You’ve heard “Pomp and Circumstance” at graduations but its British composer, Edward Elgar, was relatively unknown even by his 40s. His “genius,” as Leonard Bernstein later described of him, was simply undiscovered.
That changed one day while he improvised various tunes on the piano for his wife.
She suggested that one particular theme showed great potential. His response was a wittily composed set of variations that mirrored the personality of many of his close friends.
To conceal their identity, he only used cryptic hints and titled the work, “Enigma Variations.”
Furthermore, he claimed that there was a larger hidden enigma theme but that “its dark saying is best left unguessed.”
Being a lifelong lover of cryptology and puzzles as he was, this was an authentic approach. It also made for a commercial success, as many in Europe came to know of this musical mystery and set out to solve it.
In doing so, Elgar was finally discovered for his musical greatness.
Many of the variations’ secret identities have been revealed either by Elgar’s admissions or by clever research into the musical clues.
For example, “David” was a fellow pianist who played with low accuracy but high effort. For this, Elgar humorously wrote dissonant “accidentals” to plink about confidently in the strings.
“Richard” was known for his scholarly mannerisms but also for his loud bicycle bell that would ring annoyingly every time he passed. Elgar gave the clarinets that dubious honor.
A dizzying tempo, flourish of strings and a perpetual panting of low instruments told the story of “Dan the dog” that fell into a river and barely paddled his way to safety. The bassoons and basses have the last bark!
Love and admiration weaved inconspicuously as well.
Elgar used a broken rhythm in the flute and oboe, an endearing hint of “Dora,” his close admirer. She was known for having a slight stutter.
Another tune fancied an unnamed dame traveling on a sea voyage. For this he wrote an endlessly soft rattling of the timpani head as the sound of a ship’s engines.
The success of this effect is quite mesmerizing and must be heard in person.
Long talks with his dear hunting friend “A.J.” are warmly reminiscent in a seamless strand of melodic links. Famously known as “Nimrod,” this variation is now one of the most beloved of all classical melodies.
And of course, his wife received a special variation. His delicate and romantic portrayal of her appears near the beginning and again in the “Finale,” an auto-biographical variation of himself that is full of thick complexities and thematic contradictions.
Which brings back to mind, what about the secret theme “best left unguessed?”
Elgar hinted that its musical clues were so apparent, he wondered how noone in the whole of Britain had ever guessed it?
Many academic theories and amateur speculations have conjured more questions than answers.
For example, intervallic clues in the opening theme and its proportions to the whole seem to equal the mathematical “pi.” But how does this solve the enigma riddle?
Others have noted that versions of “Auld Lang Syne,” “Rule Britannia” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” can all work superimposed on the piece, but only incompletely or quite abstractly.
Of this enigma theme, no one really knows for sure. Some have suggested that even Elgar did not know.
This paradox may be plausible--as it was his fellow Englishman, George Orwell, who famously said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”