The man who misses all the fun
Is he who says, “It can’t be done.”
In solemn pride he stands aloof
And greets each venture with reproof.
Had he the power he’d efface
The history of the human race;
We’d have no radio or motor cars,
No streets lit by electric stars;
No telegraph nor telephone,
We’d linger in the age of stone.
The world would sleep if things were run
By men who say, “It can’t be done.”
One of the world’s leading Elgar scholars is Julian Rushton. A prolific musicologist and Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Leeds, he released Elgar: Enigma Variations on its centenary in 1999. More recently he served for five years as editor of The Elgar Society Journal. Looking back on his tenure as editor he confessed, “I am delighted to have got through five years without printing any more purported enigma ‘solutions’, especially as some that have recently come to my attention tend to the increasingly tortuous, despite Elgar’s claim that the solution, once spotted, would seem obvious.” His perpetual skepticism is not without foundation. In a chapter devoted to various solutions, he persuasively and cogently demonstrates none fully satisfy five conditions given by the composer.  Those criteria, broadly paraphrased by Rushton, are:
- The solution must unveil a dark saying (although the composer said it “must be left unguessed”).
- The solution must find “another and larger theme” which goes over the whole set.
- The solution involves well-known music, or at least something well known.
- It must be clear why Dora Penny “of all people” should guess it.
- The “solution” should take into account the characteristic falling sevenths in bars 3 – 4. Elgar himself drew special attention to these with the cryptic observation: “The drop of a seventh in the Theme (bars 3 and 4) should be observed.”
With so many unusual conditions, no solution stands a chance of flourishing under Rushton’s withering glare. There is little surprise he recommends a complete moratorium on all enigma “solutions” until 2034. In that hopeful year, an envelope at the Birthplace Museum is slated to be opened on the centennial of Elgar’s death. Some hope its contents will reveal the long-awaited answer. But what if does not? What if the envelope is empty? Or contains a coded message similar to the Dorabella Cipher? Elgar was after all an inveterate prankster and aficionado of secret codes and ciphers. Without such an envelope containing the answer, is there some other way to identify and authenticate the solution? Like many of his peers, Rushton concludes the real solution indubitably eludes the realm of possibility because Elgar took his secret to the grave. Digging for answers now is as futile as exhuming Elgar’s corpse to conduct a deposition. For those in search of the answers to these enduring enigmas, Rushton’s professional opinion is best captured by the phrase, “It can’t be done.”
Will the answers to the Enigma Variations ever be unmasked? And if so, is there any conceivable way to validate them? The answer to both questions is a categorical yes. Before arriving at these solutions, it is first necessary to substantially revise and clarify Rushton’s crude paraphrases of Elgar’s conditions. Without a crystal clear understanding of those conditions squarely within the context of the composer’s psychological profile, looking into these questions is like peering through a camera lens radically out of focus. Through such a lens even the most intelligent observer is left staring at a baffling, unintelligible blur. Dull conditions are not conducive to formulating sharp questions. Rushton’s appraisal of would-be enigma solutions proves the proverb, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” His rambling roads are vaguely construed conditions, and the many disparate destinations Rushton visits in the form of divergent solutions demand disbelief. Analyzing the Enigma Variations with the wrong set of conditions predictably sets the stage for wrong questions, and these, in turn, lead to wrong answers no matter how right the intentions. When accurately worded and understood, Elgar’s detailed conditions bring the issues into razor-sharp focus. A cogent appreciation of those specific conditions serves as the springboard for developing the right kinds of questions, lighting the way toward the correct solutions. Those answers address the unstated Principal Theme, a “dark saying” linked to the Enigma, and the secret friend of Variation XIII.
Rushton’s criteria are crudely drawn almost exclusively from the original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry that cites an explanatory letter from Elgar. The relevant excerpt from the program note reads:
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’s language is unambiguous, specifying “through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’ but is not played,” and “the principal Theme never appears.” The context could not be more straightforward as the word Theme is capitalized and definitely refers to a musical theme rather than something symbolic, literary, or otherwise. This is a program note about a symphonic work, not a poetry reading or college lecture on literary symbolism. Instead of calling the opening melody the Theme, Elgar deliberately labels it Enigma to capture the mystery of the missing Principal Theme. Any alleged vagueness on this point is quashed by multiple interviews Elgar granted soon after the 1899 premiere. The following year he met with F. G. Edwards, the editor of The Musical Times, to discuss a biographical sketch featured in the October 1900 issue. Concerning the Enigma Variations Edwards reported:
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.’
