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Edward Elgar’s Code Broken

In 2007 I published my book Elgar’s Enigma Variations, The Solution, in which I presented a new solution to the enigma that Elgar incorporated in his Enigma Variations. Soon after that I placed a short article on this website with a summary of my theory. Since then frantic efforts have been made to disprove it. For example, for some time there has been a video/audio tract on YouTube that is supposed to discredit it. However, what is presented in this video/audio tract is totally absurd and has no bearing whatsoever on my theory. To prevent confusion, I have decided to extend my article with some audiofragments, music examples and additional remarks. More elaborate arguments for my theory can be found in my book (for more details please see at the end of this article).

What do you do when you are supposed to write about a piece titled ‘Enigma’ if you have no idea what the enigma is actually about? You stay as close as possible to what the composer himself said about the piece. So when Charles A. Barry was asked to write programme notes for the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899, he quoted Elgar’s own words, giving the important message that ‘… through and over the whole set [of variations] another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played… So the principal Theme never appears….

F.G. Edwards, editor of the Musical Times, did the same in his article on Elgar of October 1900. Starting with ‘Mr Elgar tells us that …,’ he mentions that it is possible to add another musical phrase, ‘which is quite familiar’, above the original theme that Elgar wrote. As correspondence shows, Edwards meticulously made all the changes to his text which Elgar and his wife Alice wanted after proofreading his article. Edwards even visited them a month before it was published to talk it over one more time. It is simply not possible that Elgar would have allowed any faulty information about his Enigma in Edward’s article. In his Elgar biography of 1905, Robert Buckley also claims that he is repeating Elgar’s own words. What he says about the work, confirms what Edwards mentioned about it: ‘The theme is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard.’ The comments by Edwards and Buckley contain a hard fact and therefore they provide important clues to finding the solution.

Their remarks reveal that one should look for a melody hidden in the work that can be combined with the theme of the work.  In other words, the actual theme of the Enigma Variations must have been set as a countermelody, or a second part, to that mysterious melody that does not occur in the work, but at the same time is present throughout and that can be said to be both ‘larger’ than the actual Enigma theme and ‘quite familiar’.

This undermines many of the solutions that have been suggested so far. A number of solutions is actually founded on a similarity between the minor theme at the beginning of the work and another specific melody, for example some notes they have in common (like the Rule, Britannia theory). Several other solutions do actually mention a specific melody that can be combined with the Enigma theme (like the hymn Now the day is over), but there are always one or more details that do not fit. Yet, it is highly unlikely that a competent composer like Edward Elgar would have allowed such flaws in his enigma. In the 113 years that have passed since the premiere, nobody has yet succeeded in finding a melody that can be conclusively combined with the theme of the Enigma Variations.

However, there is in fact a solution that complies with all criteria. I went searching for a melody that Elgar had linked to the work in some way. Thus, I came across the private conversation he had with his friend Dora Penny in August 1904 about the Nimrod variation, which according to Elgar was not really a portrait, but ‘the story of something that happened’.

The composer recounted to Dora Penny, a friend of the Elgars, how once, when he was depressed and wanted to stop composing, his friend and soulmate August Jaeger (= Nimrod) lectured him sternly. Jaeger referred to Ludwig van Beethoven who, despite his great difficulties, had always persevered and composed more and more beautiful music. ‘And-that-is-what-you-must-do’, he said and sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique to him.

AUDIO EXCERPT 1 Pathétique

According to Elgar himself, the Nimrod variation contains a musical reference to that melody: ‘Can’t you hear it at the beginning?’ he asked Dora Penny, ‘Only a hint, not a quotation.’


However, the chance that somebody would notice a link with Beethoven’s melody when listening to it without receiving any indication beforehand, is in my opinion very unlikely. So, what exactly is the connection between Nimrod and the Pathétique melody?

The first thing I discovered was that the beginning of the Nimrod melody can be combined with the - never clearly recognisable - melody of Beethoven’s Pathétique, which can be said to be ‘larger’ and also ‘quite familiar’. Preceded by a crotchet rest, the first four notes of Nimrod form a countermelody to the first measure, just like the next four, now rhythmically reversed, do to the second measure. This is exemplified by the music example 1 and by audio excerpt 3.

This countermelody turns out to be constructed out of groups of four notes, based on the rhythm of Elgar’s own name (‘Edward Elgar’: short-short-long-long, and then reversed: long-long-short-short) and a final note G. I call this new melody that plays a key role in the work, the ‘Elgar theme’. That Elgar was referring to himself with this four-note motive also becomes clear from the fact that he used it to sign a letter he wrote to Dora Penny from a hotel in Leeds in 1901.

Music example 1: The ‘Elgar theme’and above it the beginning of the theme from `Beethoven’s Pathétique (transposed to E-flat and notated in double note values)

AUDIO EXCERPT 3 ‘Pathétique and the ‘Elgar theme’combined

The ‘Elgar theme’ and Beethoven’s melody are clearly connected. The first is written as a counterpart to the latter. This becomes apparent from the second F in the ‘Elgar theme’ (marked with a cross in music example 1) which is actually a strange note since, based on the minor opening theme of the work, one would expect a G here. As the note is an F, it fits perfectly in the chord Beethoven uses there.

Another possible clue is, for example, the tempo Elgar initially had in mind for Nimrod (and the opening theme). Nowadays the variation is played very slowly. Elgar himself already did that in his recording of 1926 with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra: the tempo there is = ca. 40. However, what is remarkable is that, according to the autograph of 1899, the composer originally had a considerably faster tempo in mind: ‘Moderato = 66’ (and for the opening theme: ‘Andante = 63’). Is it a coincidence that, when it is played in this original tempo, two crotchets of the ‘Elgar theme’ are perfectly in time with one minim of Beethoven’s theme in music example 1 when the latter is played Adagio cantabile, as prescribed by Beethoven?

If we take a closer look at the ‘Elgar theme’, we see that it contains all the notes from the beginning of Beethoven’s melody, in the exact same order, while each of its notes follows the identical note in the Pathétique theme: the G of the Beethoven melody is followed by a G in the ‘Elgar theme’, Elgar’s F comes after that of Beethoven, etc. As follows:


Music example 2: the opening notes of the Beethoven theme are repeated in the ‘Elgar theme’

The musical symbolism of this is obvious: Elgar, symbolised by the Elgar theme, follows the example of Beethoven, represented by the theme from the Pathétique, as Jaeger told him to do. This turns out to be the central idea of the whole composition.

The Beethoven theme meets all criteria that we set above for the mysterious ‘principle Theme’ which lies hidden in the work. Having ascertained that the ‘Elgar theme’ has been set to the theme of Beethoven, it follows that the Nimrod melody has been derived from it. It was changed in a ¾ metre by omitting the rests and extended. The same applies to the opening theme, which in itself is already a variation on the underlying ‘Elgar theme’: while maintaining the rests, the theme was set in a minor key and extended. Rather unusually, Elgar at first just wanted to call the work ‘Variations’ or ‘Variations for Orchestra’ without alluding to a ‘theme’ in the title. Maybe he did not want to suggest too explicitly, as is common in other works in the genre “theme and variations”, that the opening melody was the actual theme of the work. Actually the ‘Elgar theme’, the nucleus of the work, was the main melody: (nearly) all the parts are direct or indirect variations of that melody.


This theory does not connect a trivial riddle with the work, but it demonstrates that in his Enigma Variations Elgar expressed a thought that was meaningful and very important to him when he started the composition in October 1898: as we know, the composer had been depressed for some time. The minor melody with which the work starts, musically expresses the sadness and loneliness of the artist. The following variations, each with its own character, may “on the surface” portray some of Elgar’s friends, but of course they are also equivalent depictions of the composer’s moods. The main melody of the final movement is based on the ‘Elgar theme’ as well (the rhythm of its second half: long-long-short-short-short). In this Finale Elgar expressed the strength and confidence he felt by taking Beethoven as an example. Like some of his other works and those of his contemporaries Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, the Enigma Variations are really about the artist himself.

Elgar misled everyone with his enigma: it is not the opening theme that can be combined with another, larger and well-known theme, but the ‘Elgar theme’ that is hidden in Nimrod. This variation, located as an emotional climax in the middle of the work, refers to August Jaeger. He has received a place of honour in the work: in the Finale not only the variation Elgar dedicated to his wife, but also the Nimrod variation is quoted because Jaeger was his soulmate who often gave him useful advise on his creative work and heartened the artist in bleak times, encouraging him to continue composing.

The beginning of the Pathétique theme is hidden in the actual theme of the Enigma Variations, the short ‘Elgar theme’, which appears in different forms all through the work. Therefore one can say that Beethoven’s theme can be heard throughout the work without being played: ‘… through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played...’ Even Dora Penny could not solve the enigma of the Variations, because she did not see the connection between the enigma and the Jaeger-Beethoven story which the composer himself had told her in private. Elgar had expected she would: ‘I’m surprised. I thought that you of all people would guess it.’

Hans Westgeest

Hans Westgeest, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Solution.Corbulo Press, Leidschendam-Voorburg, 2007. Hardcover € 18,95 (ISBN 978-90-79291-01-4), paperback € 13,50 (ISBN 978-90-79291-03-8). Also available in Dutch. To order the book send an email to the author (jpwestgeest@hotmail.com) or go to: www.elgarsenigmavariations.eu