Saturday, August 18, 2012

Elgar's Enigmas and Longfellow’s "Elegiac Verse"

Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.

Elgar citing Longfellow at the end of the Enigma Variations

At the conclusion of the extended Finale to the Enigma Variations, Elgar quotes the last stanza of Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse. The original version reads, "Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending." In a remarkable coincidence (if one may call it that), the stanza number from Longfellow's poem is identical to the Roman numeral for the Finale – XIV. Just as the Variations have fourteen movements assigned Roman numerals, Elegiac Verse has fourteen stanzas numbered in the same way. There are other equally fascinating parallels between Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse and the Enigma Variations. For instance, both have the same initials (E.V.), and yet the similarities only begin there.
The opening stanza of Elegiac Verse describes how a wandering bard learns the secret of mournful poetry by listening to the sounds of the sea:
Peradventure of old, some bard in Ionian Islands,
   Walking alone by the sea, hearing the wash of the waves,
Learned the secret from them of the beautiful verse elegiac,
  Breathing into his song motion and sound of the sea.
The image of a bard wandering alone by the sea is reminiscent of Elgar’s statement the Enigma Theme “expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of the loneliness of the artist.” For Elgar, great art and loneliness travel together. The phrase "Breaking into his song motion and sound of the sea" is an apt description for Variation XIII. In that plaintive movement, Elgar sonically portrays the undulating sea by repeatedly quoting a fragment from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The purpose behind those enigmatic Mendelssohn fragments is subtle yet compelling. Elgar quotes one of Mendelssohn’s symphonic works to suggest that Mendelssohn quotes the hidden melody to the Variations in one of his symphonies. The number of fragments – four – hints at the movement in Mendelssohn’s symphony featuring the mystery melody. In the fourth movement of the Reformation Symphony, Mendelssohn quotes Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) followed by a series of variations based on that noble theme. To drive the point home, Elgar employs an alphanumeric cipher to encode the initials of the missing melody within those very Mendelssohn fragments (E.F.B.). Those letters stand for Ein feste Burg and are the missing initials for the three asterisks used to identity that Variation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the asterisks represent the Enigma itself and not the secret friend whose initials are captured by the Roman numerals XIII.
Like his coded use of the Mendelssohn fragments, Elgar quotes Longfellow to suggest by imitation that the famous poet quotes the mystery theme in one of his works. In the pages of his novel Hyperion, Longfellow mentions Martin Luther in a passage that cites the first stanza from his most famous and sublime hymn:
Our God, he is a tower of strength
A trusty shield and weapon.
The above is one of many translations of the opening lyrics of Ein feste Burg sourced from Psalm 46. In gratitude for agreeing to conduct the premiere of a work by a relatively unknown composer outside of England, Elgar gave a copy of Hyperion to Hans Richter. With this gesture, Elgar literally gave away the answer to Richter who could have easily discovered the answer if he ever carefully scrutinized Longfellow’s novel. A cipher is like a fortress because it guards something, in this case, a message. In a poem aptly titled Martin Luther, Longfellow immerses himself in the mind of that Protestant Reformation leader as he was hiding in Wartburg Castle, a literal "mighty fortress." After citing in full the first stanza from Ein feste Burg, Longfellow describes Luther's faith and struggles, cycling back and forth between each successive stanza and his original poetry. Longfellow greatly respected Luther and his epic hymn that shook the foundations of Christendom.
Stanza III mentions the names of two Old Testament figures, Jacob and Esau. They were twin brothers who vied for their father Isaac’s sacred blessing and birthright. This presents another tie-in with the Variations because there are two Old Testament names used as titles. Variation VI is called Ysobel, and Variation IX Nimrod. Notice the numbers for those movements (six and nine) are divisible by three. In the Old Testament Ysobel was the wife of Aaron, brother of Moses, and the first High Priest of the Hebrews. Nimrod is described in Genesis as "a mighty hunter before the Lord" who designed and built fortified cities. The construction of the Tower of Babel is attributed to that fabled leader. Elgar’s use of the name Nimrod is an example of wordplay that hints at the title of the hidden melody to the Variations.
In stanza IV Longfellow contends great art is defined by what is left unsaid and unwritten. Elgar was guilty of such an omission because the source melody is absent. As the original ending of the Enigma Variations was deemed too short, in July 1899 he appended 96 measures and an improvised organ part to complete the work. Recall the numbers nine and six cropped up before with Elgar’s use of Old Testament names for Variations VI and IX. The organ provides a distinct religious connection because it is a central feature in Cathedrals and other houses of worship.
The numbers three and one in stanza V of Elegiac Verse present numerological and spiritual connection to the Variations:
“How can the Three be One? you ask me; I answer by asking,
  Hail and snow and rain, are they not three, and yet one?”
The first two melody notes of the Enigma Theme are the third and first degrees of the G minor scale. These notes are performed on violin in the third position with the third and first fingers on the third string, the D string. Three and one combine to form the number for Variation XIII, a movement secretly dedicated to Jesus Christ, a member of the Trinity. Elgar’s focus on these numbers is reinforced by modulations in this movement that spell 1 and 3 in succession.  In Biblical numerology, the number thirteen is associated with disaster, rebellion, and judgment. Notice Longfellow invokes the three states of water to rationalize the concept of the Trinity.
This furnishes yet another similarity, for Elgar evokes the image of the sea in Variation XIII. There are distinct theological connections between the sea and Jesus. Jesus recruited fishermen to be his disciples, miraculously walked on the Sea of Galilee, preached from a boat, and calmed the storm from a boat on the Sea of Galilee. 

He further claimed the Sign of Jonah prefigured his death and resurrection. Jonah was an Old Testament prophet who miraculously spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale before being spit out on dry land.