In this passage, the words phrase and theme are used interchangeably, again both in the context of a melody that may be added above the original Enigma theme. This observation 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, something incompatible with something symbolic, figurative, mathematical, or literary. The article was closely vetted by Elgar and his wife prior to publication to ensure accuracy, so Elgar must be taken at his word. Further evidence confirming that the Enigma must be a hidden melody is found in Elgar’s 1905 biography prepared 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. Buckley confidently declares in the introduction:
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, so it is important to note Elgar never disputed or disavowed any part of Buckley’s book. Dora Powell (née Penny) confirmed the biography was sanctioned by the composer. Buckley could not have presented such intimate details of Elgar’s life, extensive quotations, anecdotes, personal photographs, and copies of his unpublished musical compositions without Elgar’s extensive, personal assistance. Following Buckley’s introduction, Elgar’s cooperation is established by a facsimile of a handwritten, autographed note of appreciation in German and English. On the subject of the Enigma Variations Buckley records Elgar’s description in these words:
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 countermelody, so logic dictates 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” from incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the unstated principal Theme must be melodic in nature, this precludes from consideration any symbolic, mathematical, or literary themes – popular refuges for the musical illiterati and musicologists of Rushton’s ilk. Another second equally important implication of Elgar’s contrapuntal condition is the unstated Principal Theme must play “through and over” the entire Enigma Theme, not merely a fraction of it. Like a home anchored on its foundation, the Enigma Theme rests on its foundational theme. This suggests each tune must be the same length to ensure a proper fit. The hidden melody’s length must be equal to its counterpart (i.e., counterpoint). One surprising implication is that such a melodic mapping must include the two measure bridge in measures 18 and 19 since these represent an elaboration of the final cadence as it moves between the major and minor modes. 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 little room to doubt that both themes must be counterpoints to one another, and consequently the same length.
This in-depth analysis demonstrates that three primary sources – the 1899 program note, the 1900 interview in The Musical Times, and the 1905 biography – specify four distinct conditions concerning the relationship between the Enigma Theme and the covert principal Theme:
- The Enigma theme is a counterpoint to the principal Theme.
- The principal Theme is not heard.
- The principal Theme is a melody that can be played “through and over” the whole set of Variations including the entire Enigma Theme (bars 1 - 19).
- The principal Theme is famous.
All claims contrary to these precisely defined criteria must be made in direct conflict with the recorded words of the composer by multiple, independent, unimpeachable sources. Besides these clearly defined conditions, there is Elgar’s psychological profile to consider. It is well established he wrote counterpoints to famous melodies. At age twelve he composed a counterpoint to Handel’s Messiah, inserting it secretly into the orchestral parts for the 1869 Three Choirs Festival. He recalls his foray into melodic mischief in these words:
I composed a little tune of which I was very proud. I thought the public should hear it, but my opportunities of publishing it were decidedly few. I took my opportunity when my father was engaged in preparing the Handel parts for the forthcoming festival. Very laboriously I introduced my little tune into the music. The thing was an astonishing success, and I heard that some people had never enjoyed Handel so much before! When my father learned of it, however, he was furious!
In 1901 at age 42 he composed the Cockaigne Overture Op. 40. Elgar’s sketchbooks show he conceived of the lover’s theme as a counterpoint to the “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Figure 1.1).
He invoked this counterpoint because Mendelssohn’s music is indelibly linked to marriage, and there was some concern the lovemaking portrayed was not “strictly proper.” In this example, Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” serves as an unstated (or covert) theme. Over four measures Elgar employs seven dissonant intervals between his counterpoint and the “Wedding March.” Dissonance is defined as any interval other than a unison, octave, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major or minor third, and major or minor sixth. Elgar’s contrapuntal sketch obliterates the myth he would assiduously avoid all dissonant intervals between the Enigma Theme and the covert principal Theme. Another important observation is that he simplified the source melody to better suit his counterpoint. These simplifications are enclosed in brackets (Figure 1.1). It should also be observed Mendelssohn was a devout Lutheran, dispelling the myth Elgar’s Roman Catholicism precluded him from considering any Protestant themes. On the contrary, he quotes Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in Variation XIII.
Another enlightening example of Elgar’s use of dissonance involving a counterpoint is found in the October 1, 1900 edition of The Musical Times. Under the heading “MUSICAL HUMOUR”, F. G. Edwards mentions how Elgar ingeniously weaves the melody of God save the Queen into the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique (Figure 1.2). In this unusual counterpoint, Elgar melodically merges two famous melodies, posing a clever metrical feat because of the conflicting meters between God save the Queen (3/4) and the Pathétique (5/4). More remarkable still are the surprising number of dissonant intervals in Elgar’s contrapuntal mapping. Over three measures there are no less than four dissonant intervals produced by Elgar’s inventive counterpoint. Yet another example of Elgar abandoning the traditional rules of counterpoint occurs in measures 6 and 16 of the Enigma Theme where he uses parallel fifths between the treble and bass lines.
