Magazine article Musical Times

Shadows of the Evening: New Light on Elgar's 'Dark Saying'

Magazine article Musical Times

Shadows of the Evening: New Light on Elgar's 'Dark Saying'

Article excerpt

I HESITATE TO ENTER such a well-trodden field as that of 'Enigma' solutions, but the Elgar anniversary year cannot be allowed to pass without someone revisiting this long-running conundrum. I do not propose to summarise all the theories regarding the source of Elgar's 'Enigma', as Julian Rushton has achieved this most admirably in his monograph on the subject, where he examines the main contenders closely and points out their strengths and weaknesses clearly and succinctly.' Furthermore, he helpfully provides a set of criteria based on clues in the writings of both Elgar himself and Dora Powell (néee Penny) which would need to be met for a successful solution. These are:2

(1) The solution must unveil a 'dark saying' (although the composer said it 'must be left unguessed';

(2) The solution must find 'another and larger theme' which goes over the whole set;

(3) The solution involves well-known music, or at least something well-known;

(4) It must be clear why Dora Penny 'of all people' should guess it;

(5) The 'solution' should take into account the characteristic falling sevenths of bars 3-4

As a warning to would-be 'enigma-crackers', Rushton later suggests that 'At the risk of dismissing something which may yet be unequivocally proven, [...] the "right" solution, if it exists, while fulfilling the criteria, must be multivalent, must deal with musical as well as cryptographic issues, must produce workable counterpoint within Elgar's stylistic range, and must at the same time seem obvious (and not just to the begetter).'3

The various published 'solutions' are demonstrated to be inadequate because they fail to meet one or more of these criteria satisfactorily, although clearly many have their merits. Most of the solvers make the false assumption that the hidden melody fits in real time with Elgar's theme; but because his arrangement of notes produces a six-bar phrase, a precise metrical alignment with a well-known tune is unlikely.4 Since the hidden tune is supposed to be 'well-known', then regular four-bar phrases are at least a strong possibility. Elgar's six-bar phrase is achieved by the characteristic four-note grouping, repeated six times with its reversible rhythm of two quavers and two crotchets. This strongly suggests the cryptological technique of disguising word-lengths in ciphers by arranging letters in regular patterns. Elgar's love of puzzles and cryptograms is well documented.5 It is reasonable to suppose, .therefore, that while the sequence of pitches is derived from a source melody, the rhythm and phrase structure are not.

The greatest drawback with nearly all of the published 'solutions' is that they fail to take the length factor into consideration, and hardly any make it to the final note. They mostly peter out before the end. Why would Elgar write a theme consisting of 24 notes if not all were needed?61 therefore propose that two further criteria be considered:

6) There is no need for the solution to fit in real time with the 'Enigma' theme (this does not, however, preclude the appearance of a 'workable counterpoint');

7) All 24 pitches from the 'Enigma' theme must be accounted for. The source melody must somehow fit from the first note to the last.

Before coming to what I think the solution might be, I offer some observations about the characteristics of the 'Enigma' theme in the first six bars:

(i) It opens with several melodic thirds (and the B section in the major which follows immediately is built on parallel thirds).7 There is some conjunct motion, but not as much as one might expect;

(ii) The falling sevenths are rather odd. They are the only big leaps in the line and result in the two highest notes of the theme, occurring either side of the halfway point and creating a more satisfying overall contour. Could they be disguised seconds (i.e. are the pitches transferred up an octave)? At the lower octave the conjunct motion would be increased but the melodic range would be somewhat limited. …

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