Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma)

The Musical Times, Mar. 1970 (pp. 258-262)

“It is quite possible that we have here some kind

 of musical cipher and anagram”

(Sir Jack Westrup)


"We are the music-makers

And we are the dreamers of dreams”

                                                                                                             (Arthur O’Shaughnessy)

Last month I suggested, with some confidence, a key to Elgar's cipher letter to “Dorabella”. [1] I now suggest, with some diffidence, that this key in turn may unlock the Enigma itself. This is threefold. [2] First, the original theme has a “dark saying”, which must “be left unguessed”. Secondly, “through and over the whole set, another and larger theme "goes", but is not played”. Thirdly, these two mysteries appear to be closely related.

   Most discussion is aimed at the “larger theme”, which certainly offers the best target. Elgar's use of cipher may help with range and direction. His cryptogram had a double disguise, which made right answers seem wrong. The musical Enigma too is riddled with contradictions. For example, Mrs Powell says [3] that she asked Elgar at the time what tune (sic) the “larger theme” was. But her later recollection is that “we always spoke of the hidden matter as “it”, never as tune or theme”. The two most recent studies are by Sir Jack Westrup and Dr Roger Fiske. [4] Sir Jack says that Elgar's statement “does not afford any ground for supposing that his theme is a counterpoint to the Enigma theme” ; and “of the attempts made to find [such a counterpoint], which I consider misguided, the best-known is Mr Richard Powell's suggestion of Auld lang syneTo Dr Fiske, on the other hand, “the all-important fact is... that the Enigma is a hidden tune that fits the theme in counterpoint. He strongly reaffirms Auld Lang syneand concludes “the puzzle, surely, is solved”.

   Just as with the cipher, the arguments end in a dilemma. Suppose each has a point? Then of course Elgar would be using a hidden tune. Everyone knew he was; he himself said hp was, and that it was famous. And of course it was Auld lang syneMrs Powell (as Dr Fiske now reveals) knew it was; and (as Elgar told her) she “of all people” ought to know. Nor is it likely lo be mere coincidence that the first person ever known to have put forward that solution was her husband, in 1920. [5] On the other hand, his notion of a hidden counterpointis at variance with the data; and the musical evidence has never been found very convincing. Not even his wife believed his theory. Worse, it makes Elgar out to be a liar; for he is recorded as having said that Auld lang syne “won't do” both in a written answer to a correspondent and (again, as Dr Fiske now reveals) in conversation with Mrs Powell.

   We are not told what question he was answering. But here the paradox seems to go too far. This, of the composer of the Enigma Variations! Besides, he could no more deny a correct solution than could the composer of a chess problem. The deviser of enigmas has a devious mind, but a just one. All the clues must be there; much cloaking is permitted, but no faking. This suggests a way out of the dilemma. Auld lang syne was hidden so well that no-one would know except by private information; and so enigmatically that the composer could truthfully intimate, in reply to certain questions, that it wouldn't do as such. That would explain and reconcile all the known facts. By the same token it will be hard lo demonstrate. But let us try.

   Other ingenious minds have discovered ideal hiding places: for a pebble, on a beach; for a letter, in a letter-rack. [6] If so, the best hiding-place for a note is in a chord; for a melody, in harmony. Schumann knew this from his op 1 on; thus he spells ABEGG and ASCH not only as notes but as chords.



For some minds, this will be coincidence, or nonsense; for others, a valid aspect of the creative process. Elgar had just such a mind as Schumann’s (see Appendix 3); he knew and loved those works; he could not have failed to notice those early examples (among many others) of what might nowadays be called “verticalization”.[7] Indeed, this was arguably one of his own methods of variation; thus in “Dorabella” the thematic rising and falling 3rds appear as chordal accompaniment to a new melody. But even so, the link is tenuous; and Sir Jack Westrup has suggested that in such variations the “larger theme” has the greater relevance. If so, we can test our hypothesis. Take Auld lang syne, in G major. “Should auld acquaintance” gives three notes which taken together make a tonic chord, presumably in any inversion (though 6-4 seems the obvious choice); “be forgot” makes a major 2nd, G/A: so far, then, as in ex 2.