Jonah was lost at sea much like the boat adrift in Goethe’s poem Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage). One line from that poem stands out: “Silence fearful as the grave!” The deathly stillness of the music in Variation XIII evokes this feeling. One of the earliest known Christian symbols is the Jesus Fish. Elgar hints at this famous symbol in the Enigma Theme by pairing the number Pi with the symbol for common time (C) to phonetically spell the Latin word for fish: Pisce. Pi is also encoded within the Mendelssohn fragments of Variation XIII, musical snippets that sonically portray the seas. The combination of Pi with seas produces Pisces.

Another link with the Variations is found in stanza VI of Elegiac Verse:
“By the mirage uplifted, the land floats vague in the ether,
  Ships and the shadows of ships hang in the motionless air;
So by the art of the poet our common life is uplifted,
  So, transfigured, the world floats in a luminous haze.”
Within the Variations, the hidden melody is like a "mirage uplifted" that "floats vague" above each movement.  As Elgar explains in the original 1899 program note, “…through and over the set another and larger theme ‘goes’ but is not played…” Remaining silent like "motionless air," the covert Principal Theme is not heard. The linkup with Longfellow’s passage deepens as Elgar artistically adapts unique aspects from the lives of his friends, uplifting the common through idiosyncratic musical portrayals. For example, in Variation I he captures his wife’s romantic and delicate nature. Variation VI opens with the violas playing three notes on different strings in imitation of string crossing etudes practiced by one of his viola pupils, Isabel Fitton. In Variation X he playfully captures Dora Penny’s stutter along with her graceful dancing.
Another connection with the Variations occurs in stanza VII:
“Like a French poem is Life; being only perfect in structure
  When with the masculine rhymes mingled the feminine are.”
This brief stanza may be related to the original 1899 program note, for in it Elgar mentions only one person by name, the poet and playwright Maeterlinck. While he hailed from Belgium, Maeterlinck wrote in French, hence he was a French poet. For good measure, Elgar’s note cites two of Maeterlinck’s plays in the original French, L’Intruse and Les sept Princesses. In a program note describing a work dedicated to his friends, it is incredibly odd Elgar mentions only one person by name, and that of a stranger. However, this anomaly is not without purpose, for the name Maeterlinck is a clever anagram hinting at the name of the composer of the unstated Principal Theme. Elgar reveled in anagrams and other forms of wordplay, so such a treatment of this oddly placed name is not without foundation.
The second phrase "…masculine rhymes mingled the feminine" suggests Elgar’s treatment of Variation I. This movement is dedicated to his wife, serving as a prolongation of the Enigma Theme. Deftly woven into the thematic material is a melodic fragment Elgar whistled to alert his wife of his arrival home. In this manner Elgar mingles his musical phrasing with his wife’s variation, producing a merger of masculine and feminine melodic verse. Some believe the Enigma Theme represents Elgar, a view supported by his practice of quoting it in place of his signature in letters to Dora Penny. The bridge between the Enigma Theme and Variation I establishes a union between them, suggesting a mingling of the masculine and feminine. On a larger scale, the Variations present a commingling of male and female friends.
This analysis has uncovered some fascinating literary parallels between Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Longfellow’s poem Elegiac Verse. At the end of the revised Finale, Elgar quotes from the fourteenth stanza of Elegiac Verse. Moreover, there are subtle yet distinct associations between the Variations and six different stanzas of that poem: I, III, IV, V, VI, and VII. By substituting letters from the alphabet corresponding to these Roman numerals, the letters A, C, D, E, F, and G are realized. This is a remarkable coincidence since those same letters represent the note spaces on the Treble staff.

From bottom to top the spaces of the Treble staff contain the notes D, F, A, C, E, and G. The intervening letters spell face, and the top and bottom G-D, a phonetic version of God. Is there some connection between the Enigma Variations and the face of God? The surprising answer is yes. Elgar refers to the Turin Shroud in Variation XIII using an elimination cipher. This is an internally consistent gesture because that movement is secretly dedicated to Jesus. Elgar transparently concealed his Savior’s initials using the Roman numerals with X standing for the tenth letter (J), and III the third (C). For Roman Catholics such as Elgar, the face of Jesus is the face of God. A photographic negative of the Turin Shroud taken by Secondo Pia in May 1898 captured for the first time what many Catholic faithful believe to be the face and crucified body of Christ. The discovery quickly became an international sensation and remains popular to this day. Elgar did not begin work on the Variations until October 1898, so the timing is credible for such a connection between the Turin Shroud and the Enigma Variations.
There are other literary allusions in the Variations, most notably to Dante's Divine Comedy and Tasso's Jerusalem DeliveredSecular scholars instinctively view most if not all of these remarkable literary connections as whimsical coincidence, the product of wishful thinking or confirmation bias. It is nothing less than exquisitely ironic their minds were made up long before all the facts were in. A tortuous and contrived "solution" proffered by Dr. Clive McClelland is just one example of academia's inability to solve Elgar's Enigma Variations. Their works, long devoid of any substantive faith, are torpid and dead. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

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About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker (a student of Leopold Auer), and Rosenker’s pupil, Owen Dunsford. Mr. Padgett studied piano with Sally Magee (a student of Emanuel Bay), and Blanca Uribe (a student of Rosina Lhévinne). He attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Vassar he studied music theory and composition with Richard Wilson. Mr. Padgett has performed for Joseph Silverstein, Van Cliburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Steve Jobs, Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Marcia Davenport, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other prominent public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008 Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry "Fanfare for the Eagles." It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado in May 2008. A member of the Elgar Society, Mr. Padgett is married with five children.