Elgar's Enigmas - Letters and Comments on Eric Sams's Essays

© The Musical TimesMay and June 1970 (pp. 502-503 & 600)






With reference to Eric Sams's article on the Enigma Variations in the March MT (p.258), I would like to mention three further items of evidence which have, I believe, a significant bearing on the question and may serve to reinforce his argument.

First, Schumann's ABEGC variations and Carnaval overture are specifically mentioned in the programme note for the first performance of the variations al St James's Hall on June 19, 1899. I quote:


In his Variations, which are as far as possible removed from being a series of dry, scholastic exercises, Mr Elgar in the main seems to have followed Wagner's dicta. Indeed, each one of them, like Beethoven's famous “Thirty-­Three” may fairly be regarded as forming a complete poem in itself; while taken collectively they constitute un organic whole, the poetical signification of which is indicated lo the hearer by the initials or Christian names of the per­sonages intended to be portrayed. For the benefit of those listeners who may regard such a mode of procedure as an innovation it may be well to call to mind that an ample precedent has been furnished by other composers. In the Seventeenth Century, the celebrated organist, Froberger, as Mattheson has related, was wont to improvise whole histories on the harpsichord, and to describe personages and their peculiarities in such away that they were easily recognisable by the audience. Further, it has been told of Schumann that even in his school-days he possessed a particular partiality and gift for painting feelings and characteristic traits in tone, even lo the extent of so pre­cisely sketching the various dispositions of his playfellows who stood around him at the piano that they would burst out laughing at the excellence of their portraits. And this power of picturing individuals he carried still farther and more seriously in his “ABEGG” Variations, Carneval scenes, etc.


Elgar himself did not write this note, and these particular words are not attributed to him, as are those given by Dorabella in her book and mentioned by Mr Sams. However, the initials of the reviewer, CAB., printed at the end of the note are placed in square brackets. I can find no other occasion in that series of Richter concerts where this is done, although C.A.B. contributed almost three-quarters of the programme notes. This suggests lo me that he is here perhaps not so much writing original material as putting someone else's material, pre­sumably Elgar's, into a suitable form.

    Secondly, in referring to the Music MakerMr Sams has not, I think, given sufficient weight to what may be found there. This work should not be underrated as an historical document. It is not just that Elgar makes use of extensive self-quotation, but that these quotations are set to words, with the obvious inference that he found the conjunction not just apt but so compelling as lo lay aside the claims of fresh musical expression. Michael Kennedy, in his book Portrait of Elgar, lists the musical quota­tions in the work, but he does not make clear that the Enigma theme, much quoted throughout, occurs in both chorus and orchestra at the words: “O men! Il must ever be/ That we dwell, in our dreaming and our singing,/ A little apart from ye;” (pp. 65-7, vocal score). This seems to accord most fully with Elgar's statement that the Enigma theme expressed his feeling of the loneliness of the artist. Then, at pp. 42-3, the “Nimrod” theme is used for the words: “But on one man's soul it hath broken / A light that doth not depart”. The reference lo Jaeger's encour­agement is obvious especially in the light of the following words: “And his look, or a word he has spoken,/ Wrought flame in another man's heart”. Il may well be that the reference is to the same occasion as that which Dorabella says is the basis of the “Nimrod” variation (1947 end, pp. 110-1). Certainly here we have Elgar fired with inspiration through his friends, and his `theme' made richer by their friendship.

    Finally, if Elgar put his name into cipher for the theme of the variations, did he not also for the finale? But what a difference, both in “cipher” and mood! Here surely is the final expression of the transition from darkness lo light, from alone lo befriended and loved. With his friends around him, and C.A.E. and Nimrod beside him, E.D.U. looks to the future and shows what he intends to do.

LondonN22                                                                                                                A. W. Savage






I have been following with great interest the recent articles or) Elgar. Mr Eric Sams's mention of Elgar's affinities with Schumann (March MT, pp.261-2) prompts me to make the following observations.

i) Although well-known, the similarity in the open­ings of their respective E flat symphonies is always striking.

ii) “Aspiration” (no 4 of From the Bavarian Highlands) makes great use of the phrase (ex 1) which opens



“Von fremden Ländern und Menschen“ (no 1 of Kinderszenen)Any textual reason for the connection escapes me.

iii) At figure 5 in Falstaff appears ex 2a, bearing an intriguing resemblance to the second song in Frauenliebe und -leben (ex 26).The text to which it is



therein set begins “Er, der Herrlichste von Allen'” not bad sentiments when applied to Prince Hal!


Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham                                      Christopher Morley




I have been following closely Mr Sams's articles and the subsequent correspondence an Elgar's crypto­graphy. One important and relevant point seems to have escaped attention so far. Several composers, from Josquin des Prez onwards, have derived themes from the letters of people's names, and Bach's signing his own name in the music of The Art of Fugue is well-known. It is highly possible that Elgar signed his name in, not one, but practically all his major works. In Elgar's case the result was a chord consisting of the notes E-C#-G-A (reading from the bass up), ie the 2nd inversion of the dominant 7th, with the root at the top. This chord can be more or less derived from the letters of Elgar's name: the R is silent, and if H-L are allotted to the appropriate black notes, L will correspond to C#; alternatively, the C# can be regarded as a harmonic necessity to fill out the three-note chord E-G-A.


     To achieve the effect Elgar would want - that of giving his works a personal stamp by literally writing his name in the music - this “Elgar chord” would be best used in a striking manner at important points, such as main themes, in his major works. And that is precisely how it is used (sometimes transposed). Readers might like to verify this for themselves; a few examples, in all of which the crucial chord is the first chromatic one in the theme, are as follows. Pomp and Circumstance March no 1, Trio, bar 7; Symphony no 1, first movement, sixth bar after fig 3, third beat; Enigma Variations, Nimrod, bar 3 last crotchet; Cello Concerto, first movement, third bar after fig 4, second beat.


Oxford                                                                                                                             barry cooper




Surely it can no longer be doubted that the “hidden melody” of Elgar's portrait-variations is Old Man RiverAt the time Elgar was professionally in deep



water, though the tide was turning. As an inveterate leg-puller it was easy for him to hide behind the mask of the “Ole Man [Gerontius] Ribber” - no longer in his own eyes a rivulet from the Bavarian Highlands cascading down (cf Caractacusand also Jaeger, to most people's minds less of a hunter than a jumper)but a broad stream flowing on nobilmentetrue Malvern Water.


     Of course he wished to keep his secret (“He don't say nothing”), and - another fluvial metaphor ­ under no Circumstance would he be Pumped; instead, he jes' keeps rolling along, like the river and this whole boring correspondence.


Norwich                                                                                                                 Thomas Browne (Kt)





Eric Sams and Roger Fiske have surely proved together that Auld lang syne is the “larger theme”. May I rush in to suggest a reason for Elgar's prevarication and Mrs Powell's consequent distress as reported by Roger Fiske.


     In the climate of the 1890s and as a relatively unknown young composer, Elgar would surely have thought of Auld lang syne as a “larger theme” without any conflict or embarrassment. On the other hand, as this century grew with its snobbish divisions between different sorts of music, and as the variations became accepted as one of the masterpieces of the world, and as Elgar's own position became more established and honoured, Auld lang syne would surely have come to seem too unim­portant a tune for the dignity of the occasion. It would, surely, have been only human for Elgar to find embarrassment in a tune that some people would have thought not good enough for the Enigma and, once having prevaricated (or lied), to find himself embarrassingly stuck with it. This is not written to denigrate a great man but merely to suggest that he was also a human one.


Dublin                                                                                                                             Charles Acton




As I see it, the Enigma solution is as follows: based on what Elgar originally did and not on what he subsequently said. On the autograph full score is stated “Commenced February 5 ended February 19 1899”. My friend the Rt Rev John Richards, Bishop of St Davids, pointed out that in the Quinquagesima Mass in the Epistle there would be the words of the Vulgate version of 1. Cor. 13.12: “Videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate”, the last word being from the Greek, meaning “in a riddle” or, as we usually know it, “darkly”. Elgar gave the clue soon afterwards by saying in the programme note: ‘The enigma I will not explain - its "dark saying" must be left unguessed'.


     Elgar was a practising Roman Catholic at the time and knew his Vulgate well. In 1899 Quin­quagesima Sunday fell on February 12 - bang in the middle of his last week's work, orchestrating his Variations for Orchestra, op 36, “Dedicated to my Friends pictured within”. Did Elgar go to church that day? Mrs Elgar Blake, by reference to her mother's diary, was able to tell me that he did.


     By referring to a Chapter 13, which is divided into 13 verses, Elgar was to see his 13 friends in a new light, and they him. The completed score, with the word “Enigma” added at the top of the first page of music (notattached to the theme), was immediately sent to the great conductor, Richter, who gave the first performance on June 19, 1899. It was to be a turning point in Elgar's career: an unknown provincial became a world famous composer.

                                                                                                                                            Ian Parrott




This correspondence is now closed - Editor