Verily, no art is so damnably abused, as this glorious, holy Musica, who, in her delicate being, is so easily desecrated. Have you real talent,—real feeling for art? Then study music,—do something worthy of the art, —and dedicate your whole soul to the beloved saint.
The English composer Edward Elgar (1857–1934) revered the works of the American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Longfellow’s early poems and books glorify the Deutsche Romantik of Jean Paul (1763–1825), Goethe (1749–1832), and Hoffman (1776–1822). In his essay “Elgar and Longfellow” published in the April 2021 issue of The Elgar Society Journal, Arthur Reynolds explains how Elgar’s admiration for Longfellow was nurtured from early childhood by his mother. Ann Elgar inculcated her brood with Longfellow’s artistic weltanschauung through regular readings of his poetry and prose. Their esteem for that literary ambassador of Christianity was shared by such luminaries as Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin. Two years after Longfellow’s death, a memorial bust was erected in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey next to no less than Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400). By this act, Longfellow was symbolically canonized as one of history’s eminent artisans of the English language.
Longfellow’s stories and poems furnished Elgar with ample material for compositions produced between 1892 and 1903. The earliest is Spanish Serenade Op. 23, a piece for chorus and orchestra written in 1892 that employs a libretto from Act I of The Spanish Student. This was followed in 1893 by The Black Knight Op. 25, an oratorio that draws on Longfellow’s translation of Uhland’s “Der schwarze Ritter” from the novel Hyperion. Rondel Op. 16 No. 3 was composed in 1894, a song for voice and piano based on Longfellow’s translation of a French lyric poem by Jean Froissart (c. 1337–c. 1405). The Saga of King Olaf premiered in 1896, a cantata that sourced its text from Longfellow’s epic poem by the same title. Elgar completed his sacred oratorio The Apostles in 1903, a work partially inspired by Longfellow’s The Divine Tragedy (1871). That epic Christian poem forms a trilogy with The Golden Legend (1851) and The New England Tragedies (1868). These fusions of Elgar’s music with Longfellow’s text affirm Michael Pope’s conclusion that “...Longfellow possessed the imponderable spiritual qualities required to fire Elgar’s imagination.” Consequently, a familiarity with Longfellow’s works is a necessary prerequisite for more fully comprehending Elgar’s output.
Elgar was not planning to compose a coruscating set of symphonic variations in October 1898. He had a far more ambitious project in mind — a symphony in honor of the late General Charles George Gordon (1833–1885) who died heroically thirteen years prior at the Siege of Khartoum. Elgar proposed a symphony about that fallen general for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in September 1899. William H. Reed (1876–1942) recalls that during this period, Elgar was “. . . obsessed with the idea of writing a symphony, and just as Beethoven’s Eroica had a hero for its inspiration, so Elgar had a strong picture of Gordon in his mind, and meant to use the nobility of Gordon’s character as the central mood.” Such a project marked an escalation in Elgar’s artistic ambitions as he had never composed a symphony up to that point in his career. However, those plans proved premature as a decade would pass before he finally released his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major in 1908.
Elgar composed the Enigma Variations between 1898 and 1899. That extraordinary work catapulted him from provincial obscurity to international acclaim, transforming him from an itinerant music teacher to a celebrated composer. The original title on the autograph score is “Variations for orchestra composed by Edward Elgar Op. 36”. With the unconventional theme dubbed “Enigma”, the work is routinely referred to as the Enigma Variations. In the 1899 program note and other primary sources, Elgar explains the Theme is called “Enigma” because it is a counterpoint to a famous melody that is not heard but can play “through and over” the set of Variations. The secret tune is the cornerstone underlying the whole work, a subject that has provoked a dogged debate about the correct solution.
