[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Breaking Elgar's enigmatic code
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Breaking Elgar's enigmatic code
25 December 2004
IT IS a story with all the makings of a blockbuster novel: a brilliant
composer, an attractive woman, a secret letter and a mystery that has
lasted 100 years. This story, though, is real. The composer was Edward
Elgar, the renowned English musician who died 70 years ago. The young
women was Dora Penny, a family friend. And the mystery? A short coded
letter that, his music apart, remains one of Elgar's most enduring
A study of the composer's papers reveals that for most of his life he
was fascinated by cryptography. His letters and music scores, for
example, are dotted with codes and anagrams. And the title of his
Enigma Variations, first performed in 1899, hints at his delight in
cryptic puzzles. He teasingly suggested that the melody on which his
variations are based forms a counterpoint or matching voice to a
well-known tune that is present in the piece only by implication. None
of the many suggestions as to what this tune might be, including Auld
Lang Syne and Rule Britannia, ring true, so the enigma remains.
Yet Elgar left another, more intriguing, mystery. In 1896, while
struggling to achieve recognition as a composer, he met Dora Penny, a
young woman 20 years his junior. The daughter of a clergyman recently
returned from Melanesia, she shared Elgar's interests in kites,
cycling and football (they both supported Wolverhampton Wanderers).
They exchanged letters and in July 1897, the halcyon summer of Queen
Victoria's golden jubilee, Elgar sent her a letter in code. Its
curious symbols, possibly inspired by Arabic script, seem to be based
on the double-arched, cursive E in Elgar's signature (see page 58).
Now known as the Dorabella cipher, after his nickname for Dora Penny,
it remains unbroken. It has proved one of cryptography's most enduring
It is not surprising that Elgar was fascinated by ciphers.
Code-breaking techniques have notable similarities to the process of
composing formal harmony and counterpoint. Both activities involve
sifting, shuffling and transposing parallel sequences of code or notes
to find the best fit. For musicians, the challenge is to devise lines
of music that sound pleasing on their own and also sound harmonious
when played together. Take the round Frère Jacques, for instance. This
is a simple example of repeated patterns of notes that overlap with
each other. In a more complex manifestation it becomes a fugue.
Experienced composers, like code-breakers, build up a repertoire of
templates and patterns that can be tested and modified to suit.
Links between music and ciphers go back centuries. One of the earliest
known treatises on cryptography was written by Al-Kindi, an
accomplished musician who was one of a group of Baghdad scholars
working in the 9th century during the golden age of Islamic
scholarship. Al-Kindi devised a revolutionary system for breaking
substitution ciphers - messages encrypted by replacing, say, A with P,
B with Q, and so on - based on an analysis of letter frequencies.
Scholars had noticed that in the Koran, certain letters appeared with
greater frequency than others, and they compiled a chart that ranked
letters from most to least frequent. Al-Kindi realised he could use
this chart to help crack substitution ciphers by replacing the most
commonly used character in the ciphered text with the most common
letter in Arabic, and then working through the chart to the least
"Known as the Dorabella cipher, Elgar's code is one of cryptography's
most enduring puzzles"
Aware of this weakness, the Italian composer and architect Leon
Alberti revolutionised cryptography in the 15th century with the
invention of the cipher wheel. This is a rotating disc set within
another disc, each with an alphabet inscribed around its rim. Match,
say, A on one disc with C on the other and it becomes easy to create
coded messages. Better still, it is simple to reset the position of
the wheels at intervals to eliminate frequency patterns. This, Alberti
thought, would make messages coded with his wheel impossible to break
unless the settings were known. An electronic version of this device
with multiple discs lay at the heart of the Enigma machine, a German
cipher device used in the second world war and named after Elgar's
variations by its German inventor, Arthur Scherbius.
Cryptographers have also co-opted musical notation into their service.
Everyone from 16th-century spies to illegal gamblers in 1950s New York
have sent messages disguised as music. A typical cipher from the 18th
century matches the first 12 letters of the alphabet to an ascending
scale of 12 crotchets or quarter notes, and the next 12 letters to a
descending scale of 12 quavers or eighth notes.
Musicians, too, seem to enjoy adopting simple codes when composing
melodies. Many pieces of music contain motifs based on initials, words
or short phrases written using the seven musical notes A to G. German
musical notation also allows the addition of S and H - equivalent to
E-flat and B. The musical cipher B-A-C-H is common, and both the BBC
and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich have used their initials as coded
musical signatures. However, note-based codes can be used for more
than just adding labels: Robert Schumann and Alban Berg both used
short coded motifs in their compositions as references to illicit love
affairs, and in the early 19th century John Field, the celebrated
Irish composer of nocturnes, thanked some particularly generous dinner
hosts with melodies based on B-E-E-F and C-A-B-B-A-G-E. Elgar made use
of this technique too. In 1885 he composed a duet for two sisters
based on their family name G-E-D-G-E, and 15 years later he
mischievously ciphered the names of some of his critics into the
demon's chorus in his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius.
