Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Decoding Elgar’s Liszt Fragment Ciphers

Ich kraxele auf der Leiter
Und komme doch nicht Weiter.
(I scramble up the ladder
And still don’t get any further)

A rhyming couplet by Franz Liszt to Bettina von Arnim

The British composer Edward Elgar (1857–1934) is remembered for his regal Pomp and Circumstance Marches and significant contributions to the symphonic repertoire such as his perplexing Enigma Variations and noble Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major. He bequeathed an extraordinary and enduring legacy for orchestra, choir, and solo instruments such as the violin and cello. While the public is generally aware of Elgar’s musical genius, they remain largely unfamiliar with his other lifelong passion for cryptography. Like his music, Elgar left behind coded masterpieces that have fascinated and confounded experts and amateurs for over a century. The objective of this essay is to describe and decrypt his earliest known cryptogram, the Liszt fragment. The solution was realized almost exclusively by Wayne Packwood and is presented with the assistance of Robert Padgett whose supplementary analysis uncovered corroborating evidence for Packwood’s decryption.

Elgar's Liszt Fragment Cipher

The Liszt fragment cipher is a short sequence of curlicue-like symbols penciled in the margin of a concert program dating from April 10, 1886. Almost 136 years ago, Elgar attended a performance conducted by August Manns (1825–1907) at London’s Crystal Palace in honor of the eccentric Abbe Franz Liszt (1811–1886). A famous piano virtuoso and influential romantic composer, Liszt coined the term recital for his solo concerts and the expression Poème Symphonique (Symphonic Poem) to describe thirteen of his orchestral works. Below is a page from that evening’s program discussing Liszt’s Les Préludes Symphonic Poem No. 3 with Elgar’s enigmatic string of characters penciled in parallel with a long vertical bracket.

A closer view of that cryptic fragment shows eighteen symbols followed by a long dash.

These squiggly characters and their decryptions are conveniently preserved in one of Elgar’s surviving notebooks. He devised three distinct glyphs using the lower case c as the primary building block and organized them into eight distinct groups with different angles and orientations to generate 24 cryptographic avatars. Elgar assigned the alphabet’s 26 letters to these 24 characters by conflating i/j and u/v. Pairing similar letters is an established practice in cryptography.

The letters represented by Elgar’s cryptic characters were translated into serial numbers to facilitate cryptanalysis.

The raw translation of the Liszt fragment yields the following unintelligible ciphertext:

The respected Elgar scholar Jerrold Northrop Moore endorses a decryption proffered by Anthony Thorley that reads, “GETS YOU TO JOY, AND HYSTERIOUS.”[1] In his book nullUnsolved!, mathematician Craig P. Bauer contends Thorley’s purported solution does not add up as its 26 letters far exceed the 18 characters in the Liszt fragment. Bauer concludes that all prior attempts to crack this cipher “don’t make much sense” and that it “ considered unsolved.”[2]

Which Encryption Key?

Assuming that the plaintext is restricted to Elgar’s native language, certain letters evince higher frequencies than others and may be correlated with characters exhibiting similar frequencies. However, a cipher with fewer symbols than letters in the alphabet blunts the effectiveness of such an investigative tool. A short ciphertext necessitates experimentation to assess prospective encryption techniques to unmask the key(s). The Liszt fragment is Elgar’s earliest known cryptogram, so it is reasonable to test elementary encipherment methods before considering more sophisticated techniques.
What basic encryption method should be evaluated first? Liszt's public reputation implicates an exquisitely specific answer to that query. His extraordinary triumphs in the concert halls of Europe were glorified by a fawning press that elevated him to the status of a military hero. Dana Gooley, a Professor of Music at Brown University, captures the cultural context of Liszt’s rise and quasi-martial status:
Tales of great conquerors of antiquity formed an integral part of the popular culture of Liszt’s contemporaries. Caesar and Alexander, in particular, were a ubiquitous presence in popular literature and educational curricula . . . Already during his virtuoso travels, Liszt had acquired a mythical public identity that drew him into the orbit of these conquerors.[3]
In keeping with his public persona, Liszt was inundated with gifts and medals from European nobility. A group of Hungarian noblemen presented him with a ceremonial sword during his visit to the city of Pest. When Liszt strode out on stage donning his glimmering medals and ceremonial sword, he looked more like a decorated general than a musician. His musical conquests invited constant comparisons to Julius Caesar (100 BC–44 BC). The composer Carl Goldmark (1830–1915) recounts a revealing incident at the Vienna Musician’s Society (Tonküstler-verein) attended by the acclaimed pianists Liszt, Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894), and the composer Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Goldmark’s recollection is published in a 1909 issue of The Etude magazine:
At the foundation of the present Tonküstler-verein in Vienna, there was a large number of distinguished musicians assembled in the supper room of the Musikverein. Liszt, Rubinstein, Brahms were present and sat near each other at supper. Somebody let fall the word “triumvirate.” Rubenstein said, pointing to Liszt, “Caesar”; to himself, “Brutus,” and then to Brahms, “Lepidus.”[4]