Condition One: A Dark Saying
How well do Rushton’s conditions measure up to Elgar’s? The phrase “through a glass, darkly” best describes the poor likeness between them. Like his many peers and predecessors, Julian Rushton repeatedly violates the letter and spirit of Elgar’s conditions. A systematic comparison of Rushton’s vaguely worded conditions with those carefully assembled from Elgar’s public comments produces a number of arresting dissimilarities. Rushton’s first condition is, “The solution must unveil a dark saying (although the composer said it ‘must be left unguessed’).” This condition is so vaguely worded it lays the track for a proverbial freight train of contradictory possibilities. Perhaps this was Rushton’s intent from the beginning, sowing confusion and thereby shoring up his position of doubt. What Elgar actually wrote is, “The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed . . .” In this context, the Enigma refers to the odd-sounding theme, and within it resides a “dark saying.” Even Rushton is forced to admit “…a ‘dark saying’ cannot simply be a tune.” What could Elgar possibly mean by using the cryptic phrase dark saying? The saying “Go for the obvious” yields results when applied to this oddly worded provision. A formative element of Elgar’s psychological profile was his intense fascination with ciphers, secret codes, and word play. Kevin Jones deftly captures this aspect of Elgar’s character:
Edward Elgar was a compulsive fan of crosswords, codes and conundrums. His manuscripts and papers are littered with word puzzles, ciphers, puns and anagrams. Early biographers specifically highlighted his interest in cryptography. He collected a series of articles published in the Pall Mall Magazine in 1896, which describe in some detail a large number of historic ciphering systems. The series contained various cipher challenges for readers to attempt, concluding with a complex, multi-stage puzzle described as uncrackable. Undaunted, Elgar solved it. As he unraveled various stages through to the keyword COURAGE, he used the margins of his Cockaigne Overture manuscript to record his progress. Elgar seemed sufficiently impressed at this feat to make a neat copy of the solution steps on to a set of nine carefully crafted cards, now at the Elgar Birthplace museum, leading to the final solution ‘He who fears is half dead’.
Elgar’s first condition is itself a cryptogram that it contains its own solution. Cryptograms cannot be guessed, but rather decoded. Interpreted in this context, the phrase “dark saying” is simply code for a secret (dark) message (saying). In other words, Elgar’s “dark saying” is a music cipher encoded within the Enigma Theme. It is astonishing Rushton glosses over this possibility, dismissing the likelihood of ciphers as remote. He does so not because of Elgar’s character (which demands just the opposite), but rather because he artificially restricts the composer’s opportunity to construct a cipher to a scant three days beginning on October 21, 1898 – Enigma day. Elgar composed the Variations over a four month period (October 21, 1898, to February 19, 1899), yet Rushton bizarrely contends he only had three days to devise any ciphers. Such a conclusion is wildly inconsistent with the window of opportunity available to Elgar for just such an undertaking. If Elgar had four months to complete the Variations, then by extension he had at least the same amount of time to create any music ciphers. Since Rushton casually dismisses the possibility of ciphers, he makes little effort to discover any. Fortunately, Rushton is not a recognized expert in cryptography or music ciphers; otherwise, his opinion might actually matter. Therefore, his dismissal of the possibility of ciphers may itself be comfortably and casually dismissed as uninformed and unfounded, especially since the Enigma Theme is teaming with them.
Exhaustive research demonstrates just the opposite of what Rushton expects, for there are at least two music ciphers in the Enigma Theme. The simpler of the two is the Enigma “Locks” Cipher (Figure 1.3). This rather elementary cipher converts the total number of notes in each instrumental part over the first six measures of the Enigma Theme into their corresponding letters in the alphabet counting both forwards (1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C, etc.) and backward (1 = Z, 2 = Y, 3 = X, etc.). Elgar was obviously counting on no one finding this alphanumeric puzzle. Note sums were confined to the first six measures because of an oddly placed double bar at the end of measure six. Only the string quartet plays in these first six measures (Violin I, Violin II, Viola, and Cello). The total notes for each part are 24, 17, 15, and 12 respectively. In alphabetical order the numbers 12, 15, 17, and 24 spell “LOQX,” a phonetic version of locks. Just as locks come with keys, so do pianos, and more importantly, ciphers. One obvious implication of this discovery is the Enigma Variations contain numerous locks, and by extension multiple ciphers. Speaking of keys, the Enigma Theme is performed in the minor and major modes of G. The accidentals for G minor (B-flat and E-flat) and G major (F-sharp) present the initials for Ein feste Burg. That is far from being a mere coincidence.
Counting backward in the alphabet, the resulting letters are an anagram of “LOJC.” Lo is a common Biblical term meaning to look, see, or behold. “JC” are the initials for the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII, Jesus Christ. His initials are openly concealed by the Roman numerals assigned to his movement. “X” stands for ten, and the tenth letter of the alphabet is J. “III” represents three, and the third letter is C. “LOJC” may reasonably be understood as Behold Jesus Christ. Combining the plain text results from both forward and backward conversions produces the anagram “LOOX LQ JC.” This is a phonetic version of “Looks like JC.” Based on the famous initials, the phrase means “Looks like Jesus Christ.”
Two of the sayings unveiled by the Enigma Locks Cipher (“Behold Jesus Christ” and “Looks like Jesus Christ”) are remarkable because another cipher in Variation XIII names the sacred relic Elgar secretly hints at – the Turin Shroud. For one, the timeline is plausible. Almost five months before Elgar began to openly work on the Variations, Secondo Pia snapped a famous photographic negative of the Turin Shroud. That astonishing image taken on May 28, 1898, revealed in vivid detail the crucified body and face of the man many fervently believe to be Jesus Christ. The story quickly became an international sensation, deluging the pages of both the secular and religious press. Copies of that moving image were soon shared and revered among Roman Catholics around the globe. For the first time, many behold the face of their Lord and Savior. For a Roman Catholic like Elgar, the phrases “Behold Jesus Christ” and “Looks like Jesus Christ” convey their view of the holy shroud. Elgar said if the Enigma Theme were presented as a ballet, the Enigma should be represented by a veiled dancer in a banquet hall. Like a shroud, a veil is a cloth used to cover the body. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus met with his twelve disciples in a banquet hall to celebrate the Last Super. Excluding Elgar and his wife, there are twelve friends portrayed in the Variations. None of these theological allusions could ever be expected to register in Rushton’s distinctly secular worldview. In contrast, Elgar’s weltanschauung during the time he composed the Variations was decidedly Roman Catholic.
The second and more complex cryptogram concealed within the Enigma Theme is an ingenious musical Polybius Box Cipher (Table 1.1). Elgar’s exquisite sense of wordplay is on full display in the more concise description of his cryptogram – a music box cipher. What a clever play on words! This musical enigma code relies on melody and bass note pairs to pinpoint plain text solution letters within a checkerboard grid (Table 1.2), hence the description as a box.
In a remarkable parallel, Elgar painstakingly decoded an allegedly unbreakable Nihilist cipher in the 1896 Pall Mall Magazine that is a variant of a box cipher. This furnishes direct evidence linking Elgar to the study of box ciphers at least two years before he began work on the Enigma Variations. His copy of the 1896 Pall Mall Magazine is still in the possession of the Elgar Birthplace Museum along with his solution painted appropriately enough on the side of a box.
Considering large portions of his personal library were lost or simply given away, it appears he deliberately retained that issue and the box to serve as clues. He even goes so far as to mention the same cipher solution in his first official biography. The plain text solution is comprised of short words and phrases – sayings – in English, Latin and Aramaic (Table 1.3). The plain text solution for measure 1 is gsus, phonetic for Jesus. This result and those produced by the Enigma Locks Cipher are mutually reinforcing, serving to validate both cipher decryptions. The plain text solution letters produced by the music box cipher are an anagram of the complete German title of the covert Principal Theme: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Remarkably, the first letters of all the languages found in this cipher (English, Latin, German and Aramaic) spell “ELGAr.” This means the composer surreptitiously signed his own cipher, ostensibly to aid in its authentication. Rushton could hardly be expected to detect (let alone decrypt) such a sophisticated music cipher, for it is manifestly beyond his expertise. Being convinced there were no ciphers at the outset, he abandoned the search before it ever began. Rushton's cynicism mimics the illogic of an atheist.
Rushton’s second condition is, “The solution must find ‘another and larger theme’ which goes over the whole set.” Like his first, it is coarsely worded. A more comprehensive analysis made clear it should read, “The Principal Theme is a melody that can be played ‘through and over’ the whole set of Variations including the entire Enigma Theme.” Rushton has never made any attempt to map any purported melodic solutions over the Enigma Theme or the ensuing movements. Why? Because he remains convinced the answer is unknowable, unverifiable, and unworthy of rigorous inquiry. This mirrors his casual attitude towards possible ciphers, and again exhibits a systematic failure to factor into his analysis Elgar’s psychological profile.
Rushton’s excuse is to invoke the opinions of others by explaining, “It has often been remarked that no musical theme can ever literally ‘go over the whole set’.” Yet the conventional wisdom can be wrong. After briefly touching on various melodic solutions, he concludes:
Many examples hang by the merest thread, the source coinciding with the theme, in some cases, by as few as three notes; given the limitations of the seven-note scale, these seem insufficient to bear intertextual weight. But, more importantly, Elgar never implied that the mystery concerned the actual notes of the theme; these solutions are solving a different kind of problem and (except when part of a multifaceted solution) they fail the test of relevance.
Rushton’s assessment is largely correct with one glaring exception, his claim “. . . Elgar never implied that the mystery concerned the actual notes of the theme . . .” That assertion is brazenly false, blatantly contradicting the recorded words of the composer. There is one famous theme Rushton does not consider that successfully meets all of the requirements of the second condition: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. The case for Luther's greatest hymn is far too extensive to be explored in depth here. For the sake of brevity, permit Table 1.4 to summarize how Luther’s most famous hymn meets Elgar’s seemingly implausible requirement of playing through and over the Enigma Theme and all of the movements. For over a century no other theme has been shown to accomplish this seemingly implausible feat. This exhaustive melodic mapping was achieved because one investigator was bold enough to take Elgar at his word.
Audio files showing how Ein feste Burg plays “through and over” each of the movements from the Enigma Variations are available on my YouTube Channel:
Comprehensive explanations of how Ein feste Burg was carefully mapped over each of the movements are available at the following hyperlinks below:
- Enigma Theme
- Variation I (C. A. E.)
- Variation II (H. D. S-P.)
- Variation III (R. B. T.)
- Variation IV (W. M. B.)
- Variation V (R. P. A.)
- Variation VI (Ysobel)
- Variation VII (Troyte)
- Variation VIII (W. N.)
- Variation IX (Nimrod)
- Variation X (Dorabella)
- Variation XI (G. R. S.)
- Variation XII (B. G. N.)
- Variation XIII (✡ ✡ ✡)
- Variation XIV E.D.U.
