One of classical music’s biggest mysteries – the inspiration source of the UK’s Edward Elgar’s theme for the ‘Enigma’ Variations – has reportedly been solved. The solution will be published in the winter issue of the Musical Times.
A University of Leeds academic claims he’s conclusively solved the puzzle that the composer had hidden in one of his 1899 Variations on an original theme for Orchestra Op. 36.
Sir Edward Elgar died in 1935 and had said on many occasions that the unresolved puzzle he had devised was so simple he was amazed that no one had guessed it yet. His Enigma Variations comprises 14 variations on an original theme which contain two ‘hidden’ puzzles, or enigmas. The first is the identity of the 14 ‘friends pictured within’ – or the characters on whom the 14 variations are based. Elgar himself identified these people after he had completed the piece. The second, and more contentious, is the identity of the piece of music that is supposed to be a ‘counterpoint’ to the main theme.
The work was first performed in 1899 and marked a watershed both in Elgar’s career and in the renaissance of English music at the turn of the century. Ever since, music lovers across the world have puzzled and speculated about which piece of well-known music inspired one of his most famous works.
Now Dr Clive McClelland believes he has achieved a conclusive solution; the counterpoint to the main theme is based on the melody of the popular hymn ‘Now the day is over’. He’s written an extensive article which will appear in the winter volume of the Musical Times in which he cleaims his solution accounts for all 24 notes of the theme. In a short pre-release, McClelland excitedly explains that this finding occurred during a real Kodak Camera moment; "I suddenly came up with the first few notes of a promising tune in bed at 4am. By 5.30 I had it all worked out."
The ‘Enigma’ theme is a very strange tune. To McClelland’s trained ear it sounds like it has been worked out rather than composed in a moment of inspiration." I had been thinking about it on and off for a few years, and having heard the ‘Enigma’ Variations on the BBC Proms earlier in the week, I had the music in my mind and thought: ‘I should have another go at solving that puzzle’."
And so he did it. This year is the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth, so the timing couldn’t be better. McClelland’s theory will no doubt be examined by scholars.
"It is extraordinary that so many of the well-known solutions, such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and the National Anthem, simply do not fit very well with Elgar’s theme. Nearly all of the previous ideas either don’t account for some of the notes, or have dissonances if they do", he writes.
Sir Elgar is believed to have loved a good puzzle, and in devising one, he would not have left any anomalies if he could have helped it. "Of the 24 notes, I have identified 12 precise matches, and the other 12 are all harmonious intervals (11 thirds and a fifth)", says McClelland.
"There have been a lot of rather silly suggestions around in recent years, but I have come up with an idea that ticks all the boxes," he says. "I think it is a genuinely plausible solution, and I am offering it in order to further the debate on the subject."
Both the words and music for ‘Now the day is over’ were written by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest, novelist and hymn writer, who also wrote the words for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.
The hymn was first published in 1867 and remains one of the best-known works of Baring-Gould, who died in 1924.
The identity of the music will probably never be known for certain as Elgar died without revealing the source of his inspiration.
Another solution to the riddle was published recently, indicating that the 24 notes might allude to pi. Read this entry by Dick Santa and be even more intrigued.