   But this (with or without the bracketed notes) is the germ-idea of Variation X; and perhaps the source of its title as well-one need not be so devoted a Mozartian as Elgar to be reminded of Così fan tutte at the words “la mia Dorabella” in the opening G major number. So next we look for ex 2 in the original theme. The first two bars hint at it; the third says it - sadly in the minor, but none the less clearly - and in both the melody and the accompanying chords (ex 3).



   Then where is the next strain, “never brought to min’”? The hypothesis suggests ex 4, which plainly corresponds with bar 7 of the theme (ex 5), and the


rest seems to follow logically enough on the lines already suggested, reverting to single notes for “days o' lang syne” (ex 6, where the more stepwise melody is less apt for chordal treatment).


   So one aspect of the "larger theme" may be a distillation of Auld lang syne as in exx 2, 4 and 6. The separation of bar 3 may seem odd. But the data suggest a missing link which belongs to both the “larger theme” and the Enigma theme, just as bar 3 apparently does. The main question for the moment is - does this solution answer the description “through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’ but is not played”? As Sir Jack Westrup has pointed out,[8] it is clear from the context that “theme” here means a tune. But the original (Enigma) tune also goes through the whole set. So the two must go together. But how? Like the lamb with Mary, or like lamb with mint sauce? Whether Auld lang syneblends with the theme as counterpoint is a matter of taste; but it clearly doesn't go through and over the whole set in that sense; so that won't do. In the sense of exx 2, 4 and 6 however Auld lang syne “goes"[9] everywhere the theme goes; the two are inseparable. Appendix 1 follows them through the variations, step by step.
   But if the hidden theme forms part of the original theme, then it can be “larger” only in some extra­-musical sense such as having wider associations ­ just as Auld lang syne has. Those associations, in a work inspired by and inscribed to “my friends”, should be those of friendship-just as Auld lang syne's are. In this larger sense too the theme goes over, ie transcends, the whole set. Yet finally it remains unplayed; we never hear Auld lang syne as such. Thus the suggested solution satisfies the data. There is another cross-check, by substituting in other equations. For “it” in the following dialogues [10]
 read Auld lang syne.


Dora Penny:    Please, what is the tune that “goes” and is not played ?

Edward Elgar:  Haven't you guessed it yet? Try again.

D.P.                Are you quite sure I know it?

E.E.                Quite.


On another occasion:


D.P.                 But please, what is the tune?

E.E.                 Oh, I shan't tell you that; you must find it out for yourself.

D.P.                 But I've thought and racked my brains over and over again.

E.E.                 Well, I’m surprised. I thought that you of all people would guess it.

D.P.                 Why me “of all people”?

E.E.                 That's asking questions!


   People have been asking them ever since. Why should Dora Penny “of all people” have guessed? The reason would hardly be a purely musical one; nor would Elgar have meant merely the tune which he said “won't do”. Yet the reference must have been personal. So presumably the title or opening words of Auld lang syne had cropped up in casual talk or banter between them. Perhaps the cryptogram somehow refers to such an exchange? Some such connexion has often been postulated, and with good reason; Dora Penny never got that message either. So what has it to do with Auld lang syne?

   My suggested transcript ended thus:


I own the dark makes E.E. sigh

When you are too long gone.


I have had many comments on that, not all very helpful. By far the quickest and most cogent came from Robert Moberly, the Mozart scholar. He said at once (a) that it was rhythmical, a playful jingle of words, since “own” sounds like “admit” shortened to one syllable, and “E.E.” like “me” lengthened to two; (b) that it was either the first or second couplet of an Common Metre quatrain; (c) that it was probably the second couplet, since “sigh” sounds like a word chosen for a rhyme; (d) so it means “yes, I do miss you now and then” and implies a jocular reply in Common Metre to something Dora Penny had said or written in that metre, meaning “Did you miss me?”.

