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The Enigma in Elgar's Variations

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Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote his famous orchestral suite in 1899. Although usually called The Enigma Variations, the work is officially called Variations on an Original Theme. It consists of a section in which the orchestra plays the original theme, then a number of 'variations'. Each one of these is based on the original theme, but varies it in a different way. One is the theme played in a major key, another plays it at double speed and so on.

Each of the variations is intended to represent the character of one of Elgar's friends: in one you can hear the friend's stutter, in another you can hear an incident where the friend's dog fell into a river and came out barking. The variations were given cryptic titles such as 'GRS' or 'BGN'. It was an easy task for Elgar's close associates to sort these out, as most are just the initials of his friends. The most famous variation is number 9, called 'Nimrod'. This is a reference to August Jaeger, who did much to encourage Elgar's compositions (Nimrod was a biblical hunter, Jaeger or Jäger is German for 'hunter'). Only one of these pieces is disputed: the 13th variation bore the title '***'. While it may represent Lady Mary Lygon, it could also be Helen Weaver, a former fiancée of Elgar's.

The work ends with a longer piece entitled E.D.U. which is loosely based on the theme and finishes the work off with a rousing finale. This is considered to represent Elgar himself, since his wife's nickname for him was 'Edoo'.

It is not necessary for the listener to know the details of every variation. Elgar himself said:

It is true that I have sketched for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter and need not have been mentioned publicly. The Variations should stand simply as a piece of music.


Elgar wrote the word 'Enigma' on the score over the original theme. He mentioned in his writing that while all the variations were based on the Enigma theme, the theme itself was a variation on another popular theme. He said 'the principal theme never appears'.

Elgar never told anyone what the popular theme was. Many people have tried to figure out the enigma since then, with many different suggestions. A favourite contender is 'Auld Lang Syne'. Another is 'Pop Goes the Weasel', but even this is little more than a guess. Some say that it is not a tune at all, but a symbolic theme such as 'Friendship'.


Elgar was amused that no-one could figure it out, so he refused to divulge the secret. He gave hints every now and then, but never enough to solve the puzzle. When asked directly would he ever reveal the secret, he replied 'Never'!

On one occasion, Elgar set up a keyboard with numbers on sticky paper stuck to the keys. He got his good friend Troyte Griffith to press the keys in the order they were numbered. He then told him, 'You now know the Enigma!'. Since the friend was tone-deaf, nobody is any the wiser.

When asked by his friend Dora Penny about the theme, he replied 'I thought that you, of all people, would guess it'.

When asked was it 'God Save the King', he replied 'No, of course not, but it is so well known that it is extraordinary that no-one has found it'.

When Elgar was on his deathbed, he spoke to the music critic, Ernest Newman. He said five words to him 'which probably had a bearing on the secret of the enigma', but since they were 'open to misconstruction', his friend vowed never to reveal them and took the secret with him to his own grave 25 years later.

The Enigma Solved?

In 1976, Theodore van Houten proposed a theory about the Enigma in The Music Review. This seems to have been ignored. It was brought to light again in 1990 by Denis Stevens in Stereophile.

Van Houten claims that the hidden theme is 'Britannia', represented by five notes from the song Rule Britannia. The chorus contains the lines:

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

The first five notes of the phrase 'never, never, never' fit the Enigma theme exactly in its major key form. So could this be the solution? Let's look at some of the clues.

  • When asked would he reveal the solution, he replied 'Never'.

  • He said 'the principal theme never appears'. Or is that 'the principal theme "never" appears'?

  • Dora Penny of all people should have guessed. A penny is also a British coin. What was on the penny at the time? An image of Britannia ruling the waves!

  • In the 13th variation which depicts a sea voyage by steamer, Elgar represents the engines of the steamer by a roll on the timpani, which he instructs should be played with two pennies, once again reminding us that Britannia rules the waves.

  • The 5th Variation is an illustration of Richard Penrose Arnold. Elgar had stayed at his house on occasions just prior to the writing of the variations. Is it a coincidence that his house was situated in 'Britannia Square'?

The Theme

Some of these clues are obviously more contrived than others. For those of you who are not convinced by these arguments, you may want to try to solve the enigma yourself. Here, then, is the main theme. The notes joined by dashes are quavers (eighth notes), the rest are crotchets (quarter notes). G' is an octave higher than G. All other notes are between G and G'. Each line starts with a one-beat rest.

Bb-G C A
D Bb A-C
Bb-D G' A
F G A-Bb
A-G D Bb
Bb G A-G B

Figure it out!

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