Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.
In Variation XIII, Elgar uses a musical cryptogram to spell the initials for Joseph Joachim’s romantic motto, “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely). This motto forms the basis of a musical cryptogram made famous in a work for violin, the F-A-E Sonata. Elgar was a concert violinist who aspired to become a famous soloist like Joachim, but his hopes were dashed through a lack of private instruction during his formative years. Elgar continued to identify closely with the violin and even composed a concerto for the instrument. As documented in this article, Elgar achieves this cryptographic sleight of hand by his choice of keys for the Mendelssohn fragments: F minor, A-flat major, and E-flat major.
The German motto portrayed by the initials F.A.E. means “Free but lonely,” a meaning that dovetails precisely with Elgar’s comments about the Enigma Theme capturing his “sense of the loneliness of the artist.” Variation XIII is the only movement lacking any initials or name that can be linked to one of the composer's friends. In place of the initials, Elgar substitutes three mysterious hexagrammic asterisks (✡ ✡ ✡). Based on my original discovery of the F.A.E. cipher in Variation XIII, the initials for this romanticized motto fill in those missing letters. More importantly, they pinpoint the identity of the unstated Principal Theme: A Mighty Fortress. How? By means of Elgar’s favorite pastime — cryptography.
The initials “F. A. E.” are virtually identical to those for A Mighty Fortress (A. M. F.), the literal English translation of Ein feste Burg. Two of the letters are exact matches (A and F). The third initial only differs only by orientation as the letters E and M are essentially duplicate characters. This insight is graphically portrayed by one of Elgar’s most famous cryptograms, the Dorabella cipher created in July 1897.
With this code, Elgar employs a capital cursive E at different angles including one oriented like the letter M. The Dorabella cipher was produced in 1897, just under two years before Elgar composed the Enigma Variations. It has 24 distinct ciphertext characters consistent with a simple substitution cipher. Despite the best efforts of professional code breakers, it remains unsolved. Since the letters E and M are essentially indistinguishable except by orientation, it is feasible to decode Elgar's cryptographic allusion to the initials “F. A. E.” as a glyph anagram for “A. M. F.” – the initials for A Mighty Fortress. This cryptographic reading is bolstered by the realization that Elgar originally identified Variation XIII with a solitary capital L, the initial for Luther.
Ein feste Burg was composed around 1529 and is quoted extensively by such luminaries of the German School as Bach, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and Wagner. Elgar was a devoted disciple of the German school and deeply admired those composers. Ein feste Burg was performed at the 1890 Worcester Music Festival, an event that featured Elgar's newly composed concert overture Froissart. Elgar only later appended “ML” to the original “L” on the short score sketch of Variation XIII. The letters “ML” are the initials for Martin Luther. M is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. In Variation XIII, Elgar quotes Mendelssohn four times from his concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a work inspired by the poetry of the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This melodic outlier is easily explained following my discovery of the unstated principal Theme because Mendelssohn quotes Ein feste Burg in the fourth movement of his first major symphonic work, the Reformation Symphony. Elgar quotes Mendelssohn four times because Mendelssohn quotes Ein feste Burg in the fourth movement of his first symphony. The Enigma Variations was Elgar's first major symphonic work and undoubtedly his most performed by major orchestras throughout the world.
There is a bit of Elgar's wordplay involved with the musical allusion to Goethe's poetry and the capital letter L. By substituting the G in Goethe with L, a German phonetic spelling of Luther is realized as “Loethe.” In conclusion, my exploration of Elgar’s cryptographic brilliance concealed within the Enigma Variations compels me to quote his “ideal” composer, Robert Schumann: “Hats off , gentlemen, a genius!” To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.