Condition Three: A Famous Theme
Rushton’s third condition states, “The solution involves well-known music, or at least something well known.” This is his least ambiguous, yet it veers precipitously off course by permitting non-melodic themes. Earlier analysis confirmed the principal Theme must be a melody. This is so because the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint to it, and a counterpoint is by definition a counter melody. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact only a tune can play ‘through and over’ the set. Rushton’s third condition should simply read, “The solution is a famous melody.” In a rather cursory examination of some famous melodies, Rushton never shows how any could literally play “through and over” the set of Variations. He also does not show how any could play one complete cycle over the full seventeen measures of the Enigma Theme, achieving an unmistakable fit. Without a viable candidate, Rushton is left with no alternative but to seek answers elsewhere. This prompts him to wander into a wilderness of imaginative, non-musical themes. Here, like elsewhere, he comes up empty-handed.
One famous theme Rushton does not consider is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Commonly known as A Mighty Fortress, it is Luther’s most famous and performed hymn. Based on Psalms 46, Ein feste Burg was composed around 1527 and sung to great acclaim at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 where Luther defiantly uttered his famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” It has been translated into English at least seventy times, and over the past five centuries has been performed around the world in many other languages. It is generally acknowledged Elgar was an avid disciple of the German School. His chief musical role models were Bach, Schumann, and Wagner. If there ever were a melodic cornerstone to the German School, it would have to be Ein feste Burg since it is quoted in the music of J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Schumann, Nicolai, Raff, Wagner, Liszt, and Reinecke. No other melody is quoted by the great German masters so frequently or famously. As late as March 1853, Robert Schumann (Elgar’s “ideal”) was actively planning to compose a sacred oratorio about Martin Luther featuring Ein feste Burg in the final climactic chorus. If Ein feste Burg was epic enough to attract the attention of some of the greatest composers of the German school, particularly those Elgar venerated and emulated in his own works, then the magnetic allure of this powerful hymn could not have escaped Elgar’s notice.
Elgar’s Code of Silence
For Elgar to openly acknowledge Ein feste Burg as the source melody to one of his greatest symphonic works would certainly cast doubt on his devout Roman Catholicism. This necessitated the veil of secrecy achieved by substituting an ingenious counter melody in place of the original Principal theme. It would be inconceivable for Elgar to openly quote the battle hymn of the Reformation, a work composed by a heretic excommunicated by the Pope. His staunch refusals to reveal the hidden theme begin to make complete sense when considered in this context. As a form of penance for his indulgence with such a Protestant theme, he promptly composed The Dream of Gerontius shortly after completing the Enigma Variations.
Another second, more compelling reason why Elgar staunchly refused to disclose the identity of the missing principal Theme, particularly after 1914, was its overwhelmingly Teutonic character. Following the deaths and maiming of millions of British soldiers during World War I (1914-1917), anything remotely German was roundly reviled by the people of England. After World War I, there was no possible way for Elgar to divulge the secret principal Theme of the Enigma Variations without risking his elevated status in English society and the arts. During the war August Jaeger’s widow changed her last name to Hunter to avoid suspicion, Hans Richter and Max Bruch renounced their honorary doctorates from Cambridge, and Gustav von Holst dropped the “von” from his name. It would have been social if not artistic suicide for Elgar to acknowledge such a German melody as the inspiration for one of the great English symphonic works. Ein feste Burg was not only the Marseillaise of the Reformation but also a very popular war song among German soldiers. When war between Germany and France erupted in 1870, Ein feste Burg was played in Berlin during a grand concert to commemorate the march on Paris. After taking Paris and concluding a punitive peace, Wager commemorated their victory with his famous Kaisermarsch that liberally quotes Ein feste Burg. In English society, the robust association between Ein feste Burg and the German military was widely recognized.
Condition Four: Why Dora Penny?
Rushton’s fifth condition is, “It must be clear why Dora Penny ‘of all people’ should guess it.” This condition is predicated on an exchange between Dora and Elgar when she pestered and begged him to divulge the answer. When cornered, Elgar replied, “Oh, I shan’t tell you that, you must find it out for yourself.” She persisted, “But I’ve thought and racked my brains over and over again.” He answered, “Well, I’m surprised. I thought that you of all people would guess it.” Notice Elgar’s use of would instead of should. Rushton slyly substitutes should for would, giving the condition an entirely different slant. Elgar was clear the solution was not subject to speculation in the original 1899 program note, affirming it must remain unguessed. Even if Dora were to guess the correct solution, Elgar would neither deny nor confirm it. His advice to her was, “. . . you must find it out for yourself.”
Why would Elgar suggest Dora would be able to guess the answer? Variation X is dedicated to Dora Penny (1874 – 1964), the daughter of Reverend Alfred Penny of Wolverhampton. Following the death of his first wife, Reverend Penny wed the sister of William Meath Baker, the variant portrayed in Variation IV. Elgar gave Dora the nickname Dorabella from Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. She was a frequent travel companion when he went on country outings such as kite flying or bicycle riding. Dora enjoyed dancing to his music, and this variation captures her graceful, delicate spirit. In a teasing way, it makes light of her stutter in the opening woodwind phrase that may be sung to her nickname (‘Dor-a-bel-la’). The movement is given the subtitle Intermezzo, and it is one of the longest of the variations.