    I was the more impressed because I had just read Dr Fiske's article, and had Auld lang syne in mind. That was certainly in Common Metre; it would be amusingly apt for the suggested purpose; it almost rhymed; and it was full of other echoes, as in ex 7:[11]



To some readers this will seem even less plausible than exx 1-6. To others (given Elgar's interest in phonetics) it may have a compellingly Joycean ring of the musical mind at work in words. But either way it is exactly the same idea; in words as in music a sonorous essence is extracted and savoured.

   Another possible source of verbal inspiration was pointed out by Mrs Cecil Dickenson in 1939.[12] Part II of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici begins with charity, friends and friendship, proceeds to Enigmas (sic) and culminates in music. That book was of special interest to Elgar; he owned a copy; he is said to have marked the Enigma passage. Hardly a mere coincidence; where else do affection, enigmas, friendship and music go hand in hand? And not only those ideas, but the whole train of thought in the solution to Elgar's cryptogram, are echoed scores of times in Browne's short book (as Appendix 3 seeks to show in detail), often in the same few pages and in nearly the same order.

   Prima facie, then, here is the same motif once again; an essence extracted from that sonorous prose is further distilled by the creative mind. One might suggest-merely as what Browne calls “a pattern or example” of something that is “wide, and agrees not at all points with the copy”, a response on some such lines as those in ex 8.



   As already noted, the final link with the larger theme may well be in the third bar of the music (ex 3). So now at last to explore this obscure passage in search of the “dark saying”. A search for enigmas linked with a name must begin with Elgar's own cipher table as inferred from his cryptogram, used for secret messages and composed of his own names. That table was discovered set[13] as in ex 9. No doubt



some of those letters (B and C together: H between G and I) were added later in alphabetical order. But the central anagram/monogram[14] was surely designed to express the inmost nature of a man who was E.E. to himself and his friends; Ed to his mother (+D); Ted to the family (+T); Edu to his wife - and also E.D.U. to himself (+U); and Edoo, another pet-name (+O), no doubt because of Edw: (+W) and the cipher use of W as a vowel as in Greek or shorthand (OO); and Edward (TA+ R) Elgar (+L+G) to the world at large; and Edward William (+I+ M) Elgar to the registrar; and “Nanty Ewart” to a select circle15 (+N+Y). He could also be an Enigma to himself (as suggested by the juxta­position of E, I, G, M and A in ex 9). So now only one more letter is needed for a further anagram to turn all that interlocked introspection out towards the world in thoughts of others. The letter S - the only letter in the centrepiece not yet mentioned - duly permits the anagram Auld lang syne.

    Another coincidence? If so, a revealing one. For if the link between the name of a song and the name-­idea of “Enigma” is the composer's monogram in letters, then the parallel at the deeper musical level (ex 8) may be the composer's monogram in notes. A man who could make musical anagrams of his enemies in the demons' chorus in The Dream of Gerontius [16] might well do the same for himself or his friends in the Enigma Variations - the work of which Sir Jack Westrup has said


It is quite possible that we have here some kind of musical cipher or anagram, which defeats any attempt at a solution because we have no clue.[17]


Perhaps we now have. But let us first reproduce a parallel drawn by Sir Jack Westrup himself at this point:


Elgar was always interested in cryptograms, acrostics and crossword puzzles. Furthermore he was a great admirer of Schumann, and had borrowed from the Abegg variations and from Carnaval the idea of writing a piece on the letters of a name-the Allegretto on G.E.D.G.E.dedicated to the Misses Gedge (c1888).


Appendix 2 offers some 30 further analogies between Elgar’s creative mind and Schumann's; and the tally is far from complete. Schumann used anagrams and cipher to write music; so did Elgar. Is it not therefore worth asking whether he enciphered his own name in, and as, the Enigma? If so, this would be just one more example of the symbolism here in question; the extraction of ideas for conversion into the more sonorous and emotive language of music.