The conventional wisdom posits there is no answer by speculating that Elgar concocted the notion of an absent principal Theme as an afterthought, practical joke, or marketing gimmick. The editors of the Elgar Complete Edition of the Enigma Variations blithely deny the likelihood there could be any covert counterpoints or even cryptograms. Relying on Elgar’s recollection of playing new material at the piano to gauge his wife’s reaction, the editors tout the standard lore that he extemporized the idiosyncratic Enigma Theme mirabelle dictu without any forethought or planning:
There seems to have been no specific ‘enigma’ in mind at the outset: Elgar’s first playing of the music was hardly more than a running over the keys to aid relaxation. It was Alice Elgar’s interruption, apparently, that called him to attention and helped to identify the phrases which were to become the ‘Enigma’ theme. This suggests it is unlikely that the theme should conceal some counterpoint or cipher needed to solve the ‘Enigma’.
Such a blanket abnegation conveniently relieves them of any obligation to probe for ciphers or cryptograms. Proponents of such a crude denialism extol the validity of their position based on a dearth of evidence for which they never executed a diligent or impartial search. This ridiculous state of affairs is a textbook case of confirmation bias pawned off as scholarship.
The more sensible view (embraced by those who take Elgar at his published word) accepts the challenge that there is a famous melody lurking behind the Variations’ contrapuntal and modal facade. Regardless of what side is taken in this intractable debate, mainstream scholars insist the answer can never be known with certainty because Elgar allegedly took his secret to the grave in February 1934. The intellectual establishment presumes he never wrote down the solution for posterity to discover. Such a staid opinion glosses over or blatantly ignores Elgar’s documented obsession with cryptography. That incontestable facet of his psyche raises the prospect that the solution is meticulously encoded within Enigma Variations’ orchestral score.
A decade of trawling that sublime masterpiece of British symphonism has netted over one hundred cryptograms in diverse formats that encode a set of mutually consistent and complementary solutions. Although that figure may seem extraordinary, it is entirely consistent with Elgar’s lifelong fascination with ciphers. More significantly, the solutions give 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 melodic foundation for the ensuing movements? Answer: Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. What is the “dark saying” ensconced within the Enigma Theme? Answer: A musical Polybius box cipher embedded in its inaugural six bars cordoned off by a strangely positioned double barline. Who is the secret friend and inspiration behind Variation XIII? Answer: Jesus Christ, the Savior of Elgar’s Roman Catholic faith. The cryptographic evidence supporting these discoveries is diverse yet mutually consistent, multivalent, and decisive. Such a vast trove of cryptograms reveals that the Enigma Variations is Elgar’s musical homage to cryptography.
Elgar’s career as a composer was assured when the Wagnerian protégé Hans Richter (1843–1916) consented to conduct the London premiere of the Enigma Variations in June 1899. Following that triumph, Elgar was urged by Richter and August Jaeger (the dedicatee of Variation IV Nimrod) to expand the last movement. Elgar initially balked at this request. In a letter dated June 30, 1899, he wrote to Jaeger, “You won’t frighten me into writing a logically developed movement where I don’t want one by quoting other people! Selah!” Jaeger was privy to the secret melody and would have perceived Elgar’s allusion to the covert Theme because “Selah” appears at the end of verses 3, 7, and 11 of Psalm 46. Fortunately, Elgar soon relented and sketched a 96 bar extension to the Finale between June 30 and July 20. Maestro Leonard Slatkin does a masterful job comparing the original ending with the revised version. Elgar capped off his new ending with a quotation from the poem Elegiac Verse from Longfellow’s 1882 book In the Harbor: “Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.” Longfellow was clearly on Elgar’s mind when he put the finishing touches to the Enigma Variations in July 1899.
Richter’s endorsement of the Enigma Variations presented new opportunities for Elgar to compose more serious and large-scale works. As a token of his gratitude, Elgar presented Richter with a copy of Longfellow’s 1839 novel Hyperion: A Romance. In an October 1899 letter accompanying the book, Elgar explained, “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.” Richter’s limited command of English prevented him from appreciating the invaluable contents of Elgar’s gift. Little did the Maestro realize that ensconced within the pages of that novel are the answers to Elgar’s enigmas. Hyperion furnishes the title of the covert principal Theme, the name of its composer, and the identity of Elgar’s anonymous friend depicted in Variation XIII. Remarkably, Elgar encoded the initials of Ein feste Burg as an acrostic anagram on the last page of the extended Finale.
