Enigma Wagner Theory One

The riddle of Elgar’s Enigma Variations has inspired a fascinating array of proposed solutions from diverse perspectives, each with their own merits and some seeming to have supporting evidence. No suggested solution for the Enigma riddle(s) can be proven 100% as ‘the definitive answer’ (in spite of claims by some that the solution can be proven) – it is a matter of subjective opinion if any solution is convincing (either musically or logically). Elgar’s music will of course always be greater than any proposed solution.

I have a new theory in which the hidden principal theme of the Enigma is ‘The Representative Theme’ (aka the Leitmotif), and the musical counterpoint solution involves three Wagner leitmotifs which interlock to cover all 19 bars of the Enigma theme. I aim to show here that this solution works both musically and logically, and that the genesis of the Enigma can be traced back to a newspaper article written shortly before the Enigma theme was composed.

The Enigma Riddle.

From looking at Elgar’s program notes from the first performance, the Enigma riddle can be divided into multiple parts:

The Enigma I will not explain — its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played . . . . So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas-e.g., Maeterlinck’s “L’Intruse” and “Les sept Princesses”the chief character is never on the stage.’

The Enigma I will not explain — its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played . . . . So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas-e.g., Maeterlinck’s “L’Intruse” and “Les sept Princesses”the chief character is never on the stage.’

The idea of two separate Enigma puzzles is not a new one. Dora Powell (nee Penny) of the ‘Dorabella Variation’ expressed this viewpoint in her book ‘Edward Elgar – Memories of a Variation’ (1937). However, I believe there are as many as 3 or 4 parts to the puzzle.

The Musical Solution.

Wagner’s music dramas were a major influence on Elgar, and Elgar made much use of the ‘leitmotif‘ technique in his music both before and after the Enigma Variations. In late nineteenth century England the term ‘Representative Theme’ was often used instead of ‘leitmotif.

Although ‘The Representative Theme’ is primarily a conceptual solution to the riddle of the Enigma, there needs to be a counterpoint element in order to satisfy various statements that Elgar made, such as the one reported after an interview with the Musical Times in 1900: “Mr Elgar tells us that the heading Enigma is justified by the fact that it is possible to add another phrase, which is quite familiar, above the original theme that he has written.”

Before going into any analysis, I will present my complete ‘musical counterpoint’ for the Enigma theme to listen to, because I know that if you do not find it convincing, you will not be interested in any logical explanation! This ‘musical solution’ would not have to be configured in exactly the way I suggest for the core idea to be plausible, but I firmly believe that this combination of themes (as demonstrated in the clip below) is the most musically interesting and satisfying of any of the proposed ‘Enigma solutions’:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Enigma-plus-3-Front-Page-1024x576.jpg
This clip uses high quality sampled sounds.

You may well say that Elgar implied that there is one covert theme in the Enigma and that this ‘solution’ involves multiple themes. However, it is the overarching concept of ‘The Representative Theme’ (or Leitmotif) which I believe is the hidden ‘theme’ of the Enigma (though backed up by counterpoints against the original Enigma theme). In the section below you will see circumstantial support for that idea.

The Genesis of the Enigma Riddle.

From reading ‘Elgar and the Press’ by Richard Westwood-Brookes, I’ve quite unexpectedly found a very plausible trigger for the Enigma riddle. I believe the genesis of the famous riddle is found in an article in the Leeds Mercury, written shortly after the first performance of ‘Caractacus’ (5th October 1898) and about two weeks before Elgar started work on Enigma (21st October 1898). I believe the article (which was very positive) would have still been fresh in Elgar’s mind when he “commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness”.

A substantial part of the article describes the importance of “the representative theme (aka ‘leitmotif’)” in Caractacus and goes on to add “Mr Elgar demonstrates his right to employ it much as though he were some Siegmund, and the representative theme, figured as the buried sword in the ash tree – to be used only by him who can draw it forth.”