   If we listen to the first bar of the Enigma theme, we hear the rhythm “Edward Elgar”. He uses those actual notes as a signature in two letters[18] to Dora Penny. He himself said in a note on The Music Makers [19] in 1912 that the opening bars meant the loneliness of the artist, and they are used in that work in that sense. If they carry a charge of verbal meaning, the obvious transformer would be Elgar's cipher-table as inferred from his cryptogram. We can see from ex 9 how easily E,N and G/M,A could become two falling 3rds, if the radii concerned were written on lines and spaces as in ex 10. True, that A was a long vowel in the cryptogram; but that would hardly apply in music. More puzzling is the allocation of I. On the evidence, Elgar would not fake or fudge his effects. If he used ex 9 to make a music-cipher he would do so fairly and squarely. So the missing letter I, we can assume (ex 10), would have yielded either the note G or the note C. That would rule out the lower I in ex 9, which would give the note A. So that leaves the higher letter I, in the top horizontal radius. But that row lies higher than the note C; which means that G, and specifically top G, is its most plausible allo­cation.


And this would indeed be one way - and the most obvious way - of turning the cipher table at ex 9 into music. The triad T,E, D/W grows naturally into a chord, with U/I,A, and P on its top note and the lower letters H,R, and X on the note below, as in ex 11. There is no immediate way of telling how the vertical radius (with Y,13 and C) might have been allocated. Even without them, ex 11 is too cluttered to make an efficient music cipher. But it does make an intensely self-expressive one. Thus the personal central monogram


becomes, in music, ex 12 –


- the rhythm, melody, harmony and continuation of that same third bar already noted as the possible missing link between the “larger theme” and the “dark saying”.

   And in the light of exx 10 and 11 the latter may be (and hence may no longer be) ­


- from the Greek ainigma-ainissesthai, to speak darkly.


But thereafter Elgar’s music moved from minor to major; from solitude to friendship; from darkness to light.


App. 1


The essence of Auld lang syne as in exx 2, 4 and 6 above distilled through the variations; note how often the passages cited lead back into the main theme.


1 CAE: exx 2, 4, 6 in bars 7-9 (in E flat) and 9-12 (in G).

HDS-Pex 2, b53-4 (and hence 1-2, etc); ex 4 anagrammed begins b10, 12 (and hence 43, 45) while the analogous arrangement on C begins b6, 8, and on D b14 (and hence 47, 49); ex 66, b15-18 (and hence 50-3).

3 RBT: ex 2, b5; ex 4 (F sharp), b10-11; ex 6 (F sharp), b16-24.

4 WMB: ex 2, b3; exx 4, 6, b7-14.

5 RPA: ex 2 (C minor), b3; ex 4 (C major), b7; ex 6a, second halves of b8, 9; ex 66, b10.

6 YSOBEL: ex 2 in single notes (in C major: G, C, E, D, C), b1-2; ex 4, used in bass, b1, 2, 10, 11 etc (bassoon 3rds); ex 6, b3-6; for the viola solo, see notes 10 and 16.

7 TROYTE; exx 2, 4 form the basis of b5-6 etc; ex 66, b11-13.

8 WN: ex 2, b5; ex 4 (10ths), b9, 13 etc; ex 6, b16-19.

NIMRODex 2, b1; ex 4, b5; ex 6, b22-8.

10 DORABELLA: ex 2, b1-2 etc; ex 4, b6-7 (and note also the added 6ths, b24-5, the suggestion of B flat, D, D, F, G in bars 40-2); ex 6b (the E flattened), b47-8. With Auld lang syne in mind, note the insistent iambic rhythm of the viola solo (cf also YSOBEL) at b1Of, 32f; the outline of the top oboe semiquavers, passim; the opening quavers on cellos and basses.

11 GRSex 2, b3; ex 4 (D major), b4 (similarly 9, 28); ex 6b, b31-3,

12 BGN ex 2, b5; ex 4 (on B flat), b13 (on D), b14, (on F) b15 (the cello solo here is presumably an allusion to an item in BGN’s repertory - Swan Lake, perhaps?); ex 6b (in G minor, but with G sharp), b17-19.

