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