Five theories for the unsolved mystery of Elgar's Enigma Variations

We explore five potential solutions to the Enigma's enigma

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Five theories for the unsolved mystery of Elgar's Enigma Variations
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In the programme note at the premiere of the Enigma Variations, Elgar laid down the gauntlet for music detectives: ‘The Enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set, another and larger theme “goes” but is not played.’ To this day the enigma remains ‘unsolved’. Here are five of the most popular theories…

Auld Lang Syne

A long-time favourite of the counterpoint theorists, who feel the solution lies with a melody that can be played at the same time as Elgar’s original theme. It was first suggested by Dora Penny, but refuted by the composer.  

 

 

The National Anthem

Another counterpoint solution, offered by Troyte Griffith. Again, Elgar dismissed it.

 

 

 

Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony

Of those theories based on connectivity – themes that show a familial resemblance to Elgar’s own – the second movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 is often mooted.   

 

 

Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata

Combining counterpoint and connectivism, another favourite is the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata’s central slow movement, which opens with a theme that (when transposed into E flat) can initially be played alongside Elgar’s.

 

 

Pi

Applying the decimal approximation of Pi (3.142) to the degrees of the scale, you get Elgar’s theme. And his love of puns is satisfied by the nursery rhyme quote ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pi(e),’ which gives you his ‘dark saying’..

 

 

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