march, Wagner cites Phrase A of Ein feste Burg a total of three times in the contrasting keys of B-flat major, A-flat major, and E-flat major. He concludes these quotations with Phrase B in the key of E-flat major. It is noteworthy that the half cadences for each Phrase A statement furnish the initials of Ein feste Burg. The B-flat major statement half cadences in F major. The A-flat major statement half cadences in E-flat major. The E-flat major statement half cadences in B-flat major. Those three key letters are an anagram of “EFB”. Wagner embedded nine excerpts from Phrases A and B in Da zu der Heiland kam, a figure that represents 64 percent of all fragments from Ein feste Burg.
Prior research uncovered conspicuous parallels between Elgar’s handling of the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII and Wagner’s treatment of Ein feste Burg in Kaisermarsch. These similarities suggest that Elgar’s Mendelsson fragments were largely modeled after Wagner’s quotations of Ein feste Burg. Wagner’s half cadences of Phrase A encode the initials for Ein feste Burg via their key letters. Elgar employs a more sophisticated technique to encipher those same initials with his Mendelssohn incipits. The number of statements of a given Mendelssohn fragment in a particular key pinpoints the scale degree of that mode. Two Mendelssohn quotations in A-flat major implicate the second scale degree of that key which is B-flat. There is one Mendelssohn incipit in F minor and another quotation in E-flat major. The first scale degrees of those two contrasting modes are F and E-flat, respectively.
Wagner's incorporation of fragments from Ein feste Burg in the opening chorale in Act I triggered an analysis of "Wach auf" for other possible extracts from Luther’s momentous hymn. An analysis of “Wach auf” uncovered retrograde fragments from Phrases A and B of Ein feste Burg. The first in bars 1-2 is a two-note retrograde sequence (D-G) built on the perfect fourth, the largest and most prominent melodic interval from Phrase A of Ein feste Burg. The next retrograde section in bars 2-3 is a five-note extract (G-A-B-C-D) sourced from Phrase B. This is followed in bars 3-4 by two other layered retrograde extracts from Phrase B consisting of a three-note fragment (C-D-E) followed by another three-note excerpt (D-E-F sharp). Remarkably, these retrograde fragments from Phrases A and B of Ein feste Burg supply virtually all of the melody in the opening four bars of “Wach auf.” Wagner’s use of retrograde fragments from Ein feste Burg to form the beginning of “Wach auf” may have provoked Elgar’s decision to map Ein feste Burg in retrograde over the Enigma Theme.
These retrograde sequences are followed by fifteen identifiable fragments from Ein feste Burg in thirteen out of the remaining fourteen bars. Almost all of these fragments are traceable to Bach’s version of Ein feste Burg. A three-note extract (D-E-D) from Phrase C appears in bar 7. This is followed in that same bar by a four-note sequence (G-F sharp-E-D) shared by Phrases A and B. Bar 8 has a three-note portion (C sharp-D-E) from Phrase C layered with another three-note fragment (D-E-F sharp) from Phrase D. A four-note excerpt (F sharp-G-F sharp-E) from Phase A bridges bars 8 and 9. This is followed by a five-note fragment (F sharp-E-D-E-D) from Phrase E of Mendelssohn’s version of Ein feste Burg. This extract overlaps with another five-note section (D-E-D-C sharp-D) from Phase C that connects bars 9 and 10.
A three-note snippet (C-B-A) from Phrase B opens bar 11 and overlaps with a retrograde three-note extract (A-B-C) also from Phrase B. This overlays another three-note portion (D-C-B) from Phrase F in bar 12. Another three-note excerpt (E-D-C) from Phrase F appears in bar 13. This is followed by a seven-note sequence (D-E-F sharp-G-F sharp-E-D) from Phrase A that connects bars 13 and 14. This is followed in bar 14 by a two-note snippet (D-G) that connects Phrases C and D. A four-note excerpt (G-F sharp-E-D) from either Phrase A or B starts midway through bar 15 and concludes on the downbeat of bar 16. “Wach auf” concludes with a three-note excerpt (G-F sharp-G) that bridges Phrases D and E. The location, phrase origin, and note totals of all Ein feste Burg fragments in “Wach auf” are summarized in the table below:
There are two 2-note snippets, nine 3-note extracts, three 4-note sequences, four 5-note sections, and two 7-note fragments. Fragments of three and four notes reflect Wagner’s technique of constructing larger musical ideas from smaller components. Richard Sternfeld marvels at Wagner’s ability to build elaborate themes and counterpoints based on shorter motifs of three or four notes. As Sternfeld explains:
The music represents a totally new era in Wagner’s production. In accordance with the plot, which centers on a guild of singers whose art is bound by severe regulations, the composition had to look back toward melodies of an older style and the polyphony had to move in rigorous and sturdily structured forms. These tonal elements are then confronted by the springtime and love motifs developing out of Walther von Stolzing’s songs; both groups are combined with the personal serious themes of Sachs’s monologues. Lastly, added to all this is a wealth of formal choruses, chorales, songs and dances. But these manifold riches can be traced back to just a few fertile germinal motifs of three or four notes. This creates a powerful unity of style in the midst of a richness of invention unusual even for Wagner.
