Cracking a difficult cipher is akin to climbing a sheer cliff face: The cryptanalyst is seeking any nook or cranny that could provide the slightest foothold.
Simon Singh in The Code Breakers
The British Romantic composer Edward Elgar was obsessed with cryptography, the discipline of coding and decoding secret messages. His interest in that esoteric art merits an entire chapter in Craig P. Bauer’s treatise Unsolved! Much of the third chapter is devoted to Elgar’s brilliant decryption of an allegedly insoluble Nihilist cipher conveyed by John Holt Schooling in the April 1896 issue of The Pall Mall Magazine. Elgar was so delighted with his solution to Schooling’s reputedly insoluble cipher that he mentions it in his first biography published in 1905 by Robert J. Buckley. Elgar painted his decryption in black paint on a wooden box, an appropriate symbol as another name for the Polybius checkerboard is a box cipher. The six-word solution — “He who fears is half dead” — is summarized on a set of nine index cards.
A decade of concerted analysis of the symphonic Enigma Variations has netted over eighty cryptograms in diverse formats. These ciphers encode a set of mutually consistent and complementary solutions that furnish definitive answers to the core questions posed by the Enigma Variations. What is the secret melody to which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint and serves as the foundation of the ensuing movements? Answer: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. What is Elgar’s “dark saying” ensconced within the Enigma Theme? Answer: A musical Polybius box cipher embedded 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.
The Double Barlines “Dead” Cipher
A conspicuous feature of some cryptograms in the Enigma Variations is their proximity to double barlines, particularly those situated in unexpected or unusual places. A double bar signifies the end of a section or movement. The Enigma Theme has an oddly placed double bar line at the end of measure 6. The presence of a double bar line so close to the beginning of a movement is clearly anomalous. This condition also applies to the first bridge passage framed by an end bar line at the start of bar 18 and a double bar line at the end of bar 19. A section in classical music that smoothly transitions one movement into another is known as a bridge passage. The first bridge passage forms the concluding phrase of the iconic Enigma Theme. It begins at Rehearsal 2 and precedes Variation I (C. A. E.). It is highly unusual to observe two double bar lines and one end barline in less than twenty measures.
In all, there are three double barlines in the Enigma Theme. The first is a double bar between measures 6 and 7 that marks the end of Section A and the start of Section B. The next is an end barline between measures 17 and 18 that separates Section A’ from the bridge passage identified as Section C. The third is located between measures 19 and 20 to demarcate the Enigma Theme’s elaborated ending phrase from the start of Variation I. In all, there are three double barlines in the Enigma Theme with two double bars and one end bar. The three double barlines in the Enigma Theme correspond to the same number of bridge passages in the Enigma Variations and Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII.
There is an intriguing cryptogram formed by the three double barlines in the Enigma Theme. It is based on their first letters in order of appearance: Double, End, and Double. These three initials are an exact match for those at the beginning of the six-word dedication to the Enigma Variations, “Dedicated to my Friends pictured within.” The letters ded are an acronym for dedicated. Built within this solution is ED, a short form of Edward. Like a variety of other cryptograms in the Enigma Variations, Elgar signed the decryption.
It is far more significant that ded is a phonetic rendering of dead. This reading is warranted by Elgar’s personal correspondence that features inventive phonetic spellings. A coded reference to death intersects perfectly with the Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII that symbolize the “deathly stillness” of a calm sea. The implication of these quotations is that Elgar’s secret friend had died, a conclusion supported by the discovery that Elgar’s secret friend is Jesus, the Lord and Savior of his Roman Catholic faith. The numbering of fourteen of the Variations with Roman numerals I through XIV hints at the fourteen stations of the cross. There are precisely 33 characters in all of the Roman numerals for these fourteen movements. According to Roman Catholic tradition, Jesus was 33 years old when he traversed those fourteen stations of the cross on his way to Golgotha.
There are overt and covert references to death in the Enigma Variations. The silence of the principal Theme is evocative of a passage from Psalm 37:17 that mentions the silence of the grave. For Elgar, there was an indelible link between music and death because in his youth 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 on stage in dramas by the Belgian playwright, Maeterlinck. That absent character is death, a central element in Maeterlinck’s works characterized as “marionette” plays as the cast members rarely move.
In Variation XIII, Elgar repeatedly 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 (Todesstille). Goethe’s poetry served as the inspiration behind Mendelssohn’s concert overture by the same title that is anomalously cited four times by Elgar as four-note incipits. Buried in the lowest staff of the score, the bass section performs the consecutive notes “D-E-A-D” four measures after Rehearsal 55 (bars 496-497), and a second time four measures after Rehearsal 59 (bars 528-529).
The bass line literally spells out what Elgar sonically portrays through the Mendelssohn fragments. The discovery of this cryptogram sparked the detection and decryption of another related cipher. Variation XIII is set in the key of G major. The melodic intervals of the notes D, E, and A are 5, 6, and 2 respectively. When those melodic intervals are converted into their corresponding letters in the alphabet using a basic number-to-letter key (A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, etc.), they become E, F, and B. Those are the initials for the covert Theme, Ein feste Burg. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that this solution is dead on. The second spelling of “DEAD” concluding in bar 529 is conspicuous because contemporary sources in 1898 asserted that Martin Luther composed Ein feste Burg in the year 1529 for the Diet of Speyer.
Elgar completed the orchestration of the Enigma Variations on February 19, 1899, yet penned the wrong completion date on the Master Score as “FEb 18, 1898.” The shadow of death looms over this anomaly as February 18 marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s passing. At the end of the original Master Score, Elgar inscribed a paraphrase from Torquato Tasso's masterpiece Jerusalem Delivered. That epic Christian poem was published in 1581, yet Elgar incorrectly dated the paraphrase as 1595. The reason for the apparent error is that Tasso died in 1595. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar's Enigmas Exposed.
Soli Yah Gloria