Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine

puzzles_chessI like to think I am a clever man.  I usually prove that I am not very clever, at least a few times each day.  Nevertheless, I like puzzles, mysteries, riddles, and solving problems.  Sudoku and crossword puzzles are an occasional diversion, and the chessboard has an endless supply of things to work out.  Most of the time, it is the process of working things out that is important.  The magical allure of a mystery is often lost once the solution is found.  I sometimes feel like young Ralphie in the scene from A Christmas Story, where he locks himself in the bathroom with his decoder ring to solve a puzzle.

Scene from A Christmas Story

Sir Edward Elgar
Sir Edward Elgar

One of the longest running musical mysteries surrounds Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original theme, Opus 36.  This orchestra piece is more commonly known as the Enigma Variations.  Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) finished his Op. 36 Variations in 1899, and people have been speculating as to their secrets ever since.  The original theme is followed by fourteen variations which are marked in the score and labeled with either initials or a single word.  Sir Eddie doesn’t tell us what these markings mean and furthermore, has his publisher put the word “enigma” over the theme (or at least the first six bars of the theme).  The music was a popular success from the moment it was premiered, and musicologists have been pouring over the riddles it contains ever since.

Edward Elgar himself provided the following bit of program notes for the first performance:

It is true that I have sketched for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter, and need not have been mentioned publicly, The Variations should stand simply as a ‘piece’ of music,  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

It seems that there are not one, but two major enigma’s hidden in the variations.  The first mystery is the identities of the fourteen friends who are in some way portrayed by each variation of the theme.  I am happy to report that in the 120 years since the premiere, historians and biographers have successfully deciphered the identity of each friend.  I am even happier to report that those names are completely unnecessary to enjoying the music.  The music is brilliant and creative for just its musical merits.  Even though I can easily look up the names of the people Elgar had in mind for each variation, those names mean very little to anyone other than Elgar and his circle of friends.  The connections they have to each variation are so personal and private, they represent an additional layer of meaning to only those people.  I didn’t know these folks, and will never be privy to the amusement and “inside joke” that is part of Opus 36.  Nevertheless, figuring out their names and relationships to the British composer has kept writers busy for a long time.  For me, those names are the mere Ovaltine of the composition.


The second mystery surrounds the theme itself.  Elgar has more or less told us that at least the first phrase of the theme is a counterpoint, a counter melody, to some other tune.  That is a wickedly clever bit of composition.  A melody that fits the theme, as well as “over the whole set” of variations, but is never explicitly heard.  Now that is a juicy riddle, and very modern.  A question on par with “Who is Godot?” in the Beckett play Waiting for Godot.  If I could know the tune, I could play it over the theme and hear how it fits, even today.  Many people have tried to guess the hidden melody, both during and after Elgar’s lifetime.  According to information pieced together from comments made by Elgar, this mystery tune should fit several criteria

  1. The solution must unveil a ‘dark saying’.
  2. The solution must find ‘another and larger theme’ which goes over the whole set.
  3. The solution involves well-known music, or at least something well-known.
  4. It must be clear why Dora Penny ‘of all people’ should guess it.
    {Dora Penny is the friend portrayed in the tenth variation)

I am sad to report that Sir Edward Elgar took the secret with him to the grave.  He never revealed the name of the hidden melody.  That might have been his greatest stroke of genius concerning the Variations Op. 36.  Elgar was aware of some of the fuss surrounding the Enigma, and completely avoided any “Be Sure to Drink your Ovaltine” moment by keeping the mystery alive.  It is very possible that the solution to the riddle is so banal and trite that to find it would be a terrible letdown.  Many famous melodies have been suggested, everything from Auld Lang Syne to Rule Brittania!, from the Dies Irae chant to Pop Goes the Weasel!.  The question has never been conclusively answered.

Edward Elgar, Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 36 “Enigma”




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