enigma variations

My wife and I heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations at the Seattle Symphony last night. Before the end I was humming Rule Brittania to myself, and flashing on Queen blasting out the last four notes of God Save the Queen – with no prior schooling in the controversy and little formal training in music.

There’s really no enigma here, even if music critics apparently can’t agree on the obvious. The stated theme begins with the same notes as “never, never, nev-” from Britannia’s refrain, and through all the variations they keep calling out for their completion, whether with Britannia’s “ne-ver shall be slaves,” or with “Go-od save the Queen” – they are precisely the same notes. Abetted by the similar pomp and circumstance of the piece, they practically induce the enigma’s solution through aural hallucination partway through the piece – as they did in fact with me.

Then again, I suppose I am a special case. My university training was in literary criticism and theory – where every recorded utterance is taken to be an enigma in need of interpretation and explanation – and my PhD dissertation and one published article before I left the profession resolved historical and political enigmas central to More’s Utopia, Shakespeare’s Pericles, and Milton’s Areopagitica. (links to follow)

I was good enough at it that my solution for the Pericles enigma – that Antiochus’ riddle in the play refers to no less a person than King James and his project to unite England and Scotland after succeeding to Elizabeth’s throne – while almost as obvious as the Elgar solution for anyone at all schooled in the history of the period, was even at this late date scandalous enough to cost me my main dissertation advisor at the time, and to help ruin my once promising career the longer I continued to pursue it.

(Alas, I must admit I started going down the same road recently when I took advantage of an email opening to suggest to Bart Sher that he tackle the play in Seattle with my input, for which he probably put me down as a crank – but he’s off for New York soon anyway, I suppose.)

I expected the thesis would win me some measure of fame and respect, and help earn me a tenure track job. Instead, I found Shakespeare scholars generally as tone deaf as Elgar ones in entertaining even the most obvious interpretive innovations – as this one continues to seem to be.

And I’ve cultivated the role of something of an enigma myself ever since leaving academia. I’ve finally decided it’s about time I stopped wrapping myself up in so much obscurity, and began revealing a bit more of where I’m coming from, both on this blog and in other web publication projects – in particular some new things I’m planning, after leasing out my old domain shakespeare.com (I did secure that consolation prize at least from the ruins of my professional career), on my new one shakespeareandme.com.

At least, that’s my New Year’s resolution. We’ll see if this year I can follow through.

Posted Friday, January 5th, 2007 under Uncategorized.

One comment so far

  1. Robert W. Padgett is pleased to announce the discovery of the missing theme to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” — “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is our God) by the famous Reformation leader Martin Luther. For sheet music and sound files in support of this historic find, visit http://enigmathemeunmasked.blogspot.com/

Leave a Reply

Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree