Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle.
The Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar is more than just than a symphonic tour de force: It is a stealth homage to music cryptography. Elgar’s expertise in cryptography—the art of creating and decoding secret messages—is beyond dispute. Craig Bauer, the editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, devotes an entire chapter to Elgar’s obsession with secret codes in his recently released book Unsolved! An exhaustive analysis of Elgar’s breakout orchestral masterpiece uncovered scores of ciphers which encode specific and definitive solutions to its paramount riddles concerning the hidden melody, the Enigma Theme’s “dark saying,” and the secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII.
One remarkable example of Elgar's musical cryptographic prowess is the Enigma Locks Cipher. This cryptogram is ensconced in the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme. The insertion of a double bar at the end of measure 6 precipitated its discovery because such a feature usually appears at the end of a movement or section rather than in such close proximity to the beginning. The only parts assigned notes in the Enigma Theme’s first six bars form the string quartet: Violin I, Violin II, Viola, and Cello. An evaluation of the number of noteheads for these separate parts quickly revealed none exceed the total letters in the English alphabet. The first violins play 24 written notes, the second violins 17, the violas 15, and the cellos 12. This realization raised the prospect of an elementary number-to-letter cipher in which a numeral is converted into its corresponding letter in the alphabet.
The application of a number-to-letter key (1 = a, 2 = b, 3 = c, etc.) to the notehead totals for each of the string parts in the Enigma Theme’s opening six bars produces the plaintext solution LOQX. This is a phonetic rendering of the word locks. Elgar’s personal correspondence is rife with phonetic spellings, and consequently, such a decryption bears his cryptographic fingerprints. Like a cipher, a lock is opened by a key. In its plural form, the term locks implies there are multiple keys required to decode the Enigma Theme.
Could the musical keys of the Enigma Theme hold the key to unlocking Elgar’s melodic vault concerning the secretive principal Theme? The discovery of the Enigma Locks Cipher prompted an assessment of the musical keys in which the Enigma Theme is played. This opening movement repeatedly modulates back and forth between G minor and G major, a smokescreen clearly intended to camouflage the source melody’s mode. The accidentals for these two keys are B flat, E flat, and F sharp. Those three letters turn out to be an anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg, the covert melodic principal Theme. The decryption of the Enigma Locks Cipher led to the discovery of the Enigma Keys Cipher, a complementarity that authenticates them both as genuine.
There is yet another set of keys in the Enigma Theme’s opening measures. It is constructed from the particular clefs used by the quartet of string parts which perform the first six bars of the Enigma Theme. For this reason, it is known as the Enigma Theme Clefs Cipher. Before laying out the decryption and its significance, it is vital to recognize that the decision to carefully probe the clefs used to perform the Enigma Theme’s opening six measures was not some haphazard undertaking. It was sparked by the realization the word clef originates from the French word for key. Locks are opened with keys, and the clefs used by the instruments that perform the opening six measures of the Enigma Theme are a set of previously unrecognized keys for unlocking Elgar’s contrapuntal vault.
In the full score, there are only three clefs used by instruments that perform the Enigma Theme: Treble, alto, and bass. In the opening six measures, only the string quartet performs the Enigma Theme. By introducing the Enigma Theme with the string section, Elgar imparts a primacy to these undulating sound boxes with dual C bouts designed to amplify sound. The first and second violin parts are written in treble clef. The viola part is in Alto clef. The cello part is in bass clef. These instrumental parts appear in the full score on four adjacent staves.
The treble, alto, and bass clefs are known as the G, C, and F clefs respectively because of the notes they define on the staff in relation to middle C. The treble clef is called the G clef because it indicates the second line from the bottom as the G located a fifth above middle C. The alto clef is described as the C clef since it pinpoints the center line as middle C. The bass clef is referred to as the F clef as it identifies the second line from the top as the F positioned a fifth below middle C.
Before venturing any further into the cryptographic convergence between the Enigma Theme’s three clefs and the covert Theme, it is important to consider that Elgar was quite familiar with the technique of forming words with different clefs. When he was eight years old, he drew four intersecting staves and gave them four different clefs with the common note in the center spelling the name BACH. Elgar also immersed himself with Roman lore in the months leading up to the genesis of the Enigma Variations. During 1897 and 1898, his artistic energies were directed towards completing Caractacus Op. 35. This oratorio recounts the historic drama of a British chieftain who heroically resisted the Roman legions at the British Camp on the Malvern Hills. Although defeated and taken captive to Rome, Caractacus so impressed Claudius, the fourth Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, that he was pardoned.
