Thursday, August 18, 2011


The Elgar regal enigma

Brian Colless

In 1899 Edward Elgar published his orchestral masterpiece known as Enigma Variations, or Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), bearing the inscription "Dedicated to my friends pictured within".1 The "enigma" of the title apparently refers to the theme itself, and of it Elgar said: "The enigma I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed." And he added: "further, through and over the set another and larger theme 'goes' but is not played.... So the principal theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on the stage".Elgar has thus disclosed the existence of another theme running through his theme and variations; and it has been widely assumed that the enigma theme was created as a counterpoint to this mysterious melody. Tradition has it that Elgar also confessed that it was a tune everybody knew.
            The composer may also be telling us, I suggest, that the unplayed theme represents "the chief character" among the "friends pictured within", to whom the work is dedicated. I have long suspected that Elgar had a member of the royal family in mind, someone he could not with propriety claim as a friend, but a noble personage for whom he nonetheless felt admiration and affection. This person could have been Prince Albert Edward (1841-1910), who was to become King Edward VII in 1901, and who classed Elgar as his favourite composer. In this case "God bless the Prince of Wales" might be the tune we are seeking. However, I think we should "look higher", to use Elizabeth Barrett Browning's words, in Elgar's Sea Pictures, Opus 37.
            The Enigma Variations were composed between October 1898 and February1899, as Opus 36. Elgar's Opus 35 was Caractacus (1898), written in the wake of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897), and fervently dedicated to her. Elgar was thus aspiring to be purveyor of music to the Sovereign, long before he was officially appointed, in 1924, as Master of the King's Musick.
            The case to be argued here is that the additional, unplayed, familiar theme is "God save the Queen", and "the chief character" among the portraits is Victoria Regina. A commonly held view is that the Enigma theme represents Elgar himself. However, it is firmly established that the final (fourteenth) variation is his self-portrait; it is designated "E.D.U.", a cryptogram for "Edu" or "Edoo", the nickname his wife Alice gave him. Hers is the first variation, "C.A.E.", "Caroline Alice Elgar", and she was present at the birth of the theme, when her husband was improvising at his piano. This theme is clearly stated in the C.A.E. and E.D.U. variations, and it seems to belong to both of them, Edward and Alice alike.
            The first four notes of the enigma theme (2 quavers, 2 crotchets) would certainly allow the name "Edward Elgar" to be sung to them, as Michael Kennedy has noted.3  (As a possible analogy, I  think Rakhmaninov puts his signature, a four-note motif, at the end of some of the movements in his symphonies and concertos.) "Alice Elgar" would also fit here, but "Queen Victoria" is equally possible, as well as an innumerable host of other names.
            Many tunes have been proposed as candidates for the companion theme. "Auld Lang Syne", with its plea that old acquaintance(s) should not be forgotten, is a seductive siren in this regard, but Elgar specifically rejected this solution. "Rule, Britannia" and the National Anthem have also been proposed, but not generally accepted. Nevertheless, I consider that from historical and musical points of view "God save the Queen" is a reasonable choice. It has regularly provided a basis for variations. For example, in the pianistic duel between Sigismond Thalberg and Franz Liszt, in 1837, Thalberg performed a fourteen-minute "Fantasia on God Save The Queen" (Opus 27). More significantly, on one occasion Elgar set it as counterpoint to the 5/4 melody (second movement) in Tchaikovsky's Symphonie Pathétique. In June 1897 Elgar had found difficulty in playing the bass part of the 5/4 movement in a piano duet; and when Frederick George Edwards (editor of Novello's Musical Times) printed several skits on the National Anthem for the Queen's Jubilee year, Elgar sent him this humorous exercise, setting the anthem against the Tchaikovsky 5/4 tune.4  The plaintive Enigma theme seems to belong to the world of the Pathétique symphony, just as the Nimrod variation is closely associated with Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, and this could well be a vital clue. When Elgar used the Enigma theme again, in The Music Makers (Opus 69), he avowed that in both settings it "expressed" and "embodied" his "sense of the loneliness of the artist"5. So we must accept that something of Elgar the person is contained in the Enigma theme. Brian Trowell contrasts the melancholic Edward Elgar of the theme with "the almost military determination of the Finale" (the confident, vigorous E.D.U.). 6
            Trowell has adumbrated a solution to the enigma along those lines.7 He believes that Elgar would originally have written the theme ("the me?", Trowell speculates) in the key of E minor (which Elgar elsewhere used for depicting himself); the companion theme would simply be six bars of octave EE semibreves, if the Enigma theme is transposed down to E minor (from G minor). Elgar often employed an octave E as a rebus. His publisher Jaeger (of Nimrod fame) called Elgar "the octave" and "a teazer yclept E.E.". Dora Penny (Dorabella, Variation X) also recorded the fact that Elgar was known as E.E., and Elgar had said to her that she "of all people" should have guessed the solution; Jaeger declined to reveal the secret to her, because "the dear E.E. did make me promise not to tell you".