Concerning Variation X, Elgar wrote the “inner sustained phrases at first on the viola and later on the flute should be noted.” His brief remarks draw attention to the inner melody line but gives no particular reason. Following the discovery of the unstated principal Theme, his comments make perfect sense because a sizable portion of the closing bars of Ein feste Burg is quoted in an augmented form by the inner counter melody. The first instance occurs in measures 382 through 386, and the second in measures 404 through 408. In both cases, the final cadence of Ein feste Burg is immediately followed in mid-measure by a double barline (see Rehearsals 42 and 45). No wonder Elgar told Dora that she “of all people” would be the one to guess the correct melodic solution. Among the variations, Dorabella most directly quotes a considerable part of the covert Theme in an inner melody line, albeit in an augmented form from the end rather than the beginning of the tune.
As the daughter of an Anglican Rector and missionary, Dora was exceedingly familiar with the standard Anglican hymnal. Consequently, her life experience enjoyed a very close connection to the hidden theme. On page 324 of A Dictionary of Hymnology published in 1892, it states Ein feste Burg “. . . has now become well-known in England, and in its proper form is included in the C. B. for England, 1863.” “C. B.” is an abbreviation for Chorale Book. Among Elgar’s friends when he composed the Enigma Variations, she was the most active musically. In her own words she explains, “I was so mixed up with tunes in those days; Choral music; Church music, and orchestral music — and then my own solo singing, scenes from opera, songs, ballads, and so on.”
Choral, church, and orchestral music – what popular tune could be featured so prominently in all three genres? Ein feste Burg. Not only was it a standard in Anglican hymnals, but it was also extremely popular during the Bach resurgence in England beginning in the 1870s as the cornerstone of Bach’s most famous cantata. In opera Ein feste Burg is well known because it is featured in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the most successful grand opera of the 19th century. In orchestral music, it is quoted by no less than J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Schumann, Nicolai, Raff, Wagner, Liszt, and Reinecke. No other melody is featured so prominently, frequently or famously by the great German masters. As late as March 1853, Robert Schumann (Elgar’s “ideal”) was planning to compose a sacred oratorio about Martin Luther featuring Ein feste Burg in the final climactic chorus. If Ein feste Burg was profound enough to attract the attention of some of the greatest composers of the German school, particularly those Elgar venerated and emulated, then the magnetic allure of that moving hymn could not have escaped his respect and admiration.
In the Royal life of England, Ein feste Burg was given a prominent place of honor as shown by the coronations of 1902 and 1911, global events in the Edwardian era attended by leaders and representatives from around the world when the sun did not set on the British Empire. At the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII, Ein feste Burg was performed multiple times, first as a hymn during the processional, and later in Wagner’s Kaisermarsch. This same hymn was performed at the 1911 coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, again as part of the processional music and also in the homage anthem composed by Sir Frederick Bridge “making liberal use of Ein’ feste Burg.” Elgar certainly heard if not performed Ein fest Burg on numerous occasions in the years preceding the genesis of his Enigma Variations because of the Bach resurgence that swept England and the rest of the Western world. Bach’s works were routinely performed at the Three Choirs Festival beginning in the early 1870s. In 1871 Bach’s St. Matthew's Passion was first performed there, and Bach’s and Mendelssohn’s music was commonplace in England throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Elgar first played violin in the Festival orchestra in 1878. The Monthly Musical Record confirmed Bach’s Cantata A Stronghold Sure (Ein feste Burg) was performed at the Three Choirs Festival on September 10, 1890. It was also performed at the 1905 commencement at Yale University when Elgar received an honorary Doctor of Music.
Prominent Elgar scholars have made little headway in drawing any substantive connection between Dorabella and the Enigma Theme. Some even go so far as to insist Dorabella is not a variation at all. Julian Rushton flatly declares, “’Dorabella’ is no variation . . .” Such a claim begs the question of why Elgar used the word variation in connection with that movement. The only obvious explanation is Dorabella is precisely what Elgar called it – a variation. When scholars sharpen their sensibilities to the slightest subtly, they risk dulling their minds to the agonizingly obvious. Elgar scholarship, like all other disciplines, suffers from more than one example of this disorder. Indeed, Rushton’s blunder is far from being the lone exception. To his credit, his claim is accurate regarding 33 of the 74 measures, or 45% of the work. Nonetheless, such a percentage is hardly a passing grade.
Condition Five: Why Falling Sevenths?
Rushton’s final condition is as follows:
The ‘solution’ should take into account the characteristic falling sevenths in bars 3 – 4. Elgar himself drew especial attention to these with the cryptic observation: “The drop of a seventh in the Theme (bars 3 and 4) should be observed.”
What could Elgar possibly mean by asking that the falling sevenths in the Enigma Theme “should be observed”? A passing familiarity with scripture yields the explanation. Elgar attended various Roman Catholic schools in his youth, and studied theology extensively, particularly in preparing his sacred oratorios. Exodus 31:16 reads, “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.” The Sabbath is the seventh day and should be observed. It does not take a genius to make the connection between the seventh and the Sabbath. Both words are seven letters long, begin with s and end with th. This is a superb example of Elgar’s wordplay. Seven is the divine number, and the sum of the measure numbers (3 + 4) equals that sum. Both the Locks Cipher and the Music Box Cipher encode within the Enigma Theme the name of Jesus Christ. One of his better-known titles is Lord of the Sabbath. In a revealing parallel, the Locks Cipher encodes the phrase “Behold Jesus Christ.” It could just as easily be rephrased as “Observe Jesus Christ.” The musical interval of a seventh in bars 3 and 4 serve as a numerological allusion to the Sabbath and its Lord, the secret friend of Variation XIII. Elgar originally designated that movement with a solitary capital “L”. As the seven of hearts playing card makes clear, a capital “L” resembles a seven (7) fallen over on its head. A third cryptogram in the Enigma Theme known as the “I AM” Cipher seals the case for Jesus as Lord of the Seventh.