A Brute Force Decryption

These constant comparisons of Liszt to Caesar bolster the suspicion that Elgar may have constructed his Liszt fragment using a Caesar shift cipher. This encipherment system is named after Julius Caesar who used it to encode military and governmental communiqués. The Roman historian Suetonius (c. 69–after 121) records how Caesar enciphered messages to Cicero (106 BC–43 BC) and other Roman elites by shifting plaintext letters three places further down in the alphabet.[5] The traditional Caesar shift substitutes a plaintext letter with another using a fixed number of positions away in the alphabet. For example, a Caesar shift of 1 replaces the letter A with B. The application of a Caesar shift of 1 to the Liszt fragment produces the following plaintext:

A Caesar shift of 1 transforms the last six ciphertext letters of the Liszt fragment into the recognizable English words “tin” and “wry.” The statistical odds of realizing six letters in a row that spell two recognizable words applying a Caesar shift of 1 is too unlikely for a random formation. In a musical context, the term “tin” may be used in conjunction with “ear” to denote a “deafened or insensitive ear.”[6] The word “wry” is defined in two ways. “Wry” can mean “bent, twisted, or turned usually abnormally to one side.”[7] It is also defined as “cleverly and often ironically or grimly humorous.”
Elgar used the word “wry” in his correspondence. In a letter to Troyte Griffith (1864–1942) dated February 10, 1918, Elgar lamented, “Well, I wish you were here: I have had a long and dreary time and should like a sight and a word, but these wry-necked times make it impossible to move.”[8] The partial decryption of the last six letters from the Liszt fragment using a Caesar shift of 1 presents a promising breakthrough. More significantly, it may be safely deduced that Elgar applied alternate Caesar shifts to the ciphertext letters. The application of divergent Caesar shifts within a cryptogram is classified as a Vigenère cipher, a sophisticated polyalphabetic substitution method typically reliant on a keyword or phrase.
When Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate, he reportedly asked, “Et tu, Brute?” That Latin phrase translates as “And you, Brutus?” This question is immortalized in Act III Scene 1 of the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Caesar directed the query to his friend Marcus Junius Brutus (85 BC–42 BC) who joined the cabal in executing the gruesome murder. Caesar’s last words intimate the method for cracking Elgar’s Liszt fragment cipher — a brute-force decryption. Exhaustive experimentation was required to unmask the Caesar shifts for ciphertext letters, a process known as “brute-forcing” a cipher. The final decryption “STRING QUARTET IS WRY” with the corresponding Caesar shifts is shown below:

A string quartet consists of four parts: Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, and Cello. Likewise, this cipher consists of four parts labeled Block 1 through Block 4. The first three blocks are of comparable size with each possessing four ciphertext letters. Block 4 is noticeably larger with six ciphertext letters. Similarly, the upper three voices in a string quartet (Violin 1, Violin 2, and Viola) are nearly identical in size. Like Block 4, the fourth and lowest instrument of the string quartet (Cello) is substantially larger.
Elgar bracketed the midsection of his program where he penciled in the Liszt fragment near its top. Just above the bracket, it reads, “The ‘working out’ section commencing :—” The long dash mirrors what is observed at the end of the Liszt fragment. The short score at the uppermost part of Elgar’s bracket refers to the Allegro ma non troppo of Les Préludes No. 3. Remarkably, the opening of this section is orchestrated almost exclusively for the string quartet with only a single line played by the principal clarinet that is later joined by the second clarinet and bassoons. The string part is quietly frenetic with rapid chromatic runs in the cello line accompanied by tense sotto voce tremolos that crescendo and decrescendo in the upper strings. Consequently, the decryption “STRING QUARTET IS WRY” is contextually appropriate and an apt characterization of Liszt’s orchestration in this passage addressed by the bracketed portion of the program. The orchestration elegantly affirms the efficacy of this solution.