It is known that Elgar had annotated the relevant passage of ‘Die Walkure’ (where Siegmund draws the sword from the ash tree) in his copy of the score with a vertical line whilst listening to a performance, and would (almost certainly) have been delighted and amused by the journalist’s use of this Wagnerian metaphor.

It is known that Elgar had annotated the relevant passage of ‘Die Walkure’ (where Siegmund draws the sword from the ash tree) in his copy of the score with a vertical line whilst listening to a performance, and would most probably have been delighted and amused by the journalist’s use of this Wagnerian metaphor.

The article also describes how multiple ‘representative themes’ are used in succession in the opening chorus of Caractacus, “and yet the melodic phrase moves so naturally that the joinings are scarcely apparent”.

I believe that the relevance of this article is (i) ‘The representative theme’ (as a concept) is the principal theme of the Enigma, buried in the same way that Siegmund’s sword is buried in the ash tree. (ii) Wagner’s ‘sword motif’ (from the Ring) is one of several Wagner leitmotifs (representative themes) that together form a counterpoint covering the 19 bars of the Enigma theme – the ‘sword motif’ is used to dramatic effect in Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ at the point where Siegmund draws the sword from the ash tree. (iii) The Enigma theme itself becomes a ‘representative theme’, as its variants portray the 14 ‘characters’ of the variations, just as many of Wagner’s leitmotifs portray different characters in his music dramas. (iv) There are subtle musical links between the Enigma and Caractacus, in order to refer back to the Leeds Mercury article written after the Caractacus premiere.

Enigma bars 16-19 and ‘The Sword’.

If the Enigma mystery was created in response to the Leeds Mercury article’s metaphor of Siegmund drawing the sword from the ash tree, then the most obvious theme to use as a basis for counterpoint would be the Wagner leitmotif commonly known as ‘the Sword motif’ (but also known as ‘the motif of Wotan’s Grand Idea’). I’m aware that it is no longer fashionable to assign names to Wagner’s leitmotifs, but for convenience I am using some commonly accepted leitmotif names.

Click here for an extract from Die Walküre Act I, the moment where Siegmund draws the sword from the ash tree and the ‘Sword Motif’ sounds triumphantly (at 1:02:10).

The ‘sword motif’ is first used by Wagner at the end of Das Rheingold, just before the gods cross the rainbow bridge to enter Valhalla, so it is fitting that the theme fits with the ‘bridge section’ of the Enigma theme, leading into Variation I.

Enigma bars 7-10 and ‘The Holy Grail’.

The legend of Siegmund drawing the sword from the ash tree is strikingly similar to the English legend of King Arthur drawing the sword from the rock – as both legends involve a special sword that can only be drawn by one special individual.

As King Arthur is associated with the english version of the ‘holy grail’ legend, this connects with the holy grail of Wagner’s Parsifal. It is therefore fitting that the ‘holy grail’ leitmotif (from Parsifal) should be the second counterpoint theme of the Enigma.

This theme (partially based on the ‘Dresden Amen) fits with Enigma bars 7-10. It is just the top line of the ‘grail theme’ transposed into G major, but fitting in with all of Elgar’s harmony as follows:

A visual inspection of the music shows that nearly all of the notes of the grail theme are present in Elgar’s harmony or help to complete the chords (with the exception of 2 passing notes). Rising phrases in Elgar’s music foreshadow similar rising quaver phrases in the ‘grail’ melody, almost creating rising scales (particularly in the fourth bar).

You can listen to the resulting harmony/counterpoint of the ‘Grail motif’ played with bars 7-10 of the Enigma theme here, which I believe creates a harmonious and interesting effect.

This may or may not be relevant, but the phonetic spelling of grail (‘GRALE’ or ‘GRAEL’) is an anagram of ‘ELGAR’, and he is known to have been keen on phonetic spellings and anagrams.

Enigma Bars 1-6 and 11-16 and ‘Brünhilde’.

