The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.
The British Romantic composer Edward Elgar composed a coruscating set of symphonic variations between October 1898 and July 1899 that is popularly known today as the Enigma Variations. The bulk of this orchestral tour de force was completed between October 21, 1898, and February 19, 1899. After the June 19 premiere under the Wagnerian protégé Hans Richter, Elgar appended 96 bars to the final movement in July 1899 to produce a more audacious and triumphant finish. At the end of the extended coda, he penned a quotation from stanza XIV of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” In Elgar’s case, Longfellow’s proclamation proved to be an acute understatement.
The Enigma Variations are puzzling for three overarching reasons. First, the famous melody that serves as the cornerstone of its foundation is absent and unheard. The Enigma Theme’s despondent and uplifting strains are a counterpoint to that renowned but secretive tune. Second, Elgar asserted the Enigma Theme harbors a “dark saying.” Those familiar with his lifelong obsession with cryptography—the art of encoding and decoding messages—reasonably interpret this cryptic phrase as an acknowledgment of a musical cipher ensconced within the Enigma Theme. Elgar’s nebulous language is code for a code because “dark” can mean hidden or secret, and a “saying” is a coherent series of words. Third, each movement is publicly dedicated to one of Elgar’s friends using their initials, name, or nickname with one notable exception. Variation XIII has in place of a friend’s initials three asterisks (* * *) in the form of hexagrammic stars. The Enigma Variations are then infused and confused by these three essential secrets: An absent melody, a coded message, and a mysterious friend.
Career academics throw up their hands and frontal cortices in capitulation when it comes to navigating Elgar’s labyrinthian schema of cloaked counterpoints, clandestine ciphers, and a covert confidant. Most insist that Elgar’s contrapuntal riddle is an impenetrable fortress as he allegedly took his secret to the grave. Michael Kennedy ruminates, “People have ingeniously been trying to guess the tune ever since, a harmless but pointless recreation since the secret, if there was one, died with him.” J. P. E. Harper-Scott echoes that staid opinion more a bit more flare:
Although human nature guarantees that attempts to solve it will never end until the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are on permanent display in the British Museum, they all somehow fail to convince. It is easy to carp, since the riddle cannot be answered now its perpetrator is dead, but the evidence supporting all of the ‘solutions’ is weak.
If besieged by such an impotent mindset, the British would have never cracked the Wehrmacht’s Enigma machine at Bletchley Park during World War II. That black box was christened Enigma by its inventor in honor of Elgar’s breakout symphonic coup. The truth is the British did not solve the Enigma cipher on their own. Without the advanced work and research of such brilliant Polish mathematicians as Marian Rejewski, they would have been grasping vainly in the dark to decrypt German secret communiques at the onset of hostilities. How ironic that the British academic establishment of yesteryear that so boldly attacked Germany’s military cipher with scant exception now sits idly behind a Maginot Line of impuissant ignorance waving the white flag of surrender.
Similar to white flags waving in the breeze, ocean waves whipped up by the winds are capped by white crests of frothing foam. Elgar invokes the sea in Variation XIII by quoting a four-note melodic fragment from Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt is the original German title drawn from two short poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a friend and patron of the youthful Mendelssohn. These Mendelssohn quotations are anomalous as they come from an extraneous work unrelated to the Enigma Theme and its ensuing movements. There are three Mendelssohn fragments enclosed by quotation marks because they mirror the major mode of the source melody. A fourth is devoid of quotations because it ventures into the minor mode.
Three Mendelssohn quotations are in the major mode with two in A-flat and one in E-flat. A fourth Mendelssohn fragment is in F minor. Those three key letters hold the proverbial key to unlocking the deeper significance of these anomalous melodic fragments because they are an anagram of a famous music cryptogram. The notes F-A-E are the motivic lynchpin of the F-A-E Sonata, a work for violin and piano composed in 1851 by Robert Schumann, his pupil Albert Dietrich, and Johannes Brahms, for their friend and famed violinist, Joseph Joachim. Those three note letters come from the initials of Joachim’s trademark maxim “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely) coined around 1851. The three cryptic asterisks in the title of Variation XIII cleverly allude to the F-A-E motif implicated by the key letters of the Mendelssohn fragments.