Diana McVeigh is a respected British musicologist and the author of Elgar: The Music Maker. She furnished program notes for a 2011 recording by the Goldner String Quartet of Elgar’s E minor Op. 83. McVeigh writes, “The mood of the String Quartet in E minor Op 83 is wry, the sharp rhythmic gestures at odds with the hollow, irresolute harmonies.”[9] Her use of the term “wry” to characterize a string quartet is hardly an isolated instance of a knowledgeable student of music employing such language to describe such an ensemble.
Although the Caesar shift patterns within the Liszt fragment decryption may initially appear random, this is far from the case as a detailed analysis uncovered a sophisticated underlying structure. This pattern is more easily observed when the Caesar shifts are arranged in ascending order for Blocks 1-4:

There is a clear pattern of Caesar shifts rising incrementally by 1 starting on 8 in Block 1 (8, 9, 10, 11) and continuing stepwise through 15 in Block 2 (12, 13, 14, 15). The ascending Caesar shifts in Block 3 (14, 17, 20, 23) start on 14 with each subsequent shift rising by 3 before ending on 23. The shift by 15 is bookended by 14. Caesar shifts in Block 4 are 1 and 6. The use of divergent Caesar shifts within each Block considerably complicates the key and hardens the cipher against decryption. In all, there are thirteen different types of Caesar shifts ranging from 1, 6, 8-15, 17, 20, and 23.
Elements of the decryption key are suggested by the orchestration in the inaugural four bars from the Allegro ma non troppo. The first two bars cover a span of eight quarter notes. Similarly, Blocks 1 and 2 cover eight plaintext letters encoded by incremental Caesar shifts of 1 beginning with 8. In these opening two bars, the cellos play a subject that begins on F that descends stepwise to E. Those two adjacent note letters repeated in the opening two bars suggest a Caesar shift of 1. The third bar of the Allegro ma non troppo is dominated by a chromatic series of four triplets also performed by the cellos. These rhythmic contours in the third bar are mirrored by Block 3 with four plaintext letters enciphered by sequential Caesar shifts of 3. There are six written notes in the fourth measure of this section. Likewise, there are six plaintext letters in Block 4.

A Passwords Key

Meticulous analysis revealed that the ordering of these Caesar shifts appears to be rooted in a series of passwords that serve as keys. The 18 Caesar shifts in order of appearance are shown below:

Converting the numbers of those Caesar shifts into their corresponding letters of Elgar's cipher alphabet using a simple number-to-letter key (1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C, etc.) generates the following plaintext:

Letters two through six immediately stand out as they spell “LYOUN,” the old French word for lion. The name of the French city Lyon originates from that antiquated spelling. Liszt’s primary spoken language was French, and he enjoyed a long association with the city of Lyon. In late 1834 and early 1835, he composed a defiant piano solo called Lyon published in 1840 as part of his Album d'un voyageur (Traveler’s Album).[10] Like his later Les Préludes No. 3, Lyon is written in the key of C major. Liszt recorded the following motto on its score, “Vivre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant.” The English translation reads, “Live while working or die while fighting.” The motto was inspired by an uprising of local silk weavers protesting unbearable working conditions. Elgar was a proficient pianist and was undoubtedly familiar with Liszt’s popular piano solo Lyon.

