Awake, my St.John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since Life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan.
There are some who maintain Edward Elgar did not deliberately plan his Enigma Variations based on an unstated Principal Theme, and that the idea only occurred to him as an afterthought or publicity stunt. What did Elgar have to say on this important subject? A great deal, and all of it points to premeditation and planning. In private and public venues, Elgar consistently explained the Enigma Variations are based on a clandestine famous melody. The dedicatee of Variation X, Dora Powell (née Penny), categorically stated, “Elgar told me personally more than once that the enigma concerned another tune.” His first public remarks in the 1899 program note for the premiere makes this fact unequivocal:
It is true that I have sketched for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter, and need not have been mentioned publicly. The Variations should stand simply as a ‘piece’ of music. The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘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 plainly states the Theme may be played through and over the entire set of Variations, yet remains silent with often the slightest connection between them. Only a musical theme may be played, unlike those of a literary, symbolic, or mathematical nature. In 1923 Troyte Griffith, the friend portrayed in Variation VII, asked if the missing 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, such a reply suggests 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 the discernable bond between the Variations and the absent Theme is comprised of short sequences of shared notes or fragments. This condition is further alluded to by the brief four-note Mendelssohn fragments quoted in Variation XIII.
In an interview published in the October 1900 issue of The Musical Times, Elgar clarified how the absent Theme fits into the overall design:
In connection with these much discussed Variations, Mr. Elgar tells us that the heading ‘Enigma’ is justified by the fact that it is possible to add another phrase, which is quite familiar, above the original theme that he has written. What that theme is no one knows except the composer. Thereby hangs the ‘Enigma.’
Notice the terms phrase and theme are used interchangeably in the context of a melody that may be added above the original Enigma Theme. This narrative dovetails precisely with the original program note stating “. . . through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played . . .” Only a musical theme can be played, a quality irreconcilable with something symbolic, figurative, mathematical, or literary. The insistence by some that the solution could be something other than a famous melody is utterly incompatible with this stipulation.
More evidence confirming the enigma must be a melody is found in Elgar’s 1905 biography compiled by Robert J. Buckley. As the music critic for The Birmingham News, he first met Elgar in 1896 and knew him for almost a decade prior to publication. In the introduction, Buckley confidently declares:
Whatever this book states as fact may be accepted as such. The sayings of Elgar are recorded in the actual words addressed directly to the writer, and upon these I rely to give to the book an interest it would not otherwise possess.
This biography was available during Elgar’s lifetime, and it is important to recognize he never disputed or disavowed any part of Buckley’s reportage. Dora Powell confirmed the biography was sanctioned by the composer. Buckley could not have offered such intimate details such as quotations, anecdotes, personal photographs, and copies of unpublished scores without Elgar’s personal assistance. Following Buckley’s introduction, Elgar’s cooperation is established by a facsimile of a handwritten autographed note in German and English. On the subject of the Enigma Variations, Buckley records Elgar’s description as follows:
The ‘Enigma’ orchestral-piece is Op. 36. What the solution of the ‘Enigma’ may be, nobody but the composer knows. The theme is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard, the variations are the theme seen through the personalities of friends, with an intermezzo and a coda, the last added at the request of friends aided and abetted by Dr. Richter, who accepted the work on its merits, having received the score in Vienna from his agent in London, and who at the time had not met with the composer.
A counterpoint is by definition a counter-melody, so logic requires the unstated principal Theme must also be a melody. This is consistent with Elgar’s character as a composer for he composed counterpoints to famous themes like Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. A counterpoint requires both a vertical and horizontal fit between the two themes. Like a home resting on its foundation, the Enigma Theme rests on its foundational principal Theme. This demands that each share the same length to ensure a precise horizontal fit. The long and short of it is that one tune cannot be longer or shorter than the other. Elgar’s standard reply to enigma solutions invokes this fundamental idea of a fit between the two melodies:
No: nothing like it.
I do not see the tune you suggest fits in the least.
Merriam-Webster defines the verb fit as “to be suitable for or to harmonize with”, and “to conform correctly to the shape or size of.” Elgar’s language leaves no room for doubt. Both themes must be same length with a suitable counterpoint.
The final condition comes from descriptive notes Elgar supplied for a set of pianola rolls published in 1929. Concerning the first Variation he states, “There is no break between the theme and this movement.” That disclosure is crucial because it confirms the Enigma Theme does not end until Variation I begins. As the first variant of the Enigma Theme is not introduced until measure 20, this would mean he defined the length of the Enigma Theme as the opening nineteen measures. The two bar bridge in measures 18 and 19 does not belong to Variation I (something deceptively implied by the layout of the score), but rather represents an elaboration of the Enigma Theme’s closing cadence. A conspicuous tie between the notes of measures 17 and 18 supports this observation, linking the Enigma Theme and the bridge in a way not found with Variation I. The bridge serves to unwind the Picardy cadence, returning it back to the minor mode in preparation for the first variation from which it is separated by a conspicuous double bar. At first glance measure 17 only appears to mark the end of the Enigma Theme, but in light of Elgar’s published statement, it is actually a faux ending. The correct melodic mapping of the covert principal Theme must account not only for the Enigma Theme’s Ternary ABA structure in measures 1 through 17, but also the two bar bridge (Section C) in measures 18 and 19 that precede the launch of Variation I.
A meticulous analysis of four primary sources – the original 1899 program note, the October 1900 interview in The Musical Times, the 1905 biography, and descriptive notes for the 1929 pianola notes – clarifies six conditions regarding the relationship between the Enigma Variations and the covert principal Theme. These conditions are:
- The Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to the principal Theme.
- The principal Theme is not heard.
- The principal Theme is famous.
- Fragments of the principal Theme are present in the Variations.
- The principal Theme is a melody that can be played through and over the whole set of Variations, including the entire Enigma Theme.
- The Enigma Theme comprises measures 1 through 19.
Any alleged solution that violates any of these six conditions may only be proffered in direct conflict with the recorded words of the composer by multiple, independent, unimpeachable sources. In light of these conditions, all prior melodic solutions may be safely ruled out as unsound because they invariably overlook the bridge in measures 18 and 19. This clears the decks for a new solution, but which tune out of a vast sea of possibilities could conceivably satisfy all of these exacting stipulations? A fresh reassessment of the anomalous Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII yields a surprising answer. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
 The Musical Times 80 (1939), 60.
 Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing an unsourced letter by Elgar.
 Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, 66.
 The Musical Times (October 1, 1900), 647.
 Turner, Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations - a Centenary Celebration, 51.
 Buckley, Sir Edward Elgar, xi.
 Rushton, Elgar: Enigma Variations,105.
 Buckley, Sir Edward Elgar, ix.
 Ibid, ix.
 Turner, Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations - a Centenary Celebration, 146.
 Elgar, My Friends Pictured Within, 6.