13 ***: ex 2, b1-2; ex 4 (C major), b3; and (as 6ths in A fiat) b 11 etc; ex 6b (in A flat, but unfinished), b30-1; see also note 16.

14 EDUex 2 (as D/G T B) is the opening idea, b1f, 5f, and as G/A, b 12-13; ex 4 (as chord on G + E) is the theme at 17, 40 etc, and (as chord on E fiat +C) at fff tremolando at fig 82f; ex 6b, b60-3.

15 With Auld lang syne in mind, the finale is heard as an allegory of renaissance, with strong overtones of ringing out the old and ringing in the new. Peal and paean are unmistakable at figures 68 and 77. After eight bars of chiming at fig 69 the Tempo I is suddenly hushed and darkened to six bars on E fiat which seem to strike a midnight of minims. Among all this the rhythm of Auld lang syne is sung out (fig 65, 74 etc) in a context suggesting the cheering and heartening effect of a male voice choir, or community singing.

16 This in turn suggests further room for speculation. Even without four-part harmony, the key of G, and the repeated E of the melody (as in ex 4) one might have guessed the Scottish Students' Songbook as Elgar's source. It has a section entitled “For Auld lang syne”; so conceivably Elgar was drawing on that section as a whole (another reason for saying that “Auld lang syne won't do”). For example the viola solo in Ysobel. (“for a moment, romantic”, according to the composer's own notes) recalls Ae fond kiss; while the phrase quoted from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyagmight almost as easily and quite as aptly have come from Will ye no' come back again?


App. 2


Correspondences between Elgar and Schumann


Each had a markedly cyclic personality, with mood-changes alternating between elation and depression. Each loved word-play; not just as puzzles but as expressive symbols (as typo­graphy for example had special meaning for say Herbert or Apollinaire, puns for Joyce or Shakespeare) -a trait which in each composer clearly reflects the verbal aspect of the creative musical mind.

     From boyhood each was intensely preoccupied with letters, words and language; as forms of expressive symbolism. A musical language of flowers was one of Schumann's earliest ideas;, The Language of Flowers is one of Elgar's earliest works. Each loved puzzles and riddles, again as a form of self­-expression. So naturally each delighted in cryptography. As I have tried to show elsewhere, Klüber's Kryptographik, a stand­ard cipher manual of its day, was well known to Schumann, who derived from it a personal and private cipher system of 3 x 8 = 24 symbols. Elgar's own personal and private cipher system is also based on a pattern of 3 y 8 = 24; its basic unit of arcs and cusps, is described in Klüber's book. Both cipher tables used interlinked names and anagrams, a device associated with strong personal emotion.

     Each used his cipher to send a message in a letter to a girl who could not understand it. Each was obsessed (not too strong a word) with names; and bestowed dozens of names, nicknames and sobriquets on himself and o[hers; each used several pseudonyms. Each imagined a league of friends all with special names, including their loved ones and the contrasting aspects of their own personalities; each turned that idea into music. Each worked out how to write a name in music-letters by means of one note written on four interlocking staves (Schumann spelt GADE thus, and Elgar -at eight years old - BACH). Each thought of music in terms of Enigmas or Sphinxes; each spoke or wrote of his music in terms of “dark sayings” or “veiled speech”; each habitually prefixed his work with mottoes and quotations; each wrote letters containing musical jokes and riddles; each wrote music containing extra-musical allusions and mysteries; each used musical allusion and quotation as a device of composition; each had hidden themes that were said to go through and over the music.

     One way of hiding a theme for each was to use its successive notes as a chord; Schumann in op. 1 and 9 for example, Elgar in op 36. Each wrote music that was intensely personal and self­expressive and mysterious in the same kind of way; for example each seems to have written music embodying emotions aroused by hearing chimes at midnight (Elgar in op 36, see Appendix I above; Schumann in the Davidsbündler, about the eve of a wedding, and in the song Auf das Trinkglas, about drinking a memorial toast to a departed friend). Each derived musical ideas directly from a prose text; Elgar from Religio Medici (see Appendix 2) and Schumann from inter alia Jean-Paul’s novel Die Flegeljahre.