            Another person is brought into the picture in Trowell's reconstruction, namely Helen Weaver, Elgar's first fiancée, now thought to be the subject of the heart-rending Romanza (Variation XIII, entitled * * * and commonly understood as representing Lady Mary Lygon).8  Trowell points out that if the Enigma theme is played in E major (E for Elgar), the first two bars will have an octave EE in the bass, while the second two bars have a B, that is, H (in German notation), presumably standing for Helen. Variation XIII transposed into E major would begin E, H (Edward, Helen); the Finale would have EHE HEH EHE HEH EHE, and Trowell cites the illuminating analogy of HEEC in a letter of Elgar (Harriet Cohen embracing Edward Elgar).9 
            In discussing the place of Helen Weaver in the Enigma theme and variations, Trowell considers the use of a quotation from Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage".10  This motif would depict the sea voyage made by Helen Weaver when she emigrated to New Zealand (though ostensibly representing Lady Mary's trip to Australia), and also Elgar's longing for his distant beloved. Significantly, it recurs in the Finale, where it plays a dominant role. Elgar converted it into a new triumphant figure by adding an extra note and displacing the rhythm; he disguised it (after its first appearance) by crossing the parts among the upper strings (as Tchaikovsky did in the last movement of his Pathétique symphony, a work which we have already mentioned in connection with Elgar's 1897 parody of the National Anthem). I will argue here that Elgar followed the same procedure so as to incorporate "God Save the Queen" into his Enigma theme. It should be noted that if this theme is transposed into E minor, according to Trowell's prescription, we see a key signature of one sharp (F#), as for G major, the key in which "God Save the Queen" is usually sung.
            I proceed further on my quest, comforted and inspired by the words of Trowell himself: "there is rarely a single, simple solution to any Elgarian mystery".11 If (as Trowell postulates) the Violin Concerto can enshrine the soul of not only Elgar himself but also Helen Weaver, Alice Stuart Wortley, and Julia Worthington, then the Enigma theme can encompass Edward Elgar, Alice Elgar, Helen Weaver, and even Queen Victoria, as important parts of the composer's life. And while the supposed six bars of octave EE may well have been in Elgar's mind (apparently he teasingly disclosed this detail to Jaeger), we are still at liberty to seek, in his own words, "another and larger theme"
            Does the National Anthem match the structure of Elgar's enigmatic theme? The normal form for a tune is sixteen bars, in two sections of eight bars, or four sections of four bars. Elgar's theme has six bars in G minor, followed by an interlude of four bars in G major, six bars of restatement in G minor, and a final bar in the major (a total of seventeen bars, in ABA form). Rosa Burley, a confidante of the composer, was not given the answer (though she once jokingly claimed to be the theme itself, when asked by one of the 'variants' whether she too was one of the variations).12  She declares that to find a solution one would need to "discover another tune based on the same bizarre scheme" (six plus four plus six).13 The British national anthem certainly has a different shape: six bars, then eight, making fourteen bars in all, normally in the key of G major. However, Ian Parrott points out that Elgar originally had eight bars for the middle section, but reduced it to four.14  Parrott likewise regards the six bars of the first part (for some reason followed by a double bar line) as an unusual number. Could it be that Elgar decided to reduce the eight bars to four because his mystery would be too easily solved, with a combination of six bars and eight bars, exactly as in the national anthem?
            A notable difference between the two pieces is the time: Elgar's theme is 4/4, while the anthem is 3/4. Yet it is striking that Elgar's tune is made up of six fragments, each having three beats, stretching over six bars (the first violins are silent on the first beat of each bar). Nevertheless, I submit that if we are to find the royal hymn hidden here, we must also look in the gaps, which are filled  by the lower strings (viola and violoncello).
            One more piece of circumstantial evidence can be adduced here. In 1902, early in the reign of King Edward VII, Novello published a choral version of "God save the King", "arranged by Edward Elgar". For the key signature, instead of one sharp indicating the expected G major, we find two flats, precisely as in the Enigma theme, though this time the key is obviously not G minor but B flat major. In my opinion, Elgar has inserted the sequence of notes (with only one exception and with a few intrusions) which make up the first part of "God save the Queen" (in B flat major) into the score of the first section of his Enigma theme (in G minor).
            I will now attempt to describe the situation diagrammatically and verbally (the reader may also wish to refer to the score at this point). The following diagram shows the correspondences between Elgar's version of the anthem (3/4) and the enigma theme (4/4):
1             2                    3            4              5                         6
Bb Bb C | A   Bb   C  | D D Eb  | D  C Bb |           C  Bb   A | Bb