Elgar was an ardent Wagnerian whose interest in Liszt was undoubtedly fueled by his intimate friendship with that revolutionary German composer. In 1854, Liszt sent Richard Wagner (1813–1883) some music written to commemorate the 100th birthday of the famous German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Wagner replied, “I compare it to the claw by which I recognise the lion; but now I call out to you, Show us the complete lion…”[11] Wagner likened the music of Liszt to a lion likely as a wordplay on Lyon. Liszt received many titles and honors. One of his most notable titles was the Cross of the Lion of Belgium conferred on July 18, 1842.[12] The association between Liszt and the lion is so prevalent that musicologist Alan Walker calls Liszt “The Lion of Weimar.”[13]
Liszt dedicated his composition Lyon to "M. F. de L." The first two letters of the plaintext description of the Caesar shifts are M and L. The ciphertext for the plaintext M is F, the remaining initial in Liszt's dedication. Consequently, all three initials from Liszt's dedication (MFL) are recorded by the original plaintext (6) and Caesar shift plaintext (12, 11) in conjunction with a phonetic spelling of Lyon. Such an uncanny combination reeks of intelligent design.
The seventh and eighth letters are I/J and P. Elgar was fond of practical jokes that he called japes. When treated as a noun, a jape is defined as “something designed to arouse amusement or laughter.” When used as a verb, jape means “to say or do something jokingly or mockingly.”[14] Elgar’s correspondence bristles with inventive phonetic or trick spellings. For example, he respelled “excuse” as “xqqq.” Other exemplars of Elgar’s creative spellings are listed below:
  1. Bizziness (business)
  2. çkor (score)
  3. cszquōrrr (score)
  4. fagotten (forgotten)
  5. FAX (facts)
  6. frazes (phrases)
  7. gorjus (gorgeous)
  8. phatten (fatten)
  9. skorh (score)
  10. SSCZOWOUGHOHR (score)
The realization that Elgar was an enthusiast for unconventional spellings permits a reading of the adjacent letters “JP” as a phonetic rendering of jape. The inclusion of the “I” permits a phonetic reading of “I JP” as “I jape.” The Liszt fragment cipher encodes a wry jape in Elgar’s native language. In commenting about another more famous cipher by Elgar that employs the same characters found in the Liszt fragment, Bauer suspects “. . . the reason the automated programs fail to break the Dorabella cipher is because much of it consists of misspelled words and words invented by Elgar . . .”[15] Consistent with Bauer’s hunch, Elgar deploys some phonetic misspellings in his Liszt fragment password key.
The ninth, tenth, and eleventh letters are “RHP.” The letter “R” is a homonym of “Our.” The letters “HP” form a phonetic spelling of “Hope.” The plaintext cluster “RHP” may be interpolated as “Our Hope.” The final seven plaintext letters are “KAAFAAA.” This plaintext series is a phonetic rendering of the German word “Kaffee” that translates as coffee. Remarkably, the last two letters in the correct German spelling “Kaffee” furnish Elgar’s initials (EE). The German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe how young women venerated Liszt by vying for his discarded gloves, plucking hairs from his head as keepsakes, retrieving his cigar butts and secreting them away in their corsets, and saving the dregs from his coffee cups in small vials.[16] There is an unmistakable comical connection between Liszt, coffee, and his adoring fans.
Siegfried Wagner recalled an amusing coffee prank perpetrated by Liszt at a dinner party hosted by an aristocratic matron. When served coffee, Liszt helped himself to a domino of sugar using his fingers rather than the sugar-tong. Repulsed by Liszt’s unsanitary table manners, the Madame ordered the butler to immediately empty the sugar bowl out the window and refill it. Nonplussed, Liszt quietly finished his coffee, proceeded to the same window, and tossed his cup outside. When the Madame protested, Liszt politely replied, “If Madame would throw the sugar out because my fingers had touched it, she surely would not drink again from a cup my lips had touched.”[17]
Only one French term and one English word are spelled correctly in this password key with the remaining English and German words realized phonetically. As amply testified to by his correspondence, phonetic spellings bear Elgar's cryptographic fingerprints. The password key that encodes the Caesar shifts is written as “M LYOUN I/JP RHP KAAFAAA.” Remarkably, these letters appear in this precise order within the key. The phonetic translation of this password key reads, “M(F) LYOUN, I JAPE OUR HOPE COFFEE.” There are two French elements, four English terms, and one German word. Three languages are employed in this password key:
  1. French
  2. English
  3. German
The use of multiple languages with some phonetic spellings hardens this keyword cipher against decryption. The sum of these languages is reflected by the number three assigned to Les Préludes. The choice of languages reflects the lingua franca of Liszt (French and German) and Elgar (English). In his youth, Elgar studied the German language because he dreamed of attending the Leipzig Conservatory, Germany's oldest university school of music. The notes of the recurring motive performed by the cellos in the fourth bar of the Allegro ma non troppo are G-sharp, F, and E. Those three note letters conveniently furnish the initials for those three languages: German, French, and English. The cellos perform those same pitches in the first two bars of this section with the G-sharp respelled enharmonically as A-flat.