     It seems indeed that the music of each was in some sense a response to verbal stimuli; certainly it was mostly associated with words or ideas in one way or another; and it seems to have been composed by the same process, namely the gradual synthesis of small-scale components. Each wrote themes suggesting the rhythm of a name (Elgar his own in op 36, Schumann those in the title of Hermann und Dorothea op 136). Schumann used anagrams and cipher to write music; so did Elgar (anagrams in Gerontiuscipher in the Allegretto on G.E.D.G.E.)

     None of this proves that Elgar used music-cipher in the Enigma Variationsstill less that he used Auld lang syne (which, as it happens, Schumann set for chorus, op 55 no 4). Neverthe­less these affinities, which could no doubt be extended still further by anyone with detailed knowledge of both composers, may already seem sufficiently strong to sustain speculation. It is almost, as Sir Thomas Browne says, “as though there were a Metempsychosis, and the soul of one man passed into another”; as if the mantle (or rather cloak) of Schumann (d 1856) fell upon Elgar (b 1857). One wonders who is wearing it now.


App. 3


Correspondences between Elgar’s enigmas (cipher system, message, and op 36) and Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (page references are to the readily­ available Dent Everyman edition, reprinted 1969)


The culmination of this thought-process is worth quoting in Browne's own words:

[music] strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of GOD...

Elgar’s mind seems to have divined more than Browne's many commentators have discovered: a running imagery of light and dark, with eyes open for reading and awareness, closed in sleep or mystery, bright in affection or creation, dim in absence or. sadness. Finally this chequered world of things visible and invisible, hieroglyphic and shadowed, turns to music in the composer's mind even more inevitably than in the prose­writer's.


[1] Dora Penny, later Mrs Richard Powell: see her Edward Elgar, Memories of a Variation, 1937, 3/1949App A. The main deciphered text ran: “... It's chaotic, but a cloak obscures my new letters, a b [?alphabet] below. I own the dark makes E.E. sigh when you are too long gone...
[2] My source is the programme note for the first performance (see Powell, op cit, p. 121); it avowedly quotes Elgar's own words, and is said to have been written by him.
[3] op cit, pp.23 and 119.
[4] PRMA (1959-60), lxxxvi; 79; Nov MT, p. 1126.
[5] apparently his sole contribution to musical studies, courteously left unpublished until Elgar's death; M&L (1934), xv, 203.
[6] K. Chesterton, The Sign of the Broken Sword; Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter.
[7] A fundamental concept of atonal composition - that any group of notes which is statable in horizontal succession is also statable as a simultaneity”: George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality, p. 42; see also pp. 21, 85.
[8] op. cit., op. 91.
[9] It is not clear whether the puzzling inverted commas round “goes” are Elgar's. If they are, their purpose will be to play fair, as the deviser of puzzles must. ”Another theme goes” would imply “in counterpoint”. So perhaps “another theme ‘goes’ “ implies “not in counterpoint”.
[10] c1900: conflated from Mrs Powell, op cit, pp. 23, 119.
[11] The cipher actually said “long gont”, and I had read the final T as the usual dummy letter to conceal where the message ends. But “long gont” would be the-phrase required by an exact chiastic transposition of vowels and consonants –“got/syne = sigh/gont” - and may hence have been jocularly intentional.
[12] see Diana McVeagh, Edward Elgar, p. 26.
[13] The symbols are assumed to lie back to back on the radii lying south and south-west, face to face on the others.
[14] cf the family name Elgar gave to his house in 1899, Craeg Lea, from Carice, Alice and Edward Elgar.
[15] c1900; see Mrs Powell, op cit, p. 37.
[16] see Percy Young, Elgar, O.M., pp. 253, 27.
[17] op. cit., p. 83.
[18] Mrs Powell, op cit, p. 38 and the following facsimile. Perhaps - the odd expression “unideal” is also a name-anagram?
[19] quoted in Westrup, op cit, p. 81.