1                 2             3             4                5        6               7
     Bb C A  |              |    D        |( )       Bb  |(D)   |     Bb - A |  B
Bb      C      | Bb - C -| D    Eb -| - - C         |         |  C

            The opening phrase ("God save our gracious Queen") emerges as follows: the first Bb ('God') is sounded on the violas; the second Bb ('save') is with the first violins (followed by an intrusive quaver G); the C ('our') is given out by the first violins and the violas; the A ('gra-'), first beat in the second bar, is provided by the first violins as the fourth beat in bar one; the Bb ('‑cious') is heard in the cellos, on the first beat in the second bar; the C ('Queen') appears in the cello line on the third beat of the second bar, and also as the final quaver in that bar (first violins)
            The second phrase ("long live our noble Queen") has one note missing, and this may be taken as verification of Elgar's assertion that the underlying theme is never played: the first D ('long'), at the commencement of bar three in each case, is in the second violin and cello parts; the second D ('live') is sounded by the first violins, as a quaver at the end of the second beat in bar three; the Eb ('our') is down with the violoncelli on the third beat; the D ('no‑') does not occur, either on the last beat of bar three or on the first beat of bar four (though in the fifth bar, which simply "marks time" in the progression of the overriding theme, there are three D's on the third beat); the C ('‑ble') is in the cello line (third beat); the Bb ('Queen') is in the first violins at the end of bar four.
            The third line ("God save the Queen") is in the sixth and seventh bars (bar five adds nothing here): the C ('God') is in the viola part; the Bb ('save') is the first violins' first note in bar six, on the second beat; the A ('the') is on the fourth beat, in the first violins; the Bb ('Queen') is modified to B natural, on the first beat of bar seven.
            The origin of the interlude, which consists of four bars in G major, can be found in the run of four quavers on the second and third beats of the sixth bar of the anthem: the very same sequence (GABC in the G major setting) is played by the second violins, and the strings vamp on this motif. The first flute has a D in the second bar of this section (the expected note for "Send her victor‑"), but I cannot detect the rest of the anthem here. The words could, however, be fitted to the constant crotchet-quaver-quaver pattern (eight times).
            The second statement of the theme (again in G minor) has some different harmonies, and the initial Bb ('God') is missing (the bass lines have G, for God?). The bassi now have the notes missing from the top line in bars 2-4 (previously provided by the violoncelli), though the D for 'no(-ble)' at the beginning of bar four (here bar fourteen) is lacking again. There is a new feature in bar sixteen of the theme: while the first violins (assisted by the cellos) are playing "God save the" of the original's bar five (C Bb A), the second violins have exactly the right notes (Bb major) for the final "God save the" (bar thirteen of the original), that is, GFEb ('God') D ('save') C ('the'). For the word "Queen" in both cases the Bb becomes B natural, as occurred previously, in bar seven.
            The question now needs to be asked, whether this solution is compatible with one proposed by Ian Parrott, or whether the two are mutually exclusive. Parrott has offered an intriguing explanation of the title "Enigma", and also of the larger theme that "goes".15 "The enigma I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed", Elgar said. The word "enigma" (Greek ainigma, Latin aenigma), which means "a riddle, a dark saying", occurs in the New Testament once, in a mystical utterance of Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12): "We now see in a mirror, in an enigma (or: enigmatically, dimly), but then face to face" (my translation). Parrott has confirmed that Elgar went to a Catholic church on the Sunday when this Epistle would have been read out (12 February 1899), and Elgar completed the orchestration in that month. For Parrott this means that the friends would see themselves through these variations, but enigmatically. And it is an interesting coincidence, Parrott notes, that there are thirteen friends, and 1 Corinthians 13 has thirteen verses.
            Parrott's explanation of Elgar's words to Dora Penny (Dorabella, Variation X),  "I thought you of all people would guess it", is that her father being a clergyman she should recognize the Bible reference. Yet  Dora was convinced that "the Enigma was concerned with a tune", and when it was revealed it would be obvious.16 Michael Kennedy suggests Doh-ray (from Dora) as a possibility for Elgar's meaning.17  If this were so, then "God save the Queen" would be a suitable candidate, since it begins Do-Do-Re, with the very stutter that is supposed to characterize Dorabella in her variation.