The opening phrase of “Wach auf” presents a near musical anagram of Phrase B from Ein feste Burg. Its second through seventh melodic notes comprise the first and concluding notes from Phase B of Ein feste Burg. Its ninth through twelfth notes form the central part of Phrase B. Wagner added a duplicate C that makes the opening phrase of “Wach auf” a virtual musical anagram of Phrase B from Ein feste Burg. Ten of twelve notes represent just over 83 percent of the melody from “Wach auf,” a high enough percentage to merit the conclusion that Wagner’s contrapuntal treatment of Luther’s famous hymn is deliberate.
In his Enigma Variations, Elgar emulates Wagner’s method of refashioning Phrase B from Ein feste Burg into a musical anagram. The first and third clarinet solos in Variation XIII begin with quotations from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Elgar elaborates these three-bar quotations into seven-bar solo phrases. Analysis determined that these clarinet solos are musical anagrams of Phrase B from Ein feste Burg.
Elgar was fascinated by anagrams and other forms of wordplay. Less than a month after completing the Enigma Variations, he gave his new residence Craeg Lea. The unusual moniker is an anagram constructed from a backward spelling of his last time (Craeg Lea) mingled with the initials from the first names of his daughter (Carice), wife (Alice), and himself (Edward). There is a black-and-white photo dating from 1900 that shows Elgar posing studiously before a painting of Richard Wagner in the library at Craeg Lae.
“Wach auf” consists of 83 written melody notes dispersed over 18 bars. 67 of those melody notes are traceable to sequences from Ein feste Burg, a sum that accounts for almost 81 percent of the melody. Fifteen melody notes originate from retrograde sequences of Ein feste Burg, and the majority of those appear in the opening four bars with only one surfacing in bar 11. All of these fragments are associated with Bach’s isometric version of Ein feste Burg with one exception from Mendelssohn’s rendering. Wagner’s construction of the melodic line to “Wach auf” from discrete fragments of Ein feste Burg is consistent with Sachs’ poetic praise of Luther as “the blissful nightingale” whose song fills towns and countryside. Wagner’s reliance almost exclusively on Bach’s version of that hymn reflects a deep respect and admiration for that German master. Hans Richter recalls an episode when Wagner effusively praised Bach’s mastery:
We were seated at the piano, Wagner and I, playing a duet version of Bach’s preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. My friend! That wasn’t the old pedant, the father of fugue and counterpoint! No, that was the prototype of Beethoven’s C minor symphony, the work of the greatest composer, the founder of German music. It sounded quite different from what I was used to hearing. Oh, this Wagner! It is impossible to describe what demonic power lies in these pieces when they are interpreted by my noble master. When we got to the C sharp minor Fantasy I could restrain myself no longer, the tears poured from my eyes. Wagner too was quite moved by the power of Bach’s sounds. Time and again he called out ‘he is the greatest master’.
Elgar shared Wagner’s approbation for Bach. In his 1905 biography Sir Edward Elgar, Robert J. Buckley records Elgar’s reaction when asked about counterpoint and the fugal style:
Questioned as to his actual feeling for the perpetuation of the fugal style, he rose and walked rapidly about, as is his custom when interested. “It has been done,” he said. “Bach has done it. No man has a greater reverence for Bach than I. I play three or four fugues from The Well-Termpered Klavier every day. No. 33 in E major, is one of my favourites. No. 31 is another, and No. 29, a wonderful masterpiece, is constantly before me. But my veneration for Bach is no reason why I should imitate Bach. I certainly can’t beat Bach in the Bach manner, and if any one asks me why I don’t write in the Bach style, I think I shall say, ‘It has been done, once and forever—by Bach! You were talking of contrapuntal rules and restrictions. I have gone over them all: marked, learned, and inwardly digested everything available in theoretical instruction I could come across (and I think I have come across most of what has been written); and I cherish a profound respect for the old theorists. They were useful in their day, but they were not entitled to lay down hard and fast rules for all composers to the end of time.”
Bach’s first name is Johann, a derivative of the German word for John, Johannes. The German name Hans is a short form of Johannes. It is the first name of Hans Sachs, the star of Meistersinger whose poetry and song are quoted by Wagner. Hans Richter who conducted the premiere of the Enigma Variations in June 1899 shares that same forename. Wagner’s stage directions for the opening scene of Action I indicate that the hymn Da zu dir der Heiland kam is sung at an afternoon church service on St. John’s Eve. The decisive events in Act III coincide with St. John’s Day, a Christian celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. Wagner places an emphasis on the name John by timing the opera to begin on St. John’s Eve and conclude on St. John’s Day. A comparable English translation of Hans is Johnny. In a February 16 letter to F. G. Edwards penned in 1899, Elgar associates the name Johnny with the Enigma Variations:
I have in the Variations sketched ‘portraits’ of my friends — a new idea I think — that is each variation I have (looked at) the theme through the personality (as it were) of another Johnny — ask Jaeger about this.