Tying Up Loose Ends
Ein feste Burg does conveniently tie up a number of loose ends in the Variations. Consider the unusual title for Variation IX, Nimrod. Why would Elgar give his German friend August Jaeger that unusual Old Testament name? In Genesis 10:9 Nimrod is described as “a mighty hunter,” and the literal German translation of Jaeger means hunter. The “hunter” connection is abundantly clear, but that still leaves behind the first two words – A Mighty. Amazingly, these are exact sequential matches with the first two words in the covert theme’s title, A Mighty Fortress. The third word in that title is accounted for by the fact Nimrod is known as a builder of famous fortified cities – fortresses. His reputation as a builder is so well established that a famous medieval castle on the northern slope of the Golan Heights is called Nimrod Fortress. Recognizing the connotations attached to the name Nimrod makes it relatively easy to compile the title A Mighty Fortress. That Jaeger’s name is German further implies translating the result into that language, yielding Ein feste Burg. No wonder Elgar thought the hidden theme would quickly be discovered following the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899.
There is another explanation for why Elgar suspected the hidden theme would soon be exposed. He was profoundly grateful to the great German conductor Hans Richter for conducting the premiere of the Enigma Variations in June 1899. As a token of his gratitude, he presented Richter with a copy of Longfellow’s novel Hyperion: A Romance. In a letter accompanying the book, Elgar wrote, “I send you the little book about which we conversed & from which I, as a child, received my first idea of the great German nations.” Little did Richter know the unstated principal Theme of the Enigma Variations and its composer are mentioned within its final chapter. No wonder Elgar thought the answer would soon be discovered, for he literally gave it away to an eminent musician who should have recognized it if he ever bothered to read the book. As a renowned conductor in great demand with a limited command of English, there is no indication he ever did. Elgar proved that sometimes the best way to hide something is in plain sight.
Why Elgar would write the wrong date on the original score (Feb. 18, 1898) has never been satisfactorily explained. Both the day and year are wrong because the Variations were completed one day and one year later on February 19, 1899, a period of 366 days. Elgar was exceedingly fastidious with his scores. For example, on April 5, 1899, he wrote Jaeger concerning the Variations, “If you have preserved my list of corrections (& I’ll scalp you if you haven’t) I will make ’em myself in two minutes - only I should like to see an example of your Scoring.” The suspicion he absentmindedly penned the wrong date by mistake is emphatically inadequate. If not an innocent mistake, then why the obvious error? On closer inspection, the wrong date is actually right, for it is a cryptogram. How? Consider the month. Elgar wrote the month as “FEb”, not February. In a stunning coincidence, the letters FEB are an anagram for “EFB,” the initials for Ein feste Burg. Elgar encodes those same letters in the Mendelssohn fragments of Variation XIII using an alphanumeric cipher, covertly spelling out the initials shown only by three asterisks. More revealing still is the realization February 18 marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s death in 1546, and his most famous composition is Ein feste Burg.
What was Elgar thinking about on October 21, 1898, the same day he first performed the Enigma Theme for his wife and friends? A passage from a letter he wrote that very day suggests the answer:
‘Gordon’ simmereth mighty pleasantly in my (brain) pan & will no doubt boil over one day.
For Elgar to write about a prospective symphony using the word mighty on the very same day he began officially composing the Enigma Variations is a remarkably revealing slip of the pen.
Rushton’s Moratorium Lifted
This investigation has shown Rushton’s attempts to uncover the solution to the Enigma Variations were stifled by imprecisely worded conditions too vague and unrefined to yield any fruitful lines of inquiry. Without a clearly defined set of conditions, he was powerless to mount a sensible investigation. The only conclusion left for him to make is that none of the solutions could ever fully satisfy all his conditions. He writes, “I suggest that the ‘right’ solution, if it exists, while fulfilling the criteria, must be multivalent, must deal with musical as well as cryptographic issues, must produce workable counterpoint within Elgar’s stylistic range, and must at the same time seem obvious (and not to its begetter).” The irony is that relying on Rushton’s conditions guarantees the solution could never be found. Nothing captures his inbred skepticism more than his demand in November 2010 for a moratorium on enigma 'solutions' until 2034. Fortunately, his conditions do not accurately reflect those publicly given by Elgar. And in this debate, only Elgar’s criteria matter.
