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Classical Notes

A New Solution to Elgar's Old Enigma

Posted at 3:21 PM on June 6, 2007 by Rex Levang

June 2 marked the 150 birthday of Sir Edward Elgar. This was a big news story in Britain (do your own Googling, as there were more links than could ever be worked in elegantly).

But there's a bit of a local connection too. Our own Fred Child had been talking about Elgar and his Enigma Variations on Performance Today, and was heard by Dick Santa, a listener in Lubbock, Texas, who then came up with his own solution. Last week, the two of them had a chance to touch base and talk about his new answer to the riddle.

As you might remember, Elgar declared that there was an unstated theme running through this piece -- but never revealed what it was. Most people have assumed that it's a melody, such as Auld Lang Syne or Pop Goes the Weasel, but Elgar himself never said that this was the case. He did say that the answer was so simple that it could be easily guessed.

Mr. Santa's solution? That the answer to the enigma is pi. And it's very striking, if pi equals 3.142, that the first four notes of Elgar's theme can be thought of as 3-1-4-2, where 1 is the tonic note of the scale. (Their conversation, and a performance of the piece from Mr. Santa's home state, are on the Performance Today website. The audio link should be good for a couple more days; Hour 1 is the one you want.)

Possible objection: I suppose that 3.142 is only an approximation of pi; on the other hand, any written version is an approximation. . . .