Elgar’s interest in the historical intersections of Roman and British history extended to Julius Caesar (who mounted two invasions of Britain) and his reliance on cryptography to communicate secret orders to his legions. In his personal library, Elgar retained a series of four articles published by The Pall Mall Magazine in 1896 under the collective title Secrets In Cipher. John Holt Schooling prepared these informative and engaging exposés about the history of secret codes. The first installment—From Ancient Times To Late Elizabethan Days—includes a brief description of a cipher employed by Julius Caesar. Schooling writes, “...the historian Suetonius relates that when Caesar would convey any private business he did usually write it by substituting other letters of the alphabet for those which composed his real meaning—such as D for A, E for B, and so for the rest.” Elgar studied this basic encipherment technique known today as the Caesar shift at least two years before turning his attention to completing the Enigma Variations in 1898-99.
In consideration of these clues, it is entirely plausible Elgar applied Caesar’s encipherment method to the clefs used in the Enigma Theme. But how many letters should the clef letters be shifted, and in which direction? The most basic would be a shift of a single letter. A reverse shift is intimated by the Enigma Theme's position before Variation I, one step back before the first variation assigned a Roman numeral. Another coded intimation of a reverse shift is the Enigma Theme's ABA'C structure which is a phonetic spelling of aback, meaning "backward." The application of a Caesar shift of minus one to the clef letters CFG yields the three letters immediately preceding them in the alphabet, or BEF. Those plaintext solution letters are an anagram of the initials for Elgar’s covert Theme, Ein feste Burg. This outcome matches the letters encoded by the Enigma Theme Keys Cipher and over a dozen other cryptograms associated with the Enigma Variations.
The application of alternative alphabetical shifts to the clef letters produces some extraordinary results. A shift of five is suggested by Elgar’s initials because the fifth letter of the alphabet is E. That is also the first letter in the Theme's title, Enigma. A Caesar shift of plus five to the clef letters GCF yields a decryption of BXA. When treated as an anagram, they may be reshuffled to ABX which may be read phonetically as “A B(o)X.” Elgar’s personal correspondence bristles with phonetic spellings, and it is for this reason that phonetic decryptions must not be casually dismissed. The plaintext “A B(o)X” is significant because Elgar embedded within the Enigma’ Theme’s opening six measures a Music Box Cipher that encodes the entire twenty-four letters of the covert Theme’s complete six-word title as a grand anagram. It is telling that the opening six measures of the Enigma Theme are performed exclusively by the string section, an assortment of elaborate sound boxes.
There are 24 notes in the Violin I part for the Enigma Theme’s opening six bars. When the letters GCF are shifted by 24 letters, the plaintext results is IEH. These three letters are an anagram of ΙΗΣ, the first three letters in the Greek spelling for the Latinized rendering of Jesus (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ), the secret friend pictured in Variation XIII. In Latin, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ is spelled as IHSOUS, the source of the IHS insignia. There are twenty-four letters in the covert Theme’s complete title, a figure that is encoded extensively throughout the Enigma Theme. When the notehead totals from the Enigma Locks Cipher are applied in reverse to the alphabet (z = 1, y = 2, x = 3, etc...), the plaintext solution is an anagram of the letters LOJC. The word lo appears in the Bible and means to look at or gaze upon as in the phrase "Lo and behold." The initials JC represent Elgar's secret friend pictured in Variation XIII, Jesus Christ. Those same initials are transparently encoded by another elementary number-to-letter cipher using the Roman numerals (X = J, III = C). The application of an alternate Caesar shift to the Enigma Theme's clefs implicates the very same personage whose initials are encoded by a reverse decryption of the notehead totals found in the Enigma Locks Cipher. These matching decryptions serve as further confirmation that these cryptograms are accurate and authentic.
There are numerous cryptographic parallels between the Enigma Theme and the Mendelssohn fragments featured in Variation XIII. The Enigma Theme Clefs Cipher shares the same encryption method as the Mendelssohn Fragments Clefs Cipher. The decryption of the Enigma Locks Cipher led to the discovery of the Enigma Keys Cipher because locks are opened with keys. This, in turn, prompted a careful analysis of the clef letters associated with the Enigma Theme because the French word clef translates as key. The clef letters for the instruments which perform the Enigma Theme may be decrypted using a Caesar shift of minus one to disclose the initials (E. F. B.) for the covert Theme, Ein feste Burg. This solution matches that for the Enigma Keys Cipher and the Mendelssohn Fragments EFB Cipher. To learn more about one of Elgar's greatest symphonic achievements, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.