            For the mystery of the "larger theme", Parrott directs our attention to variation XI (G.R.S.), representing George Robertson Sinclair, an organist who had the reputation of never playing a wrong pedal note. The second and third bars are consigned solely to bassoons and double basses, and this was immediately taken as representing Sinclair's skill on the pedal-board (the tempo is allegro di molto). To this Elgar retorted that the variation "has nothing to do with organists or cathedrals", but simply portrays Sinclair's bulldog falling into the river (bar 1), "paddling upstream" (2-3), and "his rejoicing bark on landing" (second half of bar 5). Sinclair had challenged Elgar to set this incident to music, and this was the result. Nevertheless, Parrott insists that the two bass bars, which have the first sixteen notes of the theme on sixteen successive staccato quavers, do refer to organ pedalling. Moreover, he cites a number of examples of G minor works by Bach, which anticipate the style of Elgar's motif. Parrott concludes that Bach was the inspiration behind the theme for the variations.
            Parrott reminds us that Elgar went out of his way to visit Bach's birthplace in 1902; and Elgar and Sinclair were both enthusiasts for his music. It should be added that Jerrold Northrop Moore tells of a musical pun devised by Elgar in 1866 (aged 8): four staves, each with a different clef, their middle notes spelling out BACH.18 Consequently, we should ask here whether Dan the bulldog's "bark" was a verbal pun on the name Bach. I suspect that we have a reference not only to a dog "paddling" and a "bark", but also to an organist "pedalling" and playing "Bach". 
            However, Bach is not the theme that "goes". If we allow that Nimrod (Variation IX) carries an allusion to a conversation Elgar had with A. J. Jaeger on Beethoven's slow movements, and that Nimrod's first thee bars are based on the Adagio cantabile theme of the Pathétique Sonata (as acknowledged by Elgar himself),19 then it is possible that Elgar is here not only paying homage to his friend Jaeger but also to Beethoven. Similarly, G. R. S. (Variation XI) not only memorializes G. R. Sinclair and his dog Dan, but also Bach. By the same token, the Enigma theme, including its harmonies, pays tribute to Queen Victoria, being a variation on "God save the Queen".
There is also an allusion to Mendelssohn in Variation XIII, as we have seen, and he was a musician to whom Queen Victoria never had occasion to say: "We are not amused".
            My thesis is, therefore, that "the chief character" among the "friends pictured within", who "is never on the stage", and whose theme "is not played", is Victoria Regina. The anthem is certainly "not played", in its entirety, but it is presented in a distorted, fractured, and dislocated state. Distorted, having its time changed from 3/4 to 4/4; fractured, being broken into pieces; dislocated, with the fragments distributed among the orchestral parts.
            Unfortunately, my solution is in conflict with Elgar's reply to Arthur Troyte Griffith (Troyte, Variation VII), when asked whether it was "God save the King": "No, of course not; but it is so well known that it is extraordinary that no one has spotted it".20 (In responding to this, we must remember that we are dealing with the man who denied that the Sinclair Variation had anything to do with organists.) The first part can easily be countered: not God save the King, but God save the Queen. The second statement could belong to the category of protesting too much, or else Elgar is deliberately muddying the waters, covering his traces, speaking in riddles, talking enigmatically (like Mime, but Siegfried can see his true meaning): "The National Anthem is so familiar that it is surprising that no one has recognized it (except you, Troyte, and you are only guessing, without giving musicological evidence)". So this "dark saying" may actually strengthen my case: in Elgar's day the world's best-known tune was the anthem of the British Empire, functioning also as the melody for a patriotic song in America.
            Percy M. Young characterizes Edward Elgar as a man who was firmly convinced that the Monarchy and the Empire were admirable and necessary. He compares Elgar to a friend of Leigh Hunt, who was considered capable, even as a spirit in the afterlife, of taking off his hat at the sound of "God save the Queen". 21 In the Enigma theme, then, the soul of Edward Elgar bows in reverence to God and the Queen.22


