Elgar's 'Enigma' Still Keeps Music Detectives Busy : Deceptive Cadence When Edward Elgar debuted what came to be called his "Enigma Variations" in 1899, he left tantalizing clues in the score about a mystery contained in the music.
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Elgar's 'Enigma' Still Keeps Music Detectives Busy

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Elgar's 'Enigma' Still Keeps Music Detectives Busy

Elgar's 'Enigma' Still Keeps Music Detectives Busy

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a musical riddle that's more than a hundred years old. It's buried in a piece by the late English composer Edward Elgar. The piece is "Variations On An Original Theme, Op. 36." Everyone calls it the "Enigma Variations." When Elgar wrote it, he hinted that there was a riddle hiding in the music. Elgar enthusiasts have been trying to solve it ever since. NPR's Daniel Estrin introduces us to one man who says he has.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The "Enigma Variations" made Edward Elgar famous. One of the variations has become a sort of national song of mourning. It was played at Princess Diana's funeral. The composition begins with this haunting theme...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF ELGAR'S "VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME, OP. 36")

ESTRIN: ...Followed by 14 variations on that theme. When the work debuted in 1899, the composer wrote this cryptic note.

JULIAN RUSHTON: The enigma I will not explain. Its dark saying must be left unguessed.

ESTRIN: That's the voice of musicologist Julian Rushton, an Elgar expert who reads another clue.

RUSHTON: Over the whole set, another and larger theme goes but is not played.

ESTRIN: Elgar never said what this enigma was. It's believed to be a famous tune that if you played it along with the variations would fit perfectly. For decades, sleuths of all stripes have tried to guess what it is. In the 1950s, a national magazine in the U.S. ran a guessing contest. Over the years, people have suggested tunes like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Pop Goes The Weasel." The late violinist Yehudi Menuhin thought it was "Rule, Britannia!" The late British musicologist Eric Sams argued for "Auld Lang Syne" in a minor key in this video clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC SAMS: Should old acquaintance (playing piano) becomes a chord on the orchestra like this and then echoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF ELGAR'S "VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME, OP. 36")

ESTRIN: None of these theories has ever convinced the majority of music scholars. Bob Padgett of Plano, Texas, is not an academic. He used to work in insurance, but he's also a violinist who's played in professional orchestras. The conductor of one recounted the story of the enigma.

BOB PADGETT: He made it sound so captivating kind of like a murder mystery or something, like whodunit. At that point, I decided, you know, this is one of the great mysteries of classical music. I thought this would be an interesting puzzle to try and unravel.

ESTRIN: In his car, Padgett demonstrates something he used to do over and over.

PADGETT: (Singing) Twinkle, twinkle...

ESTRIN: Listen to a CD of the "Enigma Variations" and hum tunes to see if they'd fit.

PADGETT: Something like that. I wouldn't sing the lyrics, but I would try and see if I could fit it.

ESTRIN: That sounds awful, actually.

PADGETT: It does. There's too many dissonances. It's not a vertical fit. It doesn't work.

ESTRIN: Padgett is a devout Christian, and he says he prayed to God for help solving the enigma. That's when he stumbled upon a church hymn he thinks is the answer, Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF LUTHER'S "A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in German).

ESTRIN: Padgett's laid out an elaborate theory in more than a hundred blog posts involving cryptography and Christian symbols he believes Elgar embedded in the music. He says when you play the hymn with the music, it fits perfectly. You just have to piece together three different versions written by Luther, Bach and Mendelssohn and then play it backwards over Elgar's music, as in this recording Padgett made.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESTRIN: Padgett presented this theory to Elgar expert Julian Rushton.

RUSHTON: My problem with all this is to do with the way the music was composed in the first place. Do you compose music by working out an elaborate form of symbolism, cryptography? Or do you basically write music as a musician?

ESTRIN: Elgar wasn't just a musician. He was a cryptography nut. The year before he began writing the "Enigma Variations," he wrote a coded letter, what's come to be called the "Dorabella Cipher," to a friend. Codebreakers are still trying to figure it out. Bob Padgett is convinced Elgar did the same thing with the "Enigma Variations."

PADGETT: I believe he wanted someone to decrypt his cipher to prove what the correct answer was. He created a cipher, and ciphers are meant to be broken. He wanted someone to break the cipher in order to validate the correct answer.

ESTRIN: Padgett has fought for recognition, emailing music scholars, trying to get his theory on Wikipedia. British scholar Julian Rushton says there's evidence to suggest the enigma might be a more abstract concept, not a hidden melody.

RUSHTON: We just don't know. In those words, we don't know, lies the chief fascination of the enigma, which is why I personally take more interest in studying the music itself rather than the riddle, which is just what Elgar suggested one should do.

ESTRIN: Composer Edward Elgar said the enigma should be left unguessed. But 119 years later, the guessing game continues. Last May, a policeman in Cleveland said he'd cracked the enigma. Daniel Estrin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF ELGAR'S "VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME, OP. 36")

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