A Ringing Endorsement

Ciphertext numbers marked with an asterisk indicate a Caesar shift that cycles through the entire alphabet and returns to the beginning to produce a relative figure smaller than the original ciphertext number. For example, a ciphertext number of 18 (S) subject to a Caesar shift of 23 adds up to 41, a sum greater than the 24 characters in Elgar’s cipher alphabet. The shift from the first letter of the alphabet is the difference of 41 less 24 which yields 17 (R). This would be the equivalent of a Caesar shift of -1, a step backward by one letter. A total of six Caesar shifts circle back to the beginning of the alphabet with two in each of the first three blocks. The consistent distribution of two de facto negative Caesar shifts in the first three blocks indicates deliberation and design.
In all, six of the eighteen plaintext letters in the Liszt fragment are encoded by negative Caesar shifts. These reverse Caesar shifts (-1, -10, -4, -11, -7, -14) apply to ciphertext letters in positions 3-6, 9 and 12. Six of eighteen letters constitute 33 percent of this cryptogram. The number 33 is the mirror image of Elgar’s initials consisting of two cursive capital Es. Such a precise percentage mathematically implies a coded version of Elgar’s initials.
Further analysis revealed that this set of negative Caesar shifts constitutes a sub-cipher within the password key. In order of appearance, the plaintext for the first four reverse Caesar shifts spells “RING.” The orchestral score of Les Préludes No. 3 includes “Becken,” the German name for cymbals. That percussion instrument produces a loud crash followed by a sustained ring that may be dampened by placing the cymbals’ edges against the performer’s chest. Liszt’s scoring in the concluding Andante maestoso does not call for dampening the cymbals, permitting them to ring out above the orchestra.
The word “RING” is also closely associated with Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and his colossal opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Referred to simply as the Ring, Wagner composed this series of four operas that require approximately 15 hours to perform. Liszt was an early and generous supporter of Wagner, a romantic composer whose music exerted a profound and lasting influence on Elgar. Elgar’s absorption and distillations of leitmotifs from Wagner’s operas are widely acknowledged in his compositions. Wagner effusively praised Liszat’s invaluable assistance following the August 1876 premiere of the Ring at Bayreuth, a unique opera house and shrine explicitly built for Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (Total artwork). Wagner toasted Liszt in these words:
For everything I am and have achieved I have one man to thank, without whom not a single note of mine would be known, a dear friend who, when I was banned from Germany, with incomparable devotion and self-sacrifice drew me to the light and first recognized me. To this dear friend is due the highest honour. It is my noble friend and master, Franz Liszt![18] 
The first four plaintext letters revealed by negative Caesar shifts spell “RING” and allude to Liszt’s intimate connection to Wagner’s extraordinary opera cycle. There are four operas in the Ring, and likewise, there are four blocks in Elgar’s cipher. A consideration of the remaining two plaintext letters produced by negative Caesar shifts (A and E) with the original four letters is the anagram “A RING - E.” This may be read as “A RING” with Elgar’s initial appended at the end.
Negative Caesar Shifts (-1, -10, -4, -11, -7, -14) apply to ciphertext letters in positions 3-6, 9 and 12 of the Liszt fragment. The application of a number-to-letter key (1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C, etc.) to those letter positions using Elgar’s cipher alphabet yields C, D, E, F, I/J, and M. The sequential application of the negative Caesar shifts (-1, -10, -4, -11, -7, -14) to those letters produces B, S, A T, B, and X. That assortment of letters is an anagram of “BXSTAB,” a phonetic rendering of “Backstab.” Two principal characters from Wagner’s Ring cycle are Brunhilde and Siegfried. Brunhilde uses a magic potion to protect every part of Siegfried’s body except for the small of his back. In Act III of Gӧtterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final opera in the Ring cycle, Siegfried is murdered when Hagen stabs him in the back with a spear. This ancillary cryptogram intersects elegantly with the encoding of “RING” by the negative Caesar shifts. Like Siegfried, Caesar was stabbed to death by rivals whom he mistakenly believed were trusted allies.