            1. For information on this work and its many enigmas, I have consulted Rosa Burley and Frank C. Carruthers, Edward Elgar: the record of a friendship, London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1972 (pp. 116-129); Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations, Opus 36, Novello, 1899; Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, London, Oxford University Press, 1968 (pp. 55-71); Michael Kennedy, Elgar Orchestral Music, London, B. B. C., 1970 (pp. 21-26); Raymond Monk (Ed.), Elgar Studies, Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1990 (Percy Young, Friends pictured within, pp. 81-106); Raymond Monk (Ed.), Edward Elgar: Music and Literature, Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1993 (Brian Trowell, Elgar's use of literature, pp. 182-326); Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar: a creative life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984 (pp. 247-274); Ian Parrott, Elgar, London, J. M. Dent, 1971 (pp. 37-49); Percy M. Young, Elgar O.M. A Study of a Musician, 2nd edn, London, Purnell Book Services, 1973 (pp. 278-284).
            2. Cited by Parrott, Elgar, p. 39. See Trowell's treatment of this utterance, in Raymond Monk (Ed.), Edward Elgar: Music and Literature, pp. 216-217.
            3. Kennedy, Portrait, p. 59.
            4. Moore, Edward Elgar, p. 223.
            5. Trowell, p. 215.
            6. Trowell, p. 215.
            7. Trowell, n. 147, pp. 306-307.
            8. Trowell, pp. 207, 215-224.
            9. Trowell, p. 307.
            10. Trowell, p. 221.
            11. Trowell, p. 244.
            12. Burley, Edward Elgar, p. 131.
            13. Burley, p. 119.
            14. Parrott, Elgar, p. 38; Young, Elgar, p. 279, and facing p. 113 (he incorrectly says p. 145) a photograph of the first draft of the theme, with four bars crossed out, though only one note had been written on the two staves (a B natural above the bass stave).
            15. Parrott, Elgar, pp. 46-49.
            16. Kennedy, Portrait, p. 58 ("Elgar made it perfectly clear to us when the work was being written that the Enigma was concerned with a tune"); Burley, Edward Elgar, p. 120 (Dorabella rejected Auld Lang Syne, the suggestion of her husband Richard Powell, as the solution, but she believed that "when it has been found, there will be no room for any doubt that it is the right one").
            17. Kennedy, Elgar, p. 22.
            18. Moore, Edward Elgar, p. 29.
            19. Kennedy, Portrait, p. 65.
            20. Ibid., p. 58.
            21. Young, Elgar, p. 78.
            22. In homage to Elgar the inveterate punster and violinist, I have made one four-letter word in this sentence intentionally ambiguous (homographically, not homophonically); like Dan the bulldog he might also bow-wow to Bach. Similarly, the word "regal" in the title of this essay is an anagram of the name of a renowned English composer. It seems to me that Elgar's Enigma theme is actually a variation on the National Anthem. My last word is this: whether Elgar knew it or not, "God Save the Queen" is embedded in his Enigma theme, albeit transmogrified.

Other theories are outlined in Wikipedia:

Most recent theory:
Robert Padgett makes many interesting connections: with Martin Luther, the hymn Ein' feste Burg and musical ciphers, Jesus Christ, the Holy Shroud of Turin, and Nimrod in the Inferno.

"Elgar makes multiple references to Dante’s epic poem in the Enigma Variations. One example is the title Nimrod for Variation IX, a movement that concludes with a dramatic blast from the brass section. In the Inferno Dante portrays Nimrod as a babbling giant imprisoned in the ninth circle of hell who blows a piercing blast from his horn to draw attention to himself. In Dante’s hell Nimrod is cursed with confused speech because he built the Tower of BabelConfusion of Tongues. In imitation of that famous biblical narrative, Elgar follows Nimrod with Variation X, a movement that pokes fun at Dora Penny’s stutter – a speech impediment."

Brian Colless Ph.D., Th.D, an Australian, born in Sydney in 1936, formerly Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

 Research Chronicle: New Zealand Musicological Society, Volume 6 (1999) 58-67

Another of Elgar's enigmas is the coded message he sent to Dora Penny on the 14th of July 1897.
It is included in Richard Belfield, Can you crack the Enigma Code (2006). It has apparently been deciphered by Tim S. Roberts, Solving the Dorabella Cipher. The message is about gardening and composing.

1 comment:

SirPadgett said...

The unstated Principal Theme to Sir Edward Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations is ‘Ein feste Burg’ (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. To learn more about this discovery, visit

A musical cipher embedded in the opening bars of the 'Enigma' Theme confirms that ‘Ein feste Burg’ is the unstated Principal Theme:

A second musical cipher in Variation XIII provides the initials for the common three word title of ‘Ein feste Burg’ – A Mighty Fortress:

Elgar gave a copy of Longfellow's romantic novel ‘Hyperion’ to Hans Richter shortly after he led the premiere of the 'Enigma' Variations in 1899. Within the pages of that book Longfellow mentions Luther in connection with his most famous hymn, ‘Ein feste Burg.’ No wonder Elgar suspected the melodic solution would soon be discovered since he literally gave away the answer to Richter who should have recognized it…if he ever bothered to read the book:

The friend of Variation XIII identified only by three asterisks has remained a secret for over a century, yet that secret friend’s initials are openly concealed by the Roman numerals. X is the number 10, and the tenth letter in the alphabet is J. III is the number 3, and the third letter is C. The identity of Elgar's hidden friend is not a lady, but a lord – the Lord whose initials are J.C. To learn more, visit

Cracking the ‘Enigma’ Variations also led to the identity of the hidden dedicatee of Elgar’s violin concerto:

New evidence shows the Turin Shroud was a significant source of inspiration for Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations. The timing is credible as Secondo Pia’s famous photographic negative became an international sensation just five months before Elgar began work on the Variations. To learn more about the multiple connections between the Turin Shroud and the ‘Enigma’ Variations, visit