Hyperion is far from a “little book” as it consists of four parts with a total of 36 chapters. In a striking coincidence (if one may call it that), the opus number of the Enigma Variations is also 36. Where should one search for answers to Elgar’s enigmas in the pages of Hyperion? The citation from Longfellow’s Elegiac Verse at the conclusion of the Finale answers that question by magnifying the ending over the beginning. Applying this insight to Hyperion takes us to the ending in Chapter IX The Last Pang from Book IV. In those concluding pages, the protagonist Paul Flemming attends a service at the nearby cathedral:
He was still sitting at breakfast in his chamber, the next morning, when the great bell of the cathedral opposite began to ring, and reminded him that it was Sunday. Ere long the organ answered from within, and from its golden lips breathed forth a psalm. The congregation began to assemble, and Flemming went up with them to the house of the Lord. In the body of the church he found the pews all filled or locked; they seemed to belong to families. He went up into the gallery, and looked over the psalm-book of a peasant, while the congregation sang the sublime old hymn of Martin Luther,
“Our God, he is a tower of strength,
A trusty shield and weapon.”
The psalm emanating from the organ is Luther’s “sublime old hymn” Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress). One may be forgiven for not recognizing this title due to Longfellow’s idiosyncratic translation of the opening lines from Psalm 46. In place of the more familiar phrase, “A mighty fortress is our God,” Longfellow offers the more poetic version, “Our God, he is a tower of strength.” The singular form psalm appears three times in Hyperion, and its plural form five times. As intimated by the quotation from Elegiac Verse, the key to untangling Elgar’s contrapuntal Gordian knot is to consult the ending of Hyperion where the reader encounters the name “Martin Luther” and the title of his most famous hymn. It is significant that no other song or composer is mentioned in this final chapter.
Coded clues in the Enigma Variations allude to Longfellow and his novel Hyperion. The most direct is the quotation from Elegiac Verse at the end of the expanded Finale. An even more revealing hint is the Italian subtitle for Variation XIII — Romanza. The English translation of that subtitle is the third word in the title Hyperion: A Romance. On the earliest short score sketch, Elgar identified Variation XIII with a solitary capital “L.”
It is remarkable that Longfellow’s earliest published works were identified in precisely the same manner. In the same year that Hyperion was published, The Knickerbocker Magazine featured Longfellow’s poem The Reaper and the Flowers under the title A Psalm of Death. It was accompanied by A Second Psalm of Life later renamed The Light of Stars. In lieu of Longfellow’s name, these poems were attributed to “L.” The original titles of these early poems make repeated use of the term Psalm.
Prior research determined that proximate title letters from the Enigma Variations produce anagrams that unveil the identity of the covert melody and anonymous friend. This same encipherment technique also generates coded references to Hyperion. Paul Flemming is the protagonist who embarks on a tour of Germany and Switzerland as a salve for the loss of a dead friend. It is feasible to spell out “Paul Flemming” using adjacent title letters of the Enigma Variations. Proximate title letters from Variations V and VI spell "PAVl", a Latinized rendering of Paul due to the equivalence of the letters U and V. Elgar studied Latin at three Roman Catholic schools between the age of 5 and 15, and attended Latin Mass throughout his life.
Adjacent title letters in Variations XII, XIII, and XIV permit a spelling of "FlEmING", a phonetic realization of Flemming. It is conspicuous that Flemming intersects with Romanza, the Italian word for "Romance" which appears in the title Hyperion: A Romance.
The viability of this reading is enhanced by Elgar's use of phonetic spellings in his personal correspondence. Some notable examples are listed below:
- Bizziness (business)
- çkor (score)
- cszquōrrr (score)
- fagotten (forgotten)
- FAX (facts)
- frazes (phrases)
- gorjus (gorgeous)
- phatten (fatten)
- skorh (score)
- SSCZOWOUGHOHR (score)
- Xmas (Christmas)
- Xqqqq (Excuse)
- Xti (Christi)
It is also feasible to spell “Hyperion” as an anagram using single letters from the titles of Variations I through VIII. The uniform yet seemingly random dispersion of these letters among the opening eight variations could suggest Flemming’s wanderings through Europe.