The efficiency and multilayering of the Liszt fragment ciphers present an impressive demonstration of Elgar’s cryptographic prowess. With three characters oriented at diverse angles, he efficiently generates 24 symbols that replace the English alphabet’s 26 letters by conflating the letters i/j and u/v. These curlicue symbols are the first layer of encryption. Liszt’s longstanding reputation as a musical “Caesar” fueled the suspicion that Elgar deployed a Caesar shift system to construct his enigmatic fragment. Brute-forcing the cipher revealed its eighteen characters encode the phrase “STRING QUARTET IS WRY.” The decryption draws on a combination of thirteen different Caesar shifts within four blocks, three with four letters and one with six. Thirteen different Caesar shifts form the second encryption layer.
The Liszt fragment is penciled next to the program note that discusses the Allegro ma non troppo section of Les Préludes No. 3. The orchestration of that passage is dominated by the string quartet with the cellos playing rapid chromatic runs below energetic tremolos that crescendo and decrescendo in the upper strings. The phrase “STRING QUARTET IS WRY” is an apt characterization of this passage, rendering this decryption of the Liszt fragment as contextually accurate and appropriate. 
Viewing the decryption through the lens of Elgar’s musical expertise permits a deeper appreciation of his cryptogram’s ingenious construction. Four blocks and their respective complement of letters mirror the number of instruments and their relative sizes within a string quartet. Blocks 1 through 3 share an equal complement of four letters, and Block 4 has six. A string quartet consists of two violins, one viola, and one cello. The violin and viola are nearly identical in size, but the cello is much larger. Like the 2-1-1 distribution of the instruments in a string quartet, Elgar’s Caesar shifts are distributed in a 2-1-1 pattern within Blocks 1-3 where two are drawn from one Block and two from the remaining Blocks.
The mechanism of Elgar’s cryptogram relies on a series of thirteen different Caesar shifts. Although many Caesar shifts may appear random, an in-depth analysis reveals they are distributed in a sophisticated pattern that suggests a passphrase key. When converted into their respective letters from Elgar’s cipher alphabet, they produce a series of recognizable words and phrases in French, English, and German. The passphrase key begins with “M” followed by “LYOUN,” the old French spelling of Lyon. Liszt’s well-known piano piece Lyon is dedicated to “M.F. de L.” The plaintext letter M corresponds with the ciphertext F (the second initial of the dedication), and the third initial (L) overlaps with the spelling of “LYOUN.” This first part of the cipher key consists of two parts in French, Liszt’s preferred conversational language.
The second part of the passphrase key is “I/JP.” The letter “I” is the first person pronoun that refers to Elgar. The letters “JP” are a phonetic adaption of “Jape.” Elgar orchestrated practical jokes that he called “japes.” The letters “I/JP” is a phonetic version of the phrase “I jape” that conveys Elgar’s known proclivity for pranks and mockery. The Liszt fragment encodes a wry remark about the orchestration of the Allegro ma non troppo, constituting a concealed jape.
The third part of the passphrase key is “RHP”. The letter “R” is a phonetic version of “Our.” The letters “HP” are a phonetic rendering of “Hope.” The letters “RHP” produces a phonetic rendition of the phrase “Our Hope.” The fourth and final part of the password key is “KAAFAA.” This is a phonetic spelling of Kaffee, the German word for coffee. Remarkably, the last two letters in that German term replicate Elgar’s initials. The letters “I/JP R HP KAAFAA” generate the phrase “I jape our hope coffee.” These phonetic words reflect Elgar’s affinity for unconventional spellings, a cunning tactic to thwart cryptanalysis. Liszt spoke French and German. Elgar’s native language was English, but he also learned to read, write, and speak German. These linguistic links to Liszt and Elgar bolster the efficacy of this secondary password key that furnishes a third tier of encryption.
There are six Caesar shifts in the Liszt fragment cipher that “wrap around” the alphabet and replace ciphertext with plaintext appearing earlier in the alphabet. The first four of these reverse Caesar shifts occur consecutively in the 3rd through 6th positions and spell “RING.” Liszt is closely associated with Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle. When “RING” is contemplated with the remaining plaintext letters for the remaining two negative Caesar shifts in the 9th (A) and 12th (E) positions, it permits the anagram “A RING - E.” This may be read as the phrase “A RING” followed by Elgar’s initial. This cipher within the decryption presents a fourth layer of encryption.
Ciphertext letters in positions 3-6, 9, and 12 of the Liszt fragment are subjected to effective negative Caesar shifts of -1, -10, -4, -11, -7, and -14. The application of a number-to-letter key to those letter positions using Elgar’s cipher alphabet yields C, D, E, F, I/J, and M. The application of the negative Caesar shifts (-1, -10, -4, -11, -7, -14) in sequence to those ciphertext letters produces B, S, A T, B, and X. That assortment of letters is an anagram of “BXSTAB,” a phonetic rendering of “Backstab.” In Act III of Gӧtterdämmerung, Hagen assassinates Siegfried by stabbing him in the back with a spear. This fifth layer of encryption elides elegantly with the “RING” sub-cipher associated with the negative Caesar shifts. Like Siegfried, Caesar was betrayed by poseurs feigning to be allies and bludgeoned to death.
Elgar’s Liszt fragment has resisted all attempts at a solution for 135 years. Now the reasons for its resilience are manifest. Its mechanism is coyly suggested by the construction of its characters from the lower case “c” shifted into contrasting configurations, for that letter is the initial for Caesar. The Liszt fragment is a sophisticated multilayered, multidisciplinary, and multilingual Vigenère cipher that enciphers a narrow band of consistent and mutually supportive solutions. Both Liszt's reputation as a musical “Caesar” and his music furnish critical clues for unlocking Elgar's earliest known cryptogram. It is extraordinary how much information was efficiently encoded within these eighteen enigmatic characters.