When properly understood through the lens of the composer’s character, Elgar’s conditions point the way towards a workable, multivalent solution. The only theme to fully satisfy all of Elgar’s conditions is Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. Rather symbolically this discovery was made on the centennial of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth (February 3, 2009). This makes the timing of Rushton’s moratorium seem rather amusing since the correct solution was found more than a year prior. That is like bolting the barn door only after the horse has galloped away. Luther’s most famous hymn successfully plays one complete cycle through and over the entire Enigma Theme without resorting to altered note values and rhythms to contrive a fit. In addition, a more flexible mapping of Ein feste Burg over the Enigma Theme and two measure bridge produces a compelling counterpoint. It also suggests a reason why it proved so difficult to map a melody of the Enigma Theme: Elgar began his counterpoint with the closing phrase of Ein feste Burg, and did not include its opening phrase until the bridge section disguised as a transition between the Enigma Theme and Variation I.
The case case for Ein feste Burg as the unstated principal Theme to the Enigma Variations is extensive and compelling, particularly since it is the only melody even shown to play through and over each of the movements just as Elgar prescribed in the original 1899 program note. Conveniently, Elgar authenticates Ein feste Burg as the melodic solution means of an ingenious Music Box Cipher hidden within the first six measures of the Enigma Theme. This cipher is Elgar’s “dark saying” linked to the Enigma. The evidence proves Elgar did not take his secret to the grave. On the contrary, he enciphered the answer within the orchestral score to guarantee it would never be lost. Once discovered and decrypted, the answer would remain unguessed just as he predicted. There is a distinct subset of ciphers in the Mendelssohn fragments that point to Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme. Regarding the cryptographic significance of these Mendelssohn fragments, Rushton has surely missed the proverbial boat.
There is an undeniable elegance to these solutions, for they offer a rich tapestry of interconnected concepts and ideas. The Enigma Variations revolve around a hidden theme with a hidden message about a hidden friend. Like the hidden messages encoded within the Enigma Theme, the lyrics of its secret melody mention the secret friend by name, Christ Jesus. The concept of a hidden God (le dieu caché) who is omnipresent is suggested by means of an invisible, larger theme that plays through and over the set. The Romanza Cipher in Variation XIII names the Turin Shroud, a sacred relic with a hidden image of Jesus. Knowing the secret friend’s real identity makes sense of the deathly stillness of that poignant movement, and explains why it was performed at Elgar’s funeral. Elgar’s paraphrase from Tasso’s epic Christian poem Jerusalem Delivered assumes a new dimension of significance. Jerusalem is where Jesus was crucified, entombed, and resurrected, wrapped in a linen shroud that miraculously recorded the image of his crucified body. There is an undeniable connection between Tasso and the Turin Shroud, for he was the guest of honor during its inaugural exhibition at Turin. The Enigma Theme suggests Christ’s first coming as a suffering Messiah, and the martial Finale his Second Coming as a conquering King who rules the world from Jerusalem. Symbolically the Tasso quotation appears at the end of the original score.
Even when confronted by a towering tsunami of multivalent evidence, Julian Rushton sees nothing more than a ripple in a pond, a tempest in a teacup. He remains unconvinced Elgar's enigmas are resolved, insisting the answers must seem obvious. How he continues to rationalize such a position when tens of billions of people over the past century failed to fathom the secrets of the Enigma Variations is the real enigma. By now it should be excruciatingly obvious those solutions are far from obvious, except perhaps to someone from the Victorian era with an extreme fascination for Catholicism, codes, and counterpoint. For Rushton, the jury is still out without a verdict in sight, for how could it be otherwise when the proceedings are presided over by a kangaroo court? Rushton's recalcitrant skepticism invites the following observation by Charles Babbage:
Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple. Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American or to one of our Colonists, and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument.
In this matter, I am unabashedly American. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.
|The Turin Shroud|
 The Elgar Society Journal, November 2010 Vol. 16 No. 6, p. 3.
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 66-67.
 The Elgar Society Journal, November 2010 Vol. 16 No. 6, p. 4.
 Original 1899 program note by C. A. Barry citing a letter by Elgar
 The Musical Times (October 1, 1900), p. 647.
 Turner, Patrick. Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations - a Centenary Celebration. London: Thames Publishing, 1999, p. 51.
 Buckley, Robert J. Sir Edward Elgar (1905). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2009, p. xi.
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 105.
 Buckley, Robert J. Sir Edward Elgar (1905). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2009, p. ix.
 Ibid, p. 54-55.
 Turner, Patrick. Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations - a Centenary Celebration. London: Thames Publishing, 1999, p. 146.
 Moore, J. N. (1987). Edward Elgar: A Creative Life. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 43.
 McVeagh, D. (2007). Elgar the Music Maker. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, p. 75.
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 66.
 Buckley, Robert J. Sir Edward Elgar (1905). New York: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2009, p. 41.
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 67.
 Ibid, p. 69.
 Patterson, A. W. (1908). Schumann. New York & London: J.M. Dent & Co. and E.P. Dutton and Co. (Original work published 1903), p. 83.
 Kennedy, Michael. The Life of Elgar (Musical Lives). illustrated edition ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 141.
 Powell, D. M. (1947). Edward Elgar: Memories of a variation (2nd ed.). London: Oxford University Press, p. 23.
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 47.
 Elgar, Edward. Letters to Nimrod: Edward Elgar to August Jaeger, 1897-1908. London: Dobson, 1965, p. 45.
 Rushton, Julian. Elgar: Enigma Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 13.
 Ibid, p. 77.