Elgar's deference to August Jaeger is relevant as Jaeger’s middle name is Johannes. Jaeger married the violinist Isabella Donkersleye on December 22, 1898, in an Anglican ceremony at St. Mary’s Abbot Church, Kensington. Following World War I, Jaeger’s family Anglicized their surname to Hunter. The available evidence shows that Jaeger was Protestant. At Elgar’s behest before publication, Jaeger — the only German depicted in the Variations — wrote the title “Enigma” in pencil on the first page of the original Theme. That is not inconsequential as enigma is spelled the same way in German and English. Elgar directed Jaeger to pencil in the Theme’s title because it is German. Elgar’s use of the name Johnny to describe the creative process of the Enigma Variations was plausibly influenced by Wagner’s emphasis on the name John in Meistersinger.
Elgar made a revealing choice in late 1897 when he designated the chorus “Wach auf” from Wagner’s opera Meistersinger as the signature song for the newly formed Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. “Wach Auf” is a poetic and musical homage to Luther, the German Reformer remembered for his Ninety-five Theses, German translation of the Bible, and hymns, most notably Ein feste Burg. The allegorical lyrics by the Meistersinger Hans Sachs praise Luther as a blissful nightingale whose song reverberates throughout the countryside. Luther’s 36 hymns are an enduring testament to his faith and musical gift. That quantity corresponds with the opus number of the Enigma Variations. Elgar conducted performances of “Wach auf” in the months before, during, and after composing the Enigma Variations. The signature theme “Wach auf” inspired by Sachs’ poem The Wittenberg Nightingale resonates with the discovery of Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. Elgar’s selection of a Lutheran anthem telegraphed the identity of the hidden melody’s composer. A little bird on the letterhead of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society told me so.
A contrapuntal analysis uncovered fourteen melodic fragments of Ein feste Burg in Wagner’s quasi-Lutheran hymn Da zu dir der Heiland kam which opens Act I of Meistersinger. 50 of its 52 melody notes are traceable to sequences from Ein feste Burg ranging from three to six notes in length. That figure represents 96 percent of the melody from Da zu dir der Heiland kam. Wagner’s Lutheran-style hymn is a skillfully assembled mosaic of fragments from Ein feste Burg. The context of this scene hints at the existence of subtle melodic allusions to Luther’s greatest hymn because it is the interior of St. Catherine’s Lutheran Church where a congregation is singing a hymn accompanied by organ. Four of these fragments are retrograde extracts from Phrase B of Ein feste Burg.
An analysis of the chorus “Wach auf” revealed twenty melodic fragments of Ein feste Burg with lengths varying between two and seven notes. Five fragments are in retrograde, one from Phrase A and four from Phrase B. 67 of 83 melody notes in “Wach auf” belong to excerpts from Ein feste Burg, a total that amounts to almost 81 percent of the melody. Such a high percentage endorses the conclusion that Wagner deliberately spliced fragments of Luther’s iconic hymn into his choral homage to the German Reformer. The banner of the Meistersingers Guild is prominently displayed moments before “Wach auf” is performed. Emblazoned on that banner is King David, the author of the Psalms. David’s appearance just before the performance of “Wach auf” alludes to the most obvious connection between him and Luther: Ein feste Burg, a hymn inspired by Psalm 46.
This investigation uncovered retrograde fragments of Phrase B from Ein feste Burg in Wagner’s hymn Da zu dir der Heiland kam and chorus “Wach auf.” The discovery of these retrograde fragments is consistent with Meistersinger as Wagner’s most contrapuntally sophisticated opera. These retrograde fragments could have been the catalyst for Elgar’s decision to plot the course of Ein feste Burg as a retrograde counterpoint “through and over” the Enigma Theme. Elgar begins Ein feste Burg with the last note of Phrase B and cycles through the entire hymn in reverse as the Enigma Theme plays forward. Such an unorthodox tactic would amply warrant the title Enigma. The opening phrase of “Wach auf” presents a melodic anagram of Phrase B from Ein feste Burg. Elgar embraces that technique with the clarinet solos in Variation XIII which are anagrams of that same phrase.
In a letter to F. G. Edwards, Elgar uses the name Johnny to characterize his innovative method of refracting the Enigma Theme through the personalities of his friends to generate a set of orchestral variations. The name John is closely associated with Wagner’s opera Meistersinger which is timed to begin on St. John’s Eve and climax on St. John’s Day. Hans Sachs, the lead protagonist, has a first name derived from Johannes, the German rendering of John. August Jaeger is Elgar’s only German friend portrayed in the Enigma Variation, and his middle name is Johannes. Jaeger belonged to the Anglican faith which is a branch of Protestantism. Elgar directed Jaeger to write the title Enigma on the orchestral score, linking Jaeger’s German and Protestant traits to that German title. Elgar’s reference to the name Johnny was likely influenced by Wagner’s emphasis on that forename in Meistersinger. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
Post a Comment