Monday, February 13, 2017

Has Elgar’s Enigma finally been cracked? (Spoiler: No.)

Check out this sensational headline, fresh from Facebook!
“Did a Violin Teacher From Plano, Texas Solve
the World’s Greatest Classical Music Mystery?”
I don’t know, but all these superimposed notes look pretty convincing!
This story has something for everyone: An unassuming person from Middle America finds the solution that has eluded scholars and specialists for generations! If you’re into classical music, this is a major finding that may change the way you listen to a major piece in the repertoire! If you’re an average dude, your kind has just scored a major victory over educated elitists with nothing but gumption and a little help from, yes, God above.

Ah, but remember Betteridge’s Law of Headlines (which I’ve discussed on this blog before): “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” Admittedly, this “law” is intended more for humor than accuracy, but it holds true in this case. No, Bob Padgett did not crack the “Enigma” of Edward Elgar’s famous variations.

What’s more, you don’t even need to have specialized training in music theory to realize that he didn’t—all you need is to approach Daniel Estrin’s article with some critical thinking to understand that Padgett has fallen victim to confirmation bias. That’s easy to miss through all the sensationalism, though. The article itself is rambling and padded with a lot of filler (“Padgett’s father was an atheist plumber and trombonist.”), yet the main story isn’t really about music history, but obsession.

You can slog through the article if you’d like, but here’s a summary: One of Edward Elgar’s most famous compositions is his Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36. Because he named that theme “Enigma,” the work is commonly known as “The Enigma Variations.” Each variation represents someone Elgar knew, including his wife, his friends, and himself, all identified with initials or clever nicknames. The mystery stems from a comment that Elgar made in a program note, claiming that the theme we hear in the piece isn’t the actual Enigma theme. Instead (as subsequent comments clarified), the true theme is a familiar melody that can be played simultaneously with the theme in his composition. For over a century, no one has been able to identify that mystery melody. (The Wikipedia article on the Enigma Variations is surprisingly thorough; I encourage you to check it out for more information.)

Now, on to this violin teacher from Plano, Bob Padgett: He claims that the mystery melody is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, known in English as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Right away, there are red flags. Ein feste Burg isn’t just a Lutheran hymn, it is the Lutheran hymn, composed by Martin Luther himself, famously set by J.S. Bach, and closely associated with the Protestant Reformation. Keep in mind, Elgar was a devoted Catholic; in fact, his Catholicism often put him at odds with the English establishment. Outspoken London critics hated the fact that England’s most famous composer wasn’t Anglican; to be un-Anglican was to be un-English. Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius is steeped in Roman Catholic theology; the title character travels through the afterlife and ends up in Purgatory. While it’s not impossible for Elgar to quote a Lutheran melody—Bach, after all, wrote a Latin Mass—a practicing Catholic putting the most iconic Protestant hymn at the heart of his most personal composition seems incredibly unlikely.

Padgett defends his claim with evidence musical and cryptological, which he details through hundreds of blog posts—but his case is incredibly convoluted on both counts.

In order to make Ein feste Burg work musically, Padgett has to resort to a patchwork version of the melody. As Estrin explains,
It’s a mashup of the three famous renditions of the hymn: the 16th century Martin Luther version, the 18th century Bach version, and the 19th century Mendelssohn version. Played backwards.
Moreover, when Estrin consults musicologist Julian Rushton about Padgett’s composite of the two themes, Rushton points out, “Padgett distorted the rhythm and mixed between the major and minor keys to get it to harmonize.” That’s a lot of adjustment to get it to work.

(I considered consulting Rushton for this blog post, but based on the article, it seems like he’s already wasted enough of his time with this theory. Besides, his position is clear; I don’t know what more he could tell me that wasn’t already covered by Estrin.)

Padgett places more faith in his cryptological justifications; after all, the way he discovered his answer was by making anagrams of “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” since that phrase has 24 letters and he says Elgar’s melody has 24 notes (even though the theme in its first appearance has 25 notes).
Count ’em—25. (Image from Wikipedia,
I should point out here that we are straying far, far from the realm of music theory. This is no longer typical music analysis; this is not the type of work that music scholars generally do. But that’s okay! This foray into cryptology is justified by Elgar’s interest in it. There’s a strong English tradition of riddles, wordplay, codes, and cryptology, and it can get very complicated.

The person who suggested I write about this article, Joshua Kosman, isn’t just the classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle—he also creates and edits cryptic crosswords, a quintessentially British style of puzzle. His explanation of cryptic crosswords is a testament to these astonishing feats of wordplay; you can see just how far these riddles can go while remaining solvable. Of all people, Kosman understands the difference between complexity and incomprehensibility.