The death of an unnamed friend spurs Longfellow’s doppelgӓnger Flemming to wander Germany and Switzerland in Hyperion. Death is also explored in Longfellow's early poems The Reaper and the Flowers and The Light of Stars. Elgar depicts death in Variation XIII by citing a melodic incipit from Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage to represent a calm sea. The overture was inspired by Goethe’s poem Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt that equates a calm sea to death with the grim declaration, “Todestille fürchterlich!” (Terrifying deathly stillness!). Elgar’s portrayal of death may be reasonably interpreted as representing the death of his anonymous friend. Like the covert Theme and its composer, the identity of this deceased friend is alluded to in the last chapter of Hyperion. For instance, Flemming observes “large crucifixes” at the entrances of towns and villages as he travels by carriage from Munich through Augsburg and Ulm towards Stuttgart.
The Enigma Variations are dedicated to Elgar’s friends whom he identifies by their initials, name, or pseudonym. The only exception is Variation XIII where he substitutes three hexagrammic stars in place of the mysterious friend’s initials. The distinctive shape of these stars on the Master Score is faithfully retained in the published edition.
These asterisks are the Star of David formed by merging two equilateral triangles. Elgar’s use of this particular star furnishes a glaring clue about the identity of his secret friend because one of the messianic titles for Christ is the Son of David (see Matthew 21:9). The word “stars” appears 34 times in Hyperion, often within a Christian context. The following excerpt from Book II Chapter X The Parting presents an apt illustration, “Beneath them, in the shadow of the hills, lay the valley, like a fathomless, black gulf; and above were the cloistered stars, that, nun-like, walk the holy aisles of heaven.” Another passage in Book III Chapter I Summer-Time reinforces the association between stars and Christianity:
“There take thy stand, my spirit;—spread
The world of shadows at thy feet;
And mark how calmly overhead,
The stars, like saints in glory, meet.
While, hid in solitude sublime,
Methinks I muse on Nature's tomb,
And hear the passing foot of Time
Step through the silent gloom.”
In these two excerpts from Hyperion, Longfellow likens stars to nuns and saints, those redeemed by the atonement of Christ at Calvary. There are numerous biblical associations between Jesus and stars. The Star of Bethlehem was a prophetic sign that led the wise men from the East to the birthplace of Christ where they worshiped him and gave him gifts. In Revelation 1:16, Jesus is described as holding seven stars in his right hand. In Revelation 22:16, Jesus calls himself “the bright morning star.” The enigmatic asterisks in the title for Variation XIII are infused with theological references to Christ.
The lyrics of Luther’s most renowned hymn settle the debate about the identity of Elgar’s secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII. In the second stanza of Ein feste Burg, Luther’s holy hero is announced in the original German lyrics as, “Er heißt Jesus Christ.” The English translation is, “He is called Jesus Christ.” When Elgar gave Richter that book, he literally gave away the answers to his enigmas.
Martin Luther is mentioned six times in Hyperion. The first is in the form of a question where Flemming asks what would be the fame of Germany “. . . without her Martin Luther, her Goethe, and her Schiller?” The second is where Flemming confidently asserts, “I think the name Martin Luther, the monk of Wittenberg, alone sufficient to redeem all monkhood from the reproach of laziness.” The third describes Flemming passing, “. . . a ruined house where Martin Luther lay concealed after the diet of Worms . . .” Luther famously appeared at the 1521 Diet of Worms where he was charged with heresy for posting his Nine-five Theses. In the fourth reference to Luther, Fleming ponders “. . . the days, when, from that old pulpit, some bold reformer thundered down the first tidings of a new doctrine, and the roof echoed with the grand old hymn of Martin Luther.” The fifth time is by Brother Bernadus who describes Luther, Melancthon, and Calvin as “great men.” The sixth and final mention is in the concluding chapter where Flemming listens to the congregation sing Luther’s “sublime old hymn” Ein feste Burg. The theme of the sermon that followed was the Reformation.
Hyperion is not the only work in which Longfellow extols the virtues of Martin Luther and his greatest hymn. In his 1845 anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe, Longfellow devotes a section to Martin Luther and Thomas Carlyle’s 1831 translation of the hymn Ein feste Burg. In Christus: A Mystery, Longfellow penned a Second Interlude about Martin Luther hiding out at Wartburg Castle. Longfellow mingles his poetry with each stanza of Ein feste Burg in a glowing tribute to the great German Reformer. Luther’s hideout is also mentioned in Hyperion.
The name of Elgar’s anonymous friend “Jesus” appears four times in Hyperion. The first is as “Jesus of Nazareth” in Chapter II The Christ of Andernach. As Flemming walks the narrow streets, he encounters a grisly spectacle:
Suddenly, on turning the corner of an ancient, gloomy church, his attention was arrested by a little chapel in an angle of the wall. It was only a small thatched roof, like a bird's nest; under which stood a rude wooden image of the Saviour on the Cross. A real crown of thorns was upon his head, which was bowed downward, as if in the death agony; and drops of blood were falling down his cheeks, and from his hands and feet and side. The face was haggard and ghastly beyond all expression; and wore a look of unutterable bodily anguish. The rude sculptor had given it this, but his art could go no farther. The sublimity of death in a dying Saviour, the expiring God-likeness of Jesus of Nazareth was not there. The artist had caught no heavenly inspiration from his theme. All was coarse, harsh, and revolting to a sensitive mind; and Flemming turned away with a shudder, as he saw this fearful image gazing at him, with its fixed and half-shut eyes.
Elgar captures a “heavenly inspiration” from his divine “theme” in Variation XIII. That movement is riddled with cryptograms that authenticate Jesus as the secret friend. The Roman numerals are a simple number-to-letter cipher (X = 10, III = 3) that transparently encode the initials for Jesus Christ (10 = J, 3 = C). The opening two melody notes are G descending to D, a phonetic rendering of God. Its marine atmosphere alludes to the Sign of Jonah invoked by Jesus when challenged by the authorities to confirm his heavenly mandate (see Matthew 12:38-42).
The second time the secret friend’s name appears in Hyperion is as “Jesus of Jerusalem” in Chapter III Homunculus from Book I. Merriam-Webster defines a homunculus as “a little man” or “manikin.” An ancient ruin admonishes Flemming about the dangers of dreams, illusions, and the “solemn deceivings of thy vast desires” with the following recollection:
“In ancient times there dwelt within these halls a follower of Jesus of Jerusalem,—an Archbishop in the church of Christ. He gave himself up to dreams; to the illusions of fancy; to the vast desires of the human soul. He sought after the impossible. He sought after the Elixir of Life,--the Philosopher's Stone. The wealth, that should have fed the poor, was melted in his crucibles. Within these walls the Eagle of the clouds sucked the blood of the Red Lion, and received the spiritual Love of the Green Dragon, but alas! was childless. In solitude and utter silence did the disciple of the Hermetic Philosophy toil from day to day, from night to night. From the place where thou standest, he gazed at evening upon hills, and vales, and waters spread beneath him; and saw how the setting sun had changed them all to gold, by an alchymy more cunning than his own. He saw the world beneath his feet; and said in his heart, that he alone was wise. Alas! he read more willingly in the book of Paracelsus, than in the book of Nature; and, believing that `where reason hath experience, faith hath no mind,' would fain have made unto himself a child, not as Nature teaches us, but as the Philosopher taught,—a poor homunculus, in a glass bottle. And he died poor and childless!”
The third time is to the “beautiful Lord Jesus” in Chapter VIII Footprints of Angels from Book IV. This is soon followed by the fourth and final mention as simply Jesus. In this chapter, Flemming attends the funeral of an infant who died shortly after birth:
It was Sunday morning; and the church bells were all ringing together. From all the neighbouring villages, came the solemn, joyful sounds, floating through the sunny air, mellow and faint and low,—all mingling into one harmonious chime, like the sound of some distant organ in heaven. Anon they ceased; and the woods, and the clouds, and the whole village, and the very air itself seemed to pray, so silent was it everywhere.Two venerable old men,—high priests and patriarchs were they in the land,—went up the pulpit stairs, as Moses and Aaron went up Mount Hor, in the sight of all the congregation,—for the pulpit stairs were in front, and very high.Paul Flemming will never forget the sermon he heard that day,—no, not even if he should live to be as old as he who preached it. The text was, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." It was meant to console the pious, poor widow, who sat right below him at the foot of the pulpit stairs, all in black, and her heart breaking. He said nothing of the terrors of death, nor of the gloom of the narrow house, but, looking beyond these things, as mere circumstances to which the imagination mainly gives importance, he told his hearers of the innocence of childhood upon earth, and the holiness of childhood in heaven, and how the beautiful Lord Jesus was once a little child, and now in heaven the spirits of little children walked with him, and gathered flowers in the fields of Paradise. Good old man! In behalf of humanity, I thank thee for these benignant words! And, still more than I, the bereaved mother thanked thee, and from that hour, though she wept in secret for her child, yet“She knew he was with Jesus,And she asked him not again.”After the sermon, Paul Flemming walked forth alone into the churchyard. There was no one there, save a little boy, who was fishing with a pin hook in a grave half full of water. But a few moments afterward, through the arched gateway under the belfry, came a funeral procession. At its head walked a priest in white surplice, chanting. Peasants, old and young, followed him, with burning tapers in their hands. A young girl carried in her arms a dead child, wrapped in its little winding sheet. The grave was close under the wall, by the church door. A vase of holy water stood beside it. The sexton took the child from the girl's arms, and put it into a coffin; and, as he placed it in the grave, the girl held over it a cross, wreathed with roses, and the priest and peasants sang a funeral hymn. When this was over, the priest sprinkled the grave and the crowd with holy water; and then they all went into the church, each one stopping as he passed the grave to throw a handful of earth into it, and sprinkle it with holy water.
Longfellow’s likening of the two elderly priests to the Old Testament prophets Moses and Aaron is relevant because the Enigma Variations furnish a subtle link to Aaron. Variation VI has the biblical title Ysobel, the name of Aaron’s wife that translates into English as Elizabeth. That movement is dedicated to Elgar’s viola pupil, Isabel Fitton, whose first name is a Spanish derivation of Ysobel. The main motive of her variation represents a string “crossing” exercise. The ritual of “crossing” oneself is practiced by various Christian denominations, most notably Roman Catholic and Lutheran. Elgar was born, educated, married, and buried as a Roman Catholic. Martin Luther, a renegade Roman Catholic priest, founded the Lutheran Church. There are coded references to crossing within the Enigma Variations. Remarkably, Longfellow’s Cross is enciphered by proximate title letters in Variations XIII and XIV.
Jesus is commonly known by the title Christ which means “anointed one.” Like the twelve disciples, “Christ” appears a dozen times in Hyperion. In that same novel, Jesus is referred to as Lord.
There is an ancillary explanation for why Elgar gave Richter a copy of Hyperion. The name “Richter” appears in that novel in connection with the German romantic writer Jean Paul Richter. Usually referred to as “Jean Paul,” Richter is mentioned half a dozen times in Hyperion. Like Jean Paul, Hans Richter was an artist and tireless champion of German romanticism. Robert Schumann venerated the works of Jean Paul as documented by Robert L. Jacobs’ essay Schumann and Jean Paul. During a visit to Leipzig in 1882, Elgar described Schumann as “my ideal” composer. Jean Paul lived and worked in Bayreuth, the same town where Richter famously conducted the Ring Cycle at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876.
Elgar's presentation of Longfellow's Hyperion to Hans Richter proves to be a brilliant use of literature. That novel furnishes three key pieces of information about the Enigma Variations:
A careful study of that romantic novel permits one to look behind the curtain of Elgar’s public persona and glimpse his inner world. When asked by a German stranger if he understood the works of Jean Paul, Fleming answered, “If at once you understand an author’s character, the comprehension of his writings becomes easy.” The same insight applies with equal force to Elgar. To learn more concerning the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.