It is also possible to create a cipher using musical rhythm. Morse
code has obvious potential. The Australian-born composer Barrington
Pheloung used conspicuous Morse code rhythm patterns in his music for
the UK television series Inspector Morse, and even encoded the
murderer's identity into the incidental music for some episodes.
It is known that Elgar attempted to learn Morse code and it is
possible that he used it in his music. For example, it could explain
his Enigma theme, which has a distinctive rhythmic structure that
suggests calculated design: the first motif is followed by itself
reversed, forming a rhythmic palindrome: two short notes, two long
notes; two long notes, two short notes. This pattern is repeated three
times in total.
Its symmetry is striking, a feature that would do credit to a
20th-century modernist but it is odd for its time. So what might this
In Morse code two dots represents I and two dashes M. So the motif
could be read as a repetition of "I am, am I?" This accords with
Elgar's admission that the theme represented the sense of loneliness
and inadequacy he felt at the time he wrote it, and the observations
by others that Elgar had been deeply hurt by cruel put-downs from
critics. It suggests a heartfelt but defiant response.
Morse code may also crop up in a cryptic letter that Elgar sent to
Dora in 1901. Within the message he inserts short, distinctive motifs
from his Enigma Variations, in particular a fragment from the
Dorabella variation and the opening of the initial theme. The segment
reads: "Whether you are as nice as", three short notes, three short
notes, "or only as unideal as", two short notes, two long notes.
Interpreted as Morse code, these mysterious notes become SS and IM,
inviting the interpretation: "Whether you are as nice as sugar and
spice or only as unideal as I am".
What clues do we have to the meaning of the Dorabella cipher itself?
Analysis of the frequency distribution of the characters in the
message reveals a pattern typical of a substitution cipher, but all
attempts to break it based on this assumption have failed. Writing in
the journal The Musical Times in February 1970, cryptographer and
musicologist Eric Sams analysed the cipher for telltale patterns of
letter groups, such as sequences of the form xyyx that have a limited
number of possible vowel-consonant equivalents (S-E-E-S, for instance)
and which could offer clues to the cipher. Sams did not get very far,
however, and his results are unconvincing.
"Elger mischievously ciphered the names of some of his critics into
the demon's chorus"
Elgar appears to have offered the key in an exercise book containing
the address "Tiddington House", where he lived from 1927. He listed
the symbols used in the Dorabella cipher matched against the letters
of the alphabet. The cipher follows a simple pattern, with single,
double and triple E-like characters, each in eight possible
orientations - upright, rotated 45 degrees clockwise, 90 degrees
clockwise and so on. This gives a total of 24 potential characters,
and as with many ciphers, I and J share a single character, as do U
and V. Samples on the page written using this code reveal the messages
M-A-R-C-O E-L-G-A-R (Marco was his pet spaniel) and A V-E-R-Y O-L-D
C-Y-P-H-E-R. But when applied to the Dorabella cipher this key does
not generate anything that makes obvious sense.
Since simple substitution fails, it seems likely that Elgar used a
form of double-encipherment, such as letter substitution followed by
letter shuffling, perhaps coding the message in alternate letters (for
example, the 1st, 3rd, 5th and so on). But the appearance of a
repeated four-letter group makes letter shuffling unlikely.
This does not rule out the use of multiple substitution alphabets
using a keyword, however, a sort of manual version of the Alberti
cipher wheel. If the keyword is D-O-G, for example, you might carry
out letter substitution by first coding A as D, B as E and so on, then
coding A as O, B as P and so on, finally coding A as G, B as H and so
The detective work is complicated by Elgar's eccentric spelling. For
instance, he once wrote of Dora Penny "warbling wigorously in
Worcester wunce a week". And what appears to be a potential cipher
message in the Tiddington House exercise book reads: "DO YOU GO TO
LONDON TOMORROW?" A message lacking E, the most frequently used letter
in English, seems deliberately designed to confuse. Elgar even put a
small mark below each letter O, perhaps hinting that they might be
dropped from the message altogether.
Did he use these kinds of tricks in the Dorabella cipher? It seems
likely. Seventy years after his death, Elgar's most intriguing
composition is yet to be cracked.
From issue 2479 of New Scientist magazine, 25 December 2004, page 56
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