Donald Stark's Story

Enigma

January 27, 2010

Quiz: What do Pachelbel’s Canon, Vivaldi’s Four Season, and Mahler’s Titan and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphonies have in common? 
Answer: Last year, they were all voted by the listeners of the New York area’s sole classical station, WQXR, less popular than Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Huh?  Elgar?  Enigma? 
Elgar?  Mr Pomp and Circumstance?  That veritable inventor of high school graduation?  That doughty (yet self-doubting), late-blooming, paint-within-the-lines blue-blood Brit? 
OK, granted, these 14 variations come comfortably to our urbane aural palate.  But that’s not what’s so interesting.  What’s so interesting is the treasure hunt — what the esteemed Sir Edward himself referred to as the hidden theme. 
For the past 111 years, scholars, casual listeners, Dungeons and Dragons dorks and puzzle geeks have tried their hands at cracking the code.  Elgar himself was maddening coy about the hints he proffered:
“Through the whole set, another larger theme goes but is not played.”  Not played?  Wha…?
“The principal theme never appears… the chief character is never on the stage.”  Cute!
“Its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed.”  So we’re supposed to start not guessing… when?  Now?
He even waxed technical on us, drawing our attention to the rhythm in the odd bars, which are flipped in the even ones, and admitting that arc in the first four notes is similar that of the slow movement Beethoven’s Pathetique.  And on and on.
Well, thanks a lot Edward!  Tease!
I’ve tried poking a hairpin into the lock.  To what avail?
Maybe it’s the notes in that ground bass line?  Hmm…  GABCDSHC… Huh?  Bupkis!
Maybe the melody?  BGCA DBAC BDGA.  Bust! 
Well, there is that fleeting Mahler reference.  (And five years after the Variations’ publication, Mahler, conductor of the NY Philharmonic at the time, did premier the Variations in the US)  Coincidence?
Then there’s the even more blatant quote from Tristan and Isolde.  A shoutout to his hottie?  All you need is love, love.  Love is all you need.
OK, I give.  Never made it to level 8. 
No matter.  With or without the code, the piece has stood the test of time, and sits proudly right under Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in today’s hot Classical Countdown.

Categories:   Composers, Elgar, Mahler

Submit a comment:
Name:
Email: 

Notify me of follow-up comments?