“. .. . how very hard it is to find anything that will go with Elgar’s theme even badly . . .”
Roger Fiske in The Musical Times (1970)
In his highly readable and informative book Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations, Patrick Turner proposes the unstated principal Theme to the Enigma Variations is the popular tune Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Is it possible that children's tune could be the hidden melody to the Enigma Variations? A credible case is contingent on whether it effectively satisfies six conditions Elgar provided that define the relationship between the Enigma Variations and the covert principal Theme. Obtained directly from Elgar’s recorded words by multiple, independent, unimpeachable sources, those six 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 theme that violates just one of those six conditions must be ruled out as invalid. The first and foremost test is to play a candidate melody “through and over” the Enigma Theme to assess whether there is credible evidence for both a contrapuntal and horizontal fit. Before attempting this, it is first necessary to adapt a prospective melody to mirror the Enigma Theme’s shifts between the major and minor modes of G. These modulations are required by the structure of the Enigma Theme which opens in G minor (measures 1-6), continues in G major (measures 7-10), returns to G minor (measure 11-16), cadences in G major (measure 17), then modulates back to G minor in the bridge leading to Variation I measures 18-19). Even when granting these generous accommodations to facilitate a contrapuntal mapping, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star flunks the test.
The only theme that successfully satisfies all of Elgar’s conditions is Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by the German Reformer Martin Luther. That well-known hymn successfully plays one complete cycle “through and over” the Enigma Theme, establishing an uncanny horizontal fit. A precise vertical alignment between the two melodies illustrates Elgar's unique treatment of Ein feste Burg in an augmented form as a retrograde counterpoint. This unconventional method accounts for the profound difficulty in detecting a contrapuntal fit because one typically plays the beginning of a prospective melody over the beginning of the Enigma Theme. Such a predictable approach produces a mismatch, throwing off researchers even when the right melody is assessed.
The case for Ein feste Burg as the covert principal Theme to the Enigma Variations is extensive and persuasive. Confirmation that Ein feste Burg is the hidden theme is given by a diverse range of music ciphers in the Enigma Theme and Variation XIII. Within the Enigma Theme is concealed a Music Box Cipher, Elgar’s “dark saying” linked to the Enigma mentioned in the original 1899 program note. Incredibly, Elgar did not take his secret to the grave, but rather enciphered the answer in the orchestral score. When discovered, the decrypted answer would remain unguessed just as Elgar prescribed. He even went so far as to encode the initials for the hidden melody in the Enigma Theme which modulates between the minor and major modes of G. The accidentals for those two keys are E-flat, F-sharp, and B-flat. Remarkably, the letters of those accidentals furnish the initials for Ein feste Burg.
The odd nickname for August Jaeger’s movement (Nimrod) is linked to the title A Mighty Fortress by one of Elgar’s favorite pastimes, wordplay. When he gave a copy of Longfellow’s novel Hyperion to the conductor Hans Richter following the premiere, Elgar literally gave away the answer. No wonder he suspected the solution would soon be found. Even the wrong date on the original score is a revealing clue since it falls on the anniversary of Luther’s death. According to a scale degrees cipher within the Mendelssohn fragments, the missing initials for Variation XIII (✡ ✡ ✡) are “EFB”, the initials for Ein feste Burg. The mapping of Ein feste Burg over Nimrod is so self-evident that the melodic solution to Elgar's Enigma Variations is as plain a pikestaff.
If he were alive today, Elgar's response to Turner’s solution would undoubtedly be, “No, nothing like it. I do not see how the tune you suggest fits in the least.” To learn more about the secrets behind one of Elgar’s most celebrated symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.