This part of the theory relates specifically to bars 1-6 of the Enigma Theme (up to the double bar line) plus bars 11-16, and places particular emphasis on an unusual statement Elgar made (in the notes for the ‘pianola rolls’ issued in 1929):

“The drop of the seventh in the Theme (bars 3 and 4) should be observed.”

There aren’t a huge number of themes which feature a drop of a seventh, but one example is a leitmotif which is played many times in the final music drama ‘Götterdämmerung‘ from Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle and which is associated with the character Brünhilde. I first noticed that this ‘Brünhilde motif’ could work quite well as a counterpoint with bars 3 and 4, but was then surprised to realise that the theme can be repeated three times (without modification) across the first 6 bars of the Enigma theme and then again for bars 11-16, creating acceptable harmony (a bit like a ground bass except that it isn’t a bass). One weird feature is that for this to work, the motif has to start on the second beat of the bar each time, which is why it’s not obvious.

(Click the start arrow to listen, using high quality orchestral and vocal sampled sounds)

I think for a two bar phrase to repeat three times in this way across six bars of the Enigma theme without causing jarring dissonance is quite improbable unless by design.

If you are not familiar with the ‘Brünhilde motif’, you can here it played multiple times in the original Wagnerian context in this recording (starting at 2:15) – from the Prologue Part II of Götterdämmerung, where the theme first appears. (Götterdämmerung is the fourth and final part of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’).

The repeating nature of this two bar phrase played three times would make it very credible as a theme to improvise against, much in the same way as a jazz musician improvises against a repeating bass line or chord sequence. Some baroque music also works in a similar way, with a changing melody working in harmony with a repeating ‘ground bass’. Dora Powell (nee Penny) wrote that Elgar often made a strange sound when he was playing the piano, as if he was filling in a missing part, so it seems quite feasible that he could have improvised against a repeating phrase (but a long and more complex phrase would be less likely).

The significance of the ‘Brünhilde motif’ is less obvious. I think part of might be that in Act III of Die Walküre, Brünhilde is surrounded by a circle of magic fire and remains surrounded by the circle of fire until the Götterdämmerung Prologue, where the relevant Leitmotif is first heard. The circle links to the longstanding theory (not mine) that the scale degrees of the Enigma theme’s first four notes are related to 3.142 – pi, rounded to 3 decimal places, which in turn connects to circles. The circle also links of course to the ‘circle of friends’ portrayed in the variations. I also think it possible that the ‘circle of fire’ which surrounds Brünhilde could be linked to ‘the loneliness of the artist’ which Elgar referenced in ‘The Music Makers’ (when quoting the Enigma theme).

Most interestingly, Dora Penny describes seeing a ‘poker-work’ design over Elgar’s fireplace which he had designed and made himself, showing a phrase from the Die Walküre ‘fire music’.

However, I think the primary significance of the ‘Brünhilde motif’ concerns the ‘dark saying’, as explained below.

Brünhilde and ‘The Dark Saying’.

For the most important significance the Brunhilde theme’, I think we should look at Brunhilde from Siegmund’s perspective, because the Leeds Mercury article draws a parallel between Siegmund and Elgar.

In Act II Scene IV of Die Walkure, Brunhilde meets Siegmund and (as a Valkyrie) tells him that he is doomed to die in battle and that she will take him to Valhalla. A key phrase of this dialogue is when Brunhilde states:

“who meets my glance must turn from the light of life.”

Could this be the ‘dark saying’? The exact significance of these words is open to interpretation so I will not speculate here, but it is interesting that ‘The Light of Life’ (also known as ‘Lux Christi’) is the title of an earlier composition by Elgar.

Combining the 3 Wagner Leitmotifs with the Enigma Theme.

The three leitmotifs I’ve mentioned harmonise with sections of Enigma as described. Together, they interlock to fit with the whole 19 bars of the Enigma theme.