As a young man, Elgar lionized Schumann as “my ideal!” Schumann contributed a Romanze and Finale to the F-A-E Sonata. In a matching gesture, the last two movements of the Enigma Variations are subtitled Romanze and Finale respectively. Joachim was not a personal friend or even an acquaintance of Elgar’s when the Enigma Variations were conceived, ruling out that eminent violinist as the covert dedicatee. It is astonishing that tenured academics failed to detect the F-A-E music cryptogram hidden in plain sight by the key letters of the Mendelssohn fragments. Highly credentialed scholars like Julian Rushton missed the proverbial boat regarding the vital significance of these Mendelssohn incipits. Where one cryptogram is found, others are likely to follow. This is especially the case for an aficionado of ciphers like Elgar.
There is no question Elgar was an expert in cryptography, the practice of coding and decoding messages. His obsession with that esoteric art merits an entire chapter in Craig P. Bauer’s recently released book Unsolved! Much of that chapter is devoted to Elgar’s methodical decryption of an allegedly insoluble Nihilist cipher published by John Holt Schooling in an 1896 issue of The Pall Mall Magazine. Elgar was so pleased with his solution that he mentions it in his first biography published in 1905 by Robert J. Buckley. Elgar painted his solution in black paint on a wooden box and summarized his systematic decryption on a set of nine index cards. On the sixth card, he describes the process of cracking the cipher as “. . . working (in the dark).” This use of the word “dark” as a synonym for a cipher reinforces the conviction that the Enigma’s “dark saying” is a music cipher embedded within the Enigma Theme.
A decade of systematic analysis of the Enigma Variations has netted over seventy cryptograms in diverse formats that encode a set of mutually consistent and complementary solutions. While this figure may appear incredible, it is entirely consistent with a dominant facet of Elgar’s psychological profile—an obsession with ciphers. More significantly, their solutions provide definitive answers to the core questions posed by the Enigma Variations. What is the secret melody to which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint that serves as the foundation of the ensuing movements? Answer: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. What is Elgar’s “dark saying” hidden within the Enigma Theme? Answer: A musical Polybius box cipher contained in the opening six bars. Who is the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII? Answer: Jesus Christ, the Savior of Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith.
Elgar’s coded homage to Joachim in Variation XIII is cryptographically layered and efficient because it unveils multiple but relevant names associated with the secret melody and confidential friend. Joachim’s initials (J. J.) cleverly allude to the initials of the composer of the hidden theme because Martin Luther adopted the alias Junker Jörg (Knight George) while hiding out at Wartburg Castle from the pope’s assassins. Those same initials also implicate the name of the secret friend because the great contrapuntist Bach inscribed at the top of his scores the initials “J. J.” to denote the divine invocation “Jesu, Juva” which means “Jesus, help.” Joachim’s first name, Joseph, is also the same one shared by the stepfather of the secret friend.
Like the title of Mendelssohn’s overture, Joachim’s romantic motto is in the German language. One crucial implication of this linguistic convergence is that the title of the covert Theme must also be three words in German just like Joachim’s motto. The encoding of Joachim’s motto via the key letters of the Mendelssohn fragments further implies that Mendelssohn cites the famous covert Theme in one of his own compositions. By means of imitation, the name of a standard contrapuntal device, Elgar suggests that same condition by citing Mendelssohn so blatantly within the score. When contemplated within its orchestral context, the sum of those melodic fragments (4), as well as the total number of notes within each quotation (4), strongly implies that Mendelssohn cites the secret melody in the fourth movement of a symphony. All of these conditions are met by only one tune: Ein feste Burg by Martin Luther, a renowned hymn quoted by Mendelssohn in the fourth movement of his Reformation Symphony followed by a set of variations. Mendelssohn was a great proponent of Bach whose sacred cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott presents a set of ornate contrapuntal variations on that famous hymn that concludes with a sublime choral.
It is an indisputable fact that Elgar carefully studied the Polybius cipher because his personal library includes a series of articles published under the title “Secrets in Cipher” by John Holt Schooling in the April 1896 edition of The Pall Mall Magazine. Elgar’s unique contribution to cryptography was to adapt the Polybius cipher to music by fractionating plaintext through melody and bass note pairs. The term plaintext refers to the intelligible message to be transformed into ciphertext or other symbols through a process of encipherment. The solution to Elgar’s musical Polybius box cipher from the Enigma Theme is an elaborate anagram of the covert Theme’s 24-letter German title that produces phonetically spelled words and phrases in English, Latin, and what Elgar would have innocently believed was Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples) based on popular biblical commentaries of his day. Thanks to Daniel Estrin’s sleuthing, it was verified by a native speaker that the allegedly Aramaic word teni is actually Hebrew. This is the sacred language associated with Jesus and the biblical text.
The 24-letter plaintext solution is a grand anagram of the full German title of the covert Theme: Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott. The four languages Elgar utilized in this cryptogram are English, Latin, German, and what he thought was Aramaic. The decryptions from each of the six bars consist of four-letter groupings. This poses a numeric parallel with the Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII as there are four fragments, and each one has four notes. Those melodic incipits are performed above a pulsating ostinato that reprises the Enigma Theme’s palindromic rhythm of alternating pairs of eighth notes and quarter notes. Elgar’s use of four different languages was ostensibly intended to harden his cipher and foil decryption. Incredibly, these four languages are an acrostic anagram of “ELGAR” with the inclusion of the r in Aramaic.
Complete confidence may be vested in the solution to the Enigma Theme Polybius box cipher because Elgar stealthily autographed his handiwork with a second layer of encryption only detectable after the full solution of the first layer is realized. Elgar’s autograph authenticates the cipher and its resolution. A complete analysis of Enigma Theme Music Box Cipher delves into its many intriguing facets and connections to other cryptograms within the Enigma Variations.
There is another remarkable acrostic anagram associated with these four cipher languages as their first letters may be reshuffled as “ELAG”. That is a phonetic spelling of elegy. This mirrors the plaintext solution to bar 1 of the Enigma Theme because “GSUS” is a phonetic version of the secret friend’s first name, Jesus. When the languages from the full decryption are listed in order of appearance from bars 1 through 6 followed by the German from the anagrammatic solution, it produces the following list:
The first letters of those four languages are an acrostic anagram of “ELAGEEE”, another phonetic rendering of elegy. This finding is consistent with Elgar’s personal correspondence that bristles with inventive phonetic spellings.
Elegy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.” This meaning is apropos because the death of Elgar’s famous friend is memorialized in Variation XIII. In that movement, Elgar quotes a fragment from Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt) to portray a ship crossing the open sea. This sonic symbolism was inspired by the poetry of the famed German playwright Goethe whose seemingly benign image of a boat adrift on a windless sea depicts the stillness of death (Todestille). This cadaverous imagery is bolstered by the bass line in Variation XIII where four and five bars after Rehearsals 55 and 59 the notes spell “D-E-A-D”. Remarkably, this term also surfaces in Elgar’s solution (“He who fears is half dead”) to John Holt Schooling’s allegedly unbreakable Nihilist cipher published by The Pall Mall Magazine in April 1896.
The specter of death looms over the Enigma Variations. The six-word dedication begins with a homonym of dead, “Dedicated to my Friends pictured within.” The silence of the principal Theme is evocative of a passage from Psalm 31:17 that mentions the silence of the grave. For Elgar, there was an indelible link between music and death because as a boy he studied musical scores at a local churchyard while resting on a tombstone. In the original program note for the 1899 premiere of the Enigma Variations, Elgar likens the absent principal Theme to the mysterious protagonist who never appears onstage in various dramas by the Belgian playwright, Maeterlinck. That absent character is death, a central element in Maeterlinck’s works described as “marionette” plays as the characters rarely move.
Another definition of elegy is “a short pensive musical composition.” This is an apt characterization of the mood and length of the Enigma Theme at merely nineteen measures. The opening six bars of the Enigma Theme are scored solely for strings, a trait that emerges later in a brief work composed by Elgar in 1909 entitled Elegy. There is another remarkable link between the Enigma Theme Elegy Cipher and Variation XIV (E. D. U.). At the end of the extended Finale, Elgar cites a passage from stanza XIV of Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse: “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” Merriam-Webster defines elegiac as “of, relating to, or comprising elegy or an elegy.” Based on this newly emerged acrostic anagram from the languages found in the decryption of the Enigma Theme Polybius box cipher, it may be safely concluded that both the Enigma Theme and Variation XIII are musical elegies. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar's Enigmas Exposed.