The Enigma coda

Ed­ward El­gar never re­vealed the in­spi­ra­tion for his much loved Enigma Vari­a­tions. On the 150th an­niver­sary of the com­poser’s birth this month, Richard Mor­ri­son con­sid­ers the mys­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IF I could whisk my­self back to the ge­n­e­sis of one mu­si­cal mas­ter­piece, I would choose to be a fly on the wall of a Worces­ter­shire cot­tage on the night of Oc­to­ber 21, 1898, when a 41- year- old job­bing mu­si­cian came home af­ter teach­ing the vi­o­lin. He sat down at the pi­ano and be­gan doo­dling. ‘‘ That’s a good tune,’’ his wife said. ‘‘ What is it?’’

‘‘ Noth­ing,’’ the man said, im­pro­vis­ing vari­a­tions to por­tray var­i­ous friends. ‘‘ But some­thing might be made of it.’’ Some­thing was. Eight months later the tune, and the friends’ por­traits, had grown into a full or­ches­tral work, pre­miered as Vari­a­tions on an Orig­i­nal Theme . But in the man­u­script, un­der­neath the ti­tle, the com­poser’s pub­lisher ( him­self por­trayed in the finest vari­a­tion, Nim­rod ) had added the word Enigma.

It seems to have been an af­ter­thought, prob­a­bly added to pep up in­ter­est in an ob­scure com­poser. But it was as the Enigma Vari­a­tions that the work swept the globe, bring­ing fame to its cre­ator, Ed­ward El­gar, and giv­ing the mu­si­cal world one of its most en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies.

What was the enigma? More ink has been used by mu­si­col­o­gists, cryp­tol­o­gists and even psy­chol­o­gists in at­tempt­ing to an­swer that ques­tion than El­gar used in com­pos­ing his first mas­ter­piece. So in the month of his 150th birth­day, can we give a de­fin­i­tive so­lu­tion?

The an­swer is no, for one good rea­son: El­gar en­sured that the trail con­tained more red her­rings than an Agatha Christie thriller. Even in his orig­i­nal pro­gram note he did more to tan­ta­lise than clar­ify. ‘‘ The Enigma I will not ex­plain — its ‘ dark say­ing’ must be left unguessed,’’ he wrote.

What’s more, he con­tin­ued, ‘‘ through and over the whole set an­other and larger theme ‘ goes’, but is not played’’.

So im­me­di­ately there isn’t one enigma but two: the dark say­ing and the larger theme. That’s not all. As ev­ery El­gar fan knows, there is a third.

When El­gar later iden­ti­fied the ‘‘ friends pic­tured within’’, he left the sub­ject of the most haunt­ing vari­a­tion, No. XIII, as ‘‘***’’. Who is ‘‘***’’? Is she the same as ‘‘. . . .’’, whose soul El­gar said was en­shrined in his Vi­o­lin Con­certo?

At­tempts to iden­tify the theme that ‘‘ goes but is not played’’ be­gan soon af­ter the piece was un­veiled. Many of El­gar’s friends thought it was Auld Lang Syne . The tune could ( roughly) be coun­ter­pointed against what El­gar wrote, and the song’s sub­ject, friend­ship, could cred­i­bly be seen as the ‘‘ larger theme’’.

Oth­ers thought the hid­den theme was Rule, Bri­tan­nia . Again, it just about fits mu­si­cally. And El­gar had told one friend, Dora Penny, that she ‘‘ of all peo­ple’’ ought to guess it. Why? Per­haps be­cause of her sur­name. The old Vic­to­rian penny had an en­grav­ing of Bri­tan­nia on its flip side.

Af­ter that the gates opened. The Agnus Dei from Bach’s B Mi­nor Mass, Beethoven’s Pa­the­tique sonata and Pur­cell’s When I am Laid in Earth were all pro­posed as themes. More re­cently the con­duc­tor Ray­mond Lep­pard de­tected an un­canny re­sem­blance be­tween the Enigma and the Bene­dic­tus from a re­quiem by El­gar’s con­tem­po­rary, Charles Vil­liers Stan­ford.

An­other strik­ing re­sem­blance, with a pas­sage in the slow move­ment of Mozart’s Prague sym­phony, was pointed out by the pi­anist Joseph Cooper.

That’s in­ter­est­ing, be­cause dili­gent de­tec­tive work has dis­cov­ered that El­gar at­tended a per­for­mance of the Prague just be­fore the evening when he im­pro­vised the Vari­a­tions. What’s more, when his work was pre­miered, the Prague was in­cluded in the con­cert.

Case proven? Hardly. How does the Prague , or any other tune, con­sti­tute a ‘‘ dark say­ing’’? It was to ad­dress this point that the mu­si­col­o­gist Ian Par­rott came up with a spec­tac­u­lar the­ory about the Enigma’s ti­tle. Did it per­haps re­fer to the fa­mous bib­li­cal quo­ta­tion from Corinthi­ans: ‘‘ For now we see through a glass darkly’’? You see, if you go to the Latin trans­la­tion of that epis­tle ( which El­gar, as a prac­tis­ing Catholic, would have known), the phrase reads: Vide­mus nunc specu­lum in enig­mate . The pas­sage ex­tols faith, hope and ( es­pe­cially) love as the great­est virtues. At that lowly point in his ca­reer, El­gar may have felt grate­ful to friends who of­fered him all three.

By now you may feel you have wan­dered by mis­take into The Da Vinci Code . But be­lieve me, th­ese are some of the more plau­si­ble at­tempts to solve El­gar’s enigma. And when we come to the elu­sive ‘‘***’’, the the­o­ries are even wilder. The con­ven­tional an­swer is that the ded­i­ca­tee of Vari­a­tion XIII was Mary Ly­gon, a lo­cal grandee who sup­ported El­gar. She may have de­clined to be named out of aris­to­cratic hau­teur. But the vari­a­tion con­tains an odd quo­ta­tion from Men­delssohn’s Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age , as well as a pas­sage of strangely ag­i­tated mu­sic. This has led some to sug­gest that the sub­ject was El­gar’s first sweet­heart, He­len Weaver, who died af­ter a long sea voy­age.

One thing’s clear. El­gar was re­solved to take his se­crets to the grave. To ev­ery­one who wrote to him with ‘‘ so­lu­tions’’ to the Enigma, he sent an iden­ti­cal re­ply: ‘‘ No: noth­ing like it. E. E.’’

So per­haps we should ease up on the code­break­ing and just en­joy the mu­sic.

Af­ter all, the one un­de­ni­able fact about the Enigma is that it was the best piece writ­ten by an English­man for 200 years.

The Times

Pic­ture: Fox Pho­tos/ Getty Images

The rid­dle re­mains: El­gar de­clines to shed any light on the enigma in 1933

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