Enigma Variations

Composed by Edward Elgar between 1898 and '99, Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra ("Engima"), Op. 36, has long been my favorite piece of classical music. In addition to being beautiful music there is enough mystery packed into the Variations to keep every conspiracy theorist in the house busy for years.

The work is comprised of a theme and 14 variations. Each variation is dedicated to a friend but the enigma remains hidden. What is the common theme? Is it played or is it conceptual? Some insist it must be music, some it must be a feeling. Blogger Robert Padgett offers theories, identifies hidden puzzles, strongly offers solutions and proof on his blog Elgar's Enigma Theme Unmasked

A comprehensive analysis of the Enigma Variations conducted over five years revealed the existence of at least nineteen different ciphers. While seemingly extraordinary, such a high number is entirely consistent with a reigning feature of Elgar’s psychological profile – an intense fascination for ciphers. More importantly, their decryptions are significant because they provide the answers to key questions concerning the Variations. What is the secret melody on which the Enigma Theme is a counterpoint?


  1. Ah, thought it was a post about the Enigma label’s compilation albums (Enigma Variations 1,2,etc)…   Was hoping to find some John Trubee references.

      1. ‘Tar, tar! Tar-tartar tattytattytatty, tar!’ Got that? ‘Tar! Tatty-tar! Quiet part—tar-tar-tar-tttt-TAR! TARTARTAR!!!’ “Got that?

  2. That blog is genuinely brilliant… in a Dan Brown sort of way.  (I’ve seen similar work done on Swift and Carroll.) As a puzzle-writer, I know how appallingly easy it is to create things from nothing, and there’s a bit too much of that in there.   (Of course, this sort of stuff doesn’t stop the EV being a wonderful piece of music, in much the same way that Da Vinci’s Last Supper is still a great fresco.)

  3. Good grief. I didn’t have the stomach to read page after page of Padgett’s theories, but on the first page he assumes a solution, which produces a jumble of letters, and then goes on to justify this random jumble with some acrobatic logic. That’s not how cyphers work – when you crack them, the answer makes sense.

    Also, he seems convinced the “hidden theme” is Ein Feste Burg. Really? A devout Catholic is going to write a symphony on the ultimate Protestant hymn? Extremely unlikely.

    1. I initially suspected ‘Ein feste Burg’ (A Mighty Fortress) due to the oddly placed Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII. In that movement Elgar repeatedly quotes ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’, a concert overture by Felix Mendelssohn – a Lutheran. So much for ruling out the possibility Elgar would never quote a Lutheran’s music because of his staunch Roman Catholicism. Why would Elgar quote a decidedly foreign melody unrelated to the Enigma Theme? The fragment appears four times in three different keys: Twice in A-flat major, once in F minor, and once in E-flat major. I reasoned Elgar quotes Mendelssohn to hint by inversion that Mendelssohn quotes the hidden melody in one of his own works. Sure enough, Mendelssohn quotes ‘Ein feste Burg’ followed by a set of variations in the fourth movement of his first extended symphonic work, the Reformation Symphony. Four fragments by Mendelssohn in a symphonic setting, the fourth movement of a Mendelssohn’s first major symphony – the parallels are hard to dismiss as purely coincidental. Interestingly, the key letters of those fragments form the famous music cryptogram FAE, the initials for Joseph Joachim’s personal romantic motto ‘Frei aber einsem’ (Free but lonely). Notice the solution for the initials FAE consists of three words in German…just like ‘Ein feste Burg!’ The fact that famous hymn is the only melody ever proposed presenting a perfect horizontal fit with the Enigma Theme seals the case for Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’ as the unstated Principal Theme to Elgar’s Enigma Variations. QED.

      1. ” Notice the solution for the initials FAE consists of three words in German…just like ‘Ein feste Burg!’ ”

        Haha you had me until this statement. I realize now that this is a sophisticated hoax. Well done, sir, well done. 

        1. FAE is a well known music cryptogram, particularly to aspiring violinists like Elgar who idolized Joseph Joachim and heard of the FAE Violin Sonata composed for him by Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich. Elgar’s allusion to this music cryptogram by means of the key letters of the Mendelssohn fragments serves as a critical clue. This is the case since the solution to FAE is comprised of three words in German, and so too is the common title of the covert Principal Theme. Joachim was Mendelssohn’s protege, touring England with him as a young violin protegy. The connection between Mendelssohn and Joachim was therefore intentional. The insertion of one music cryptogram should serve as a sign that others are present.

  4. Everybody knows the hidden theme is “Happy Birthday to You.” 
    Elgar got away without paying for it!

  5. My analysis gives the “hidden theme” as a mountain standing up shapely as an ear of a rice plant

  6.  Does this sort of crackpottery have any general name? I can think of generally religious terms such as “Kabbalah” and “Hermeneutics” or the more general “Pseudo science” but these don’t seem quite right. What I’m looking for is some word describing seeming rational explanations of hidden meanings. The word should probably contain “crypto-” meaning “hidden”.

  7. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jaqueline Du Pre lately, including her notable performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor.  Even to someone like me who knows very little about classical music, it’s pretty brilliant.  Otherwise, he is unknown to me.  Your description is intriguing, I’d never considered what variations really entailed before.  I’m into part 2 now.  I’ll let you know when I’ve solved the enigma  (`ー´)ヘヘーン

      1. Holst’s The Planet’s first bit–Mars–could easily have been used as the soundtrack for Superman ’78 (but don’t stop there, the whole thing is fantastic)

        1.  Every time I listen to Mars I become re-convinced either that John Williams was listening to it right before he composed the Imperial March, or that someone put it in for those scenes before the final score was composed and Williams worked from there. There are some moments that are virtually identical.

  8. Not Even Wrong.

    If you search a random set of data long enough, with wide enough tolerances for what you’ll accept as meaningful, you will be able to extract patterns from it. What those patterns mean, if anything, is a separate question.. Classic error in logic, shows up frequently in faked science, fake science, and (alas) in attempts at science that were simply not done well.

    1. To presume your criticism is valid without addressing anything specific to the theory is a classic violation of the laws of logic. Of course when logic is suspended, anythings goes…like your criticism for instance.

  9. I’m in a unique position to reveal that reversing the misprints in the programme note Elgar wrote for the first performance reveals a hitherto unsuspected 20th cipher.  The following secret message emerges:

    We’re no strangers to Love
    You know the Rules and so do I

    This appears to be a quotation from a longer poem, familiar to Elgar and his circle of friends; I have so far been unable to trace it.

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