Edward Elgar’s Enigma

Edward Elgar

Even if this English Edwardian composer’s name is not known to you, and even if you are no fan of classical music, you will instantly recognize at least one of Elgar’s works — or at least a part of it.

Elgar composed five ceremonial marches, the most famous of which is the first in D, and the most famous part of that march is the center section, the Trio, which is flanked by an allegro introduction and finale. The five marches are titled Pomp and Circumstance. Since its first American performance, in an honorary doctorate ceremony for Elgar at Yale in 1905, “Pomp and Circumstance March #1” has been known simply as the “Graduation March.” Yes, that one, the ditty played on a seemingly endless loop that has accompanied nearly every high-school and college commencement ceremony for a century.

Unless you have school-age children, you have probably forsworn ever having to hear it again. So, as an exercise in painful nostalgia, here it is:

In England, this tune is titled and sung as “Land of Hope and Glory,” the perennial closer to the annual, raucous “Last Night at the Proms” BBC Proms concerts. Its flag-waving fervor often outdoes — benignly — the sign-waving at a Trump rally. A video of this overdose of English patriotism begins at 2:40:

Such a tribal celebration of national pride is not jingoistic. Look carefully! Among the aloft Union Jacks you will spot a veritable United Nations of flags, including the Stars and Stripes, waved by a contingent of Yanks standing in the side mezzanine.

Poor Edward Elgar! This stately gentleman, often cited in his lifetime as the most important English composer since Henry Purcell (who died at the end of the 17th century), did compose some enduring works, including a concerto that was the signature piece of beloved cellist Jacqueline du Pré, the charismatic and beautiful soloist who died of multiple sclerosis at 42.

Here Du Pré performs, in a 1967 concert, the first movement of the Elgar cello concerto. The conductor is her husband, Daniel Barenboim, and she is accompanied by the London Philharmonic:

All this serves as mere prelude to the enduring mystery surrounding a set of orchestral variations Elgar began to compose in late 1898: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, known popularly as The Enigma Variations. The work explores a simple theme with 14 variations. In principle, this type of composition is as fundamental to Western music as the concerto, the string quartet or the symphony, an often dense and technical composition where the increasing complexity of the orchestral parts builds with each variation. Other times, the music may be an easily tracked showpiece riffing on a well-known theme. One of the most innovative inversions of this structure is a work of another English composer, Benjamin Britten, whose Lachryme is a set of variations on a theme by 17th century composer John Dowland:

Lachrimæ or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans, with divers other pavans, galliards and allemands, set forth for the lute, viols, or violons, in five parts.

The surprise in the Britten composition is that a full statement of the theme comes only at the end of the work. On repeated hearings, you begin early on to tease the actual theme buried inside the work’s opening. The theme itself is only fully and simply played in a single statement near the end, at 12:50:

The surprise in Elgar’s Enigma Variations is that the opening short-phrased theme is not actually the main theme, but serves as counterpoint to it.  The so-called “main theme” is never revealed; it is “hidden” and the search for its identity has obsessed several generations of musicologists– and cryptologists. (Elgar died without revealing it.) Some musicologists have claimed the whole “Enigma” idea was a hoax, that there is no hidden theme. Elgar did not help matters in his program notes to the first performance:

The Enigma I will not explain — its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set, another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played … So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas — e.g. Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse and Les sept Princesses — the chief character is never on the stage.

A second level of enigmas is the title of each of the 14 variations. Elgar composed the set as musical portraits of friends, but he refused to disclose their identities, using only initials or a few nicknames instead. Over the decades, critics have unraveled the names of the variation portraits. A Wikipedia entry reveals their identities and their place in the composer’s life.

Whether or not there is a main theme has obsessed musicians and critics through the present day. Possible solutions are offered in the Wiki section labeled “Counterpoints.” None of the possibilities has been conclusive.

In 2009, however, an American violinist named Bob Padgett moved with his family to Plano, Texas, and became obsessed with solving the mystery of the hidden theme. He claims to have succeeded. His solution is laid out in a maze-like article in the Feb. 1, 2017, issue of The New Republic. Here is how Estrin describes the Texan:

Padgett, 47, is a meticulous man. He slicks his dark blond hair straight back. He wears slender black gloves in the heat of the Texas sun to protect his violin-playing fingers. He uses the proofreading software Grammarly to catch typos and lazy vocabulary in his correspondence. He still recalls the fascination that descended on him during orchestra rehearsals, when he learned some of the back-story about the Variations. It sounded ‘kind of like a murder mystery or something. Like, whodunit,’ Padgett told me. ‘I thought this would be an interesting puzzle to unravel.’

Interesting indeed! Estrin reveals that Elgar was a master cryptographer, and Padgett chases Elgar down the rabbit hole of code to find a solution. It leads to a wildly complicated musical layering of several versions of the hymn “Ein feste Burg” onto the Enigma theme, in retrograde (backwards.) Here is Estrin’s explanation:

In 2015, after consulting an obscure set of notes Elgar wrote about the Variations, Padgett believed he finally found the right counterpoint, the one Elgar intended. It’s a mashup of the three famous renditions of the hymn: the 16th century Martin Luther version, the 18th century Bach version, and the 19th century Mendelssohn version. Played backwards.
Padgett made a recording of the composite hymn played in reverse on top of the Enigma theme, and put it on YouTube. To my ear, it sounds perfect. When I asked Rushton about it, he said Padgett distorted the rhythm and mixed between the major and minor keys to get it to harmonize. ‘Nice to have a good laugh occasionally,”’Rushton wrote me. ‘The backwards ‘Ein feste Burg’ shows that Mr Padgett is ingenious, if nothing else, in pursuing his obsession.’

 Here is Padgett’s mash-up of the hymn:

Though not fitting into proper historical context, it is fascinating to track this musical code-breaking to yet another Enigma, one that helped determine the course of world events.

The Enigma Machine was the name given to the infamous Nazi coding device whose secrets were broken during World War II in Bletchley Park, England, by a team of cryptographers, including Alan Turing (not the sole genius in the crew, as suggested in the 2014 movie The Imitation Game).

The Enigma Machine

Padgett’s pursuit of and proposed solution to the Enigma theme, as expected, has drawn as much fire as the other “solutions” through preceding decades. Lending a contemporary “fake news” perspective on Padgett is the suggestion that Padgett himself is a fraud:

Apart from the Enigma, Padgett has endorsed other theories that academics tend to reject. He supports creationism over evolutionary theory. He believes record high temperatures in the summer of 2015 were divine retribution for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. He shared a story on Facebook about an Ohio warehouse of fraudulent ballots filled out for Hillary Clinton before the presidential election, a story later debunked as fake news. In essence, Elgar scholars have dismissed Padgett’s Enigma theory as fake news, too.

Still, Estrin’s article makes for absorbing reading for anyone who finds Da Vinci Code-type mysteries to be simplistic.

Padgett’s Enigma worksheet

When you come out the other side of Estrin’s dive into conspiracy and paranoia, I offer you the real reason I have embarked on this journey into the deeper waters of Elgar and his famous, mysterious work. It’s quite simple: to share what for me is the highlight of the work, some of the most glorious minutes of listening in the entire cosmos of music. I kid you not. It is “Variation IX, The Nimrod (The Hunter),” named after Elgar’s friend Augustus J. Jaeger, who had encouraged Elgar to continue composing during a dark period in his life.

This sublime variation begins with a quiet presentation of the theme, builds a slow crescendo, and then, at about 3:50, just when you anticipate a full-throated statement of full orchestra leading to a climax, quietly descends and ends. In this clip, Daniel Barenboim leads the 1997 opening concert of the Chicago Symphony. They played it as tribute to their recently deceased music director, Sir Georg Solti.

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