Anyway, here’s Padgett’s anagram (which “can only be described as breathtaking,” he says):
Padgett interprets this as “Jesus Gratias, I know you better, night feat.” Now, anagrams are completely within the realm of plausible wordplay for Elgar’s milieu, but there are limits. The more letters you include in the anagram, the easier it is to make it say anything you want it to.

(Incidentally, Kosman referred me to a humorous example to illustrate this point. When criticizing a book by Richard Wallace that used cryptology to prove that Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper, anagrammers Francis Heaney and Guy Jacobson pointed out that the letters of the first three sentences of Wallace’s book could be arranged to read, “The truth is this: I, Richard Wallace, stabbed and killed a muted Nicole Brown in cold blood, severing her throat with my trusty shiv's strokes. I set up Orenthal James Simpson, who is utterly innocent of this murder. P.S. I also wrote Shakespeare's sonnets, and a lot of Francis Bacon's works too.”)

Once Padgett arrived at his solution, he sought and found all sorts of “evidence” to support it. As I said before, this is classic confirmation bias—he believes anything that supports his claim and disregards or ignores anything that contradicts it. Among the sillier coincidences that Padgett transforms into incontrovertible proof are:
  • The two keys of the Enigma theme, G major and G minor, have key signatures of F-sharp, and B-flat and E-flat, respectively. F-B-E, or E-F-B—Ein Feste Burg!
  • Padgett’s interpretation of the anagram draws from four languages: English, Latin, German, and Aramaic—ELGAr!
  • (From Padgett’s blog) There are six variation titles that are six letters long (if you count E.D.U. as “Eduard”). Six by six is 36, the opus number of The Enigma Variations!
…and so on. It’s like the old saying: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Estrin does devote a paragraph to Padgett’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories and fake news:
Apart from the Enigma, Padgett has endorsed other theories that academics tend to reject. He supports creationism over evolutionary theory. He believes record high temperatures in the summer of 2015 were divine retribution for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. He shared a story on Facebook about an Ohio warehouse of fraudulent ballots filled out for Hillary Clinton before the presidential election, a story later debunked as fake news. In essence, Elgar scholars have dismissed Padgett’s Enigma theory as fake news, too.
Overall, however, the article is sympathetic to Padgett: “Padgett’s theory of secret codes and subterfuge might easily be categorized as Da Vinci Code fan fiction if it were not for one historical fact: Elgar was a master of cryptography.” Suddenly, every option is on the table! There are no rules!

The conflict Estrin presents isn’t Padgett vs. consensus reality or even Padgett vs. plausibility, it’s Padgett vs. scholars. Oh, those snooty know-it-alls! Rushton emerges as the article’s villain, the foremost Elgar expert who “does not approve of the sleuthing approach to the Variations.” Rushton is not alone, as “most Elgar scholars [Estrin] contacted said they have stopped responding to Padgett’s persistent inquiries.” It’s the man of faith against Ivory Tower Elitists, a story that appeals to an anti-academic strain in our culture.

Estrin seems to want to play both sides of this—reveling in the implausibility of Padgett’s theory while planting seeds that he could be right, but no one is willing to listen to him. Considering how little media coverage actual musicological breakthroughs receive, it’s disappointing how this story will shape New Republic readers’ perception of music scholarship. Again, I want to stress that this type of cryptography is not typical music analysis.

Since I have a PhD in musicology, you could dismiss this post as me defending my own—of course I’d side with the music scholars, because I’m a music scholar! But that’s generally not how it works—scholars deliberately interrogate each other, not necessarily in a spirit of rivalry, but in order to develop stronger arguments. So when I use the authority of my blog (such as it is) to state that, no, Padgett did not solve Elgar’s enigma, it’s not because I’m siding with colleagues in a vendetta against The Everyman. It’s because Padgett’s flimsy evidence does not support his extraordinary claim.

Many thanks to Joshua Kosman for suggesting this article and reading a draft of this post!

“Breaking Elgar’s Enigma” by Daniel Estrin for New Republic

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate this article. I'd read the New Republic article and felt really suspicious of Padgett's theory. (I was raised Lutheran, so I'm very familiar with "Ein feste Burg," and they don't sound that alike except for very broad strokes. And the way the musicologists cited in the article were represented raised my eyebrows, and is so similar to other times journalistic writing has tried to represent fringe theories as more respected than they are.) But I don't know enough specifics about Elgar and the piece to do a rebuttal myself, and I wanted to make sure I wasn't just reflexively dismissing someone for not being a credentialed scholar. So I was hoping you'd write about it sooner or later, and explain in more detail how credible or not Padgett's case was. Thank you for that!

    An interesting note about that detailed Enigma Variations Wikipedia page: have you checked out the talk page? It looks like Padgett hasn't just exhausted musicologists, but also Wikipedia editors. A full half of the entries are about his additions to the page: