Academic journal article Current Musicology

Solving Elgar's Enigma

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Solving Elgar's Enigma

Article excerpt

On June 19, 1899, Elgar's opus 36, Variations on a Theme, was introduced to the public for the first time. It was accompanied by an unusual program note:

It is true that I have sketched for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter, and need not have been mentioned publicly. The Variations should stand simply as a "piece" of music. The Enigma I will not explain--its "dark saying" must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set [of variations] 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. (Burley and Carruthers 1972:119)

After this premier Elgar give hints about the piece's "Enigma," but he never gave the solution outright and took the secret to his grave. Since that time scholars, music lovers, and cryptologists have been trying to solve the Enigma. Because the solution has not been discovered in spite of over 108 years of searching, many people have assumed that it would never be found. In fact, some have speculated that there is no solution, and that the promise of an Enigma was Elgar's rather shrewd way of garnering publicity for the piece. Others have even argued that the larger Enigma was a joke or a hoax; that Elgar never had any Enigma but instead tricked people to search in vain (Rushton 1999:64). Elgar refused to validate any solution offered during his lifetime, and therefore no solution can ever be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. However, the composer offered a series of hints that provide a rubric for evaluating the plausibility of various solutions.

Julian Rushton (1999) establishes a set of five requirements based on Elgar's hints, arguing that any solution must satisfy each and every one of them. The composer's first two hints are given in the program notes quoted above. First Elgar writes that there is a "dark saying" involved; and second, he notes that the "Theme goes throughout the piece but is not heard." Later, Elgar gave a third hint when he said on several occasions that it was extraordinary that no one had guessed the Enigma because it was so "well known." The composer's fourth hint was given to his close friend Dora Penny (who later wrote about Elgar under her married name, Mrs. Richard Powell). He said that she, of all people, should have guessed it. In 1929 Elgar offered a fifth hint in a note that accompanied the "Duo-Art" pianola rolls of his Variations published by the Aeolian Company. He drew attention to the pairs of notes in the first and second bars before adding that "the drop of the seventh in the Theme [bars 3 and 4] should be observed" (Kennedy 1968:91). The first six measures of the "Enigma" theme are given as example 1.


Two more hints will be explored by us here, and one of those hints provided the impetus for this article. In October 1911, Elgar wrote additional program notes for a performance of the "Enigma" Variations. He included the qualifying phrase, "This work, commenced in a spirit of humour ..." (Kennedy 2004:68), suggesting that the solution might be lighter in character than many writers on Elgar's music have presumed until now. We argue that a seventh hint could be found in the wording of his dedication, "To My Friends Pictured Within," since it could be considered a "variation" of "To My Circle of Friends." It is this hint that led us to a new solution.

This article explores the possibility that pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is the solution to Elgar's Enigma. It will be shown in the pages that follow how pi satisfies all of Elgar's hints: the five hints that Rushton identifies as well as the two other possible hints identified above. …

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