The New Republic has a great story today about Bob Padgett, a Plano violin teacher who has spent the last seven years painstakingly trying to “solve the world’s greatest classical music mystery.”
The condensed version of the mystery: In the late 19th century, the beloved English composer Edward Elgar wrote Variations on an Original Theme, often known as the Enigma Variations for the secret it contains. Elgar, a devoted cryptographer, hinted that the composition contained a “dark saying,” a hidden theme—apparently borrowed from another popular melody—that would sync with the music as written. He took his enigma with him to the grave in 1934, which hasn’t prevented generations of scholars and classical music fans from trying to discover the encrypted melody. Everything from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to themes from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion have been proposed as possible solutions, without much consensus on any one answer.
Padgett believes he has cracked the case, pinning the enigma down to an early Protestant hymn by Martin Luther. This is despite the eye-rolling disdain of some academics, stemming possibly in part from (as we learn in the story) the fact that Padgett may not be the most reliable narrator. The New Republic follows the violinist to the “bottom of a rabbit hole of anagrams, cryptography, the poet Longfellow, the composer Mendelssohn, the Shroud of Turin, and Jesus, all of which he believes he found hiding in plain sight in the music.” It’s well worth a read, regardless of your level of interest in classical music or cryptological puzzles.
Also worth a read is Padgett’s blog itself, in which he meticulously documents his own journey down that rabbit hole over the better part of the last decade. Thousands and thousands of words, quotes from the Bible and Dante’s Inferno, old papers and sheet music, spreadsheets, ciphers, diagrams, religious paintings—it has it all. As a document of the obsession and haunted thrill of investigating a potentially unknowable enigma, it rivals the Warren Report and David Fincher’s Zodiac.