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Ever since the work’s premiere in 1899, academics have struggled to uncover the original identity of the theme that appears in all 14 variations. The clues left by Elgar have led to various solutions being offered – from Auld Lang Syne to the National Anthem.
But Dr Clive McClelland believes his solution – the hymn Now The Day Is Over – is the most convincing.
“I’ve been able to account for all 24 notes, which other theories fail to do,” he says. “Twelve pitches are identical and the other 12 create harmonious intervals – there are no dissonances.”
That the hymn’s notes do not match the theme’s exactly does not concern McClelland; similarly, he doesn’t believe the rhythmic differences are important: “When Elgar wrote this tune he was improvising at the piano,” he says.
“The very nature of improvisation means that you take pitches and rhythms and play with them.” But McClelland is keen to point out that both tunes follow the same phrase structure: “They have the same halfway and end cadences.”
McClelland’s discovery is compelling for other reasons, too. One of Elgar’s clues was that the solution must unveil “a dark saying”; the lyrics of the hymn depict the blackening of the night sky.
Similarly, Elgar had said that his friend Dora Penny should “of all people” be able to guess the enigma; she was, in fact, the daughter of a rector and would therefore most certainly have known the hymn.
Although McClelland’s solution cannot be proved, other scholars have been persuaded by it. As for McClelland, he remains excited by his discovery: “I was jumping around in the middle of the night,” he says. “It was a Eureka moment.”