You can listen again to a recording of the combined themes, using high quality sampled sounds HERE:

Elgar is certainly known to have been fascinated by Wagner’s music dramas and leitmotifs including the Ring Cycle and Parsifal. Elgar attended two performance of Parsifal on a single trip to Bayreuth in 1892, and he later attended complete ‘Ring Cycle’ performances. He played Wagner extracts on the piano and attended many concerts with orchestral Wagner music. It is acknowledged by scholars that Wagner’s influence was absorbed into Elgar’s compositional technique, but by using his own unique style and musical language Elgar ensured that the Wagnerian influence was not too obvious. It would therefore not be too surprising if Elgar referenced Wagner themes in the way I’ve suggested.

What about the Variations?

When I listen to the variations (as opposed to the theme), they sound complete, and it is impossible to imagine any counterpoint theme being added without destroying the character of the music. For Elgar to have written the entire set of variations as a counterpoint would have put him in a musical straightjacket that would have made it impossible to create a masterpiece of such emotional power and imagination. On the other hand, the Enigma theme itself sounds as if it is hiding something, as if it is asking a question that is never answered. I believe the assumption that any counterpoint theme(s) need to cover all of the variations (musically) is incorrect and makes any solution impossible (or un-musical). If I am right, then what did Elgar mean by ‘through and over the whole set?’

Crucially, the statement made after Elgar’s interview with the Musical Times in 1900 mentions the ‘original theme’, but makes no mention of the variations: “Mr Elgar tells us that the heading Enigma is justified by the fact that it is possible to add another phrase, which is quite familiar, above the original theme that he has written.”

This might appear to contradict the statement that through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes”, but is not played. However, this apparent contradiction can be resolved by recognising a conceptual theme that goes though and over the whole set of variations, linked to a counterpoint solution that specifically maps against the original Enigma theme.

‘The Representative Theme’ does indeed go ‘through and over the whole set’ of variations, because each variation is representative of a different ‘character’ in the circle of friends, in the same way that in Wagner’s music dramas each character is represented by a specific leitmotif. In the ‘E.D.U’ variation, themes from ‘C.A.E’ and ‘Nimrod’ are quoted as if they are leitmotifs. In this way, the concept of ‘The Representative Theme’ goes ‘through and over the whole set’ of variations, whilst specific examples of representative themes (leitmotifs) combine to form a counterpoint to the Enigma theme. (Note that Wagner’s leitmotifs tend to be grouped into ‘families’ which are closely related musically and logically, so in a sense they form sets of variations).

Although, I’ve said that the variations do not involve any counterpoint, I think there are exceptions to this and important clues exist in two specific ‘variations’ as explained in the next section.

‘Senta’ and ‘The Representative Theme’.

Robert Padgett identified a possible connection between Enigma Variation XIII and Wagner’s ‘Senta’ theme from ‘The Flying Dutchman’. Although he and I have very different viewpoints and reach different conclusions, I agree with him on this specific point, which you can read about here.

Investigating Variation XIII further, I can show how the intuitive connection between the Clarinet solo and Senta’s theme can work as a satisfying counterpoint – Enigma Variation XIII with ‘Senta’ theme.

In addition to this connection, I believe that the ‘Senta’ leitmotif is hinted at in the ‘Dorabella variation’, as the top line of ‘Dorabella’ (first phrase) can form a counterpoint to the Senta theme (in G major), as demonstrated in this link – Dorabella with ‘Senta’ theme.

Variation XIII and the ‘Dorabella Variation’ are both variations where the connection to the Enigma theme is ‘of the slightest texture’. It is possible that these two movements (subtitled ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Romanza’ respectively) are not variations on the ‘Enigma theme’ at all, but instead they make reference the ‘Senta’ leitmotif, providing an additional hint that the theme that goes through and over the whole set of variations is ‘The Representative Theme’.

Is the Principal Theme ‘quite familiar’?

Although the concept of the ‘Representative Theme’ and the specific Wagner leitmotifs mentioned here are not ‘well known’ amongst the general public, I think it’s fair to say they would have been very familiar to Elgar’s circle, to opera goers, concert goers and to musicians of the time. In her book, Dora Powell reports going to a complete Ring Cycle performance at Covent Garden with William Meath Baker (of Variation IV), and mentions Parsifal at least 3 times. She also describes hearing Elgar play extracts from RW operas on the piano. I would argue that amongst Elgar’s close circle, the better known Wagner themes would have been at least as well known as popular songs, folk tunes, nursery rhymes and hymns.

The ‘Chief Character’ of the Enigma.

It is of course possible that the ‘chief character’ of the Enigma is the same as the ‘principal theme’, but this is not necessarily so.

There are several subtle musical links between the Enigma Theme and Caractacus highlighted by various scholars.

Caractacus was a chief of the Britons, and the name sounds like ‘character’ so it is quite possible that he is the ‘chief character’ hinted at in Elgar’s famous program note. Caractacus is a cantata, which is not performed on the stage (unlike the music dramas/operas that are referenced). Saying that ‘the chief character is never on the stage‘ could well be a brilliant bit of misdirection, and might well have appealed to Elgar’s sense of humour. Any connection with Caractacus highlights a link with the Leeds Mercury article about the premiere.

However, I don’t think this humorous part to the overall puzzle is quite the final link in the chain – there may well be something else, in order to give everything some more significance. My ideas on this is explained in the section below (although I would emphasise that these are only speculative ideas, and should not detract from my core message, which I think has a very solid basis).

The Enigma and the Dark Saying.

In order to achieve his full potential for the type of composer he was, Elgar would have known that his music needed to express a wide range of feelings, including masculine, feminine and spiritual feelings, which I believe are each represented by one of the counterpoint Wagner themes.

The ‘grail motif’ (based on the Dresden Amen and used in ‘Parsifal’) could be said to represent the spiritual side of Elgar’s music and personality, which came to the fore in Elgar’s next major work ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (and which actually has several clear musical links to ‘Parsifal’, where Wagner used the ‘Grail motif’).

The ‘sword motif’ could be said to represent the masculine character of much of Elgar’s music, evident in Caractacus, which was written the year before ‘Enigma’, and which includes ‘The Sword Song’.

In contrast to this, the Enigma theme itself seems to express a much more sensitive side and in order to write this type of music, Elgar needed to access a part of his personality that he may have felt uncomfortable about because it could be seen as ‘unmanly’, particularly in Victorian England. I believe this is the basis of ‘the dark saying’, which ‘must remain unguessed’. In other words, Elgar was acknowledging (privately) a part of his personality that was important for his art, but which otherwise remained mostly hidden. Psychologist Carl Jung later defined ‘the anima’, existing in the subconscious of all men, and a source of creativity in artists. Interestingly, Carl Jung saw Brünhilde (in Wagner’s Ring) as a metaphor for ‘the anima’. Although the writing of ‘Enigma’ was too early for Jung’s ideas, Elgar might well have recognised the symbolic significance of Brünhilde, as it is self-evident in Wagner’s Ring libretto that Brünhilde is a manifestation of part of Wotan’s personality. However, Elgar, the cigar smoking, golf playing, football loving gentleman of Victorian England could not have talked about a ‘sensitive side’ without ruining his public image, and yet he needed to acknowledge it in order to broaden as an artist. Secretly basing a theme around an improvisation on the ‘Brünhilde motif’ could have been a part of that process, and perhaps setting a baffling riddle for the public to struggle with was something he couldn’t resist.

Was there a reason why Dorabella should have know the answer(s)?

I think Elgar’s comment that she of all people should know the answer is partly a reference to the fact that she had a record of spotting similarities between themes in Elgar’s compositions and other existing themes. In her book she described pointing out that 2 themes in ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ resembled a Chopin piece and a hymn respectively. Elgar’s comment might have been due to his irritation at this, could have been half joking, or could have simply been recognition of her ability for spotting musical similarities. DP also describes in her book how she spent time with Elgar on the ‘British Camp’ hill discussing the Caractacus story.

Dora Powell (nee Penny) in her book makes multiple references to Wagner and it is clear that she was familiar with the music. She reports hearing Elgar play Wagnerian extracts on the piano (and may well have been turning the pages). She also recalls going to a complete Ring Cycle performance at Covent Garden, and mentions Parsifal three times. She would therefore have been familiar with the three Wagner themes mentioned here, and had a good musical knowledge generally. She was also aware of the ‘magic fire’ artwork above Elgar’s fireplace, and knew Elgar’s personality well.

So, Dora Penny had the knowledge to identify all of the various elements of the Enigma puzzle, even if she did not know how they could all be linked together.

There is another possible explanation for Elgar’s comment regarding Dora, and that is that there could be a specific clue in the ‘Dorabella Variation’ – this would be consistent with what is explained in the section ‘Senta and the Representative Theme’ above.

The Maeterlinck Reference.

The reference to the Maeterlinck plays in the program note might simply be an illustration of the way ‘the chief character is never on the stage’, but it is a highly unusual reference to make so it also seems likely that there is more to it.

As the two plays mentioned are from the same period and linked in various ways, it might well be a hint that separate but adjacent works by the same writer can be linked together. Applying this to my Enigma theory, one of the Wagner themes (‘the Sword’) points backwards to Caractacus, while the ‘Grail’ from Parsifal points forward to ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ – the connections between these three works are more to do with contrast than similarity, as described in the ‘The Enigma and the Dark Saying’ section above. The three major works Caractacus, Enigma and Gerontius form a sort of trilogy which express three very different aspects of Elgar’s personality.


This theory has many parts and relates to what I see as a puzzle with many parts. As such, you might be convinced by one part of it and not another, or you might be convinced by all of it or none of it – it doesn’t matter to me as everyone is entitled to their preferred theory or to none.

I feel comfortable myself that this theory and each of its constituent parts are plausible, particularly the core idea. The three musical phrases by Wagner provide acceptable and interesting harmony when combined with the relevant sections of the Enigma theme. These three themes are from a source that Elgar was certainly interested in and each has a logical link to something in Elgar’s life. The three counterpoint themes together satisfy the various criteria of the Enigma puzzle, and cover all 19 bars of the Enigma theme. The first theme (Brünhilde) also forms a repeating pattern that would be viable as the basis for improvisation. The idea of Caractacus being the chief character would have appealed to Elgar’s humour, and the Leeds Mercury article about the Caractacus premiere and the metaphor of Elgar drawing forth the ‘representative theme’ as Siegmund draws forth the sword provides an interesting and plausible trigger for the Enigma mystery. The three hidden Wagner themes pay homage to an important influence on Elgar’s music, and at the same time they each relate to a different aspect of Elgar’s music and his very complex personality.

If you accept this analysis, it is clear that this was not something that Elgar intended to be easily worked out. However, It would have been quite possible for some element of it to be correctly guessed, without necessarily understanding how the various pieces of this jigsaw puzzle fit together. The overall solution has to be worked out (and is therefore ‘unguessed’). I think the suggestion that the solution was obvious has been over-played, and that the ‘Enigma Riddle’ was not really for the public but more of a message from Elgar to a part of himself, made public in an encrypted form. The metaphor of Wagner’s Brünhilde again comes into play, as it is clear that Wotan (in ‘Die Walkure‘ Act II scene II) is really talking to himself when he talks to Brunhilde:

Brünhilde :
To Wotan’s will thou speakest,
when thou tell’st what thou wilt;
what am I, if not thy will alone?

Wotan :
What in words to none other I utter,
still will remain unspoken forever:
I speak in secret, speaking to thee.


If you wish to make any comment on this theory, please email me. Thank you.