About the Authors

Wayne Packwood

Mr. Packwood attended Binley Park Coventry school before joining the Army. After serving in the Army for four years, he joined the Electrical Engineering firm Lee Beasley where he was employed for a decade. During his tenure at Lee Beasley, he became a qualified Electrical Engineer by completing coursework and training through the Joint Industry Board of Electrical Engineers. He next joined AT&T as a Project Manager where he was promoted to middle management and supervised a team of 19. Mr. Packwood is self-taught in the discipline of cryptography. His original research was published in the July 2020 issue of the journal Musical Opinion. A member of the Elgar Society, he presently serves as a carrier with Royal Mail.

Robert W. Padgett

Mr. Padgett graduated from Vassar College Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Psychology. He has performed on the violin for Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Steve Jobs, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Gavin Newsom, George Shultz, William F. Buckley, Jr., Van Cliburn, Joseph Silverstein, Marcia Davenport, and other public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008, Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry Fanfare for the Eagles. It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado-Darman in May 2008. Mr. Padgett is a member of the Elgar Society and has presented papers at annual conferences. Married with five children, he resides in Plano, Texas, where he teaches violin, viola, piano, music theory, and composition.


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  5. Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet. (Scribners and Sons, 1997), 84.

  6. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Accessed December 22, 2020.

  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Accessed December 22, 2020.

  1. Elgar, Edward, and Jerrold Northrop Moore. Edward Elgar: Letters of a Lifetime (Elgar Works, 2012), 350. 

  2. Diana McVeigh for Hyperion Records

accessed January 7, 2021.

  1. Walker, Allan. Liszt: The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847 (Cornell University Press, 1987), 158.

  2. Liszt, Franz, Richard Wagner, and Francis Hueffer. Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt (United Kingdom: H. Grevel and Company, 1897), 47.

  3. Walker, Allan. Liszt: The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847 (Cornell University Press, 1987), 380.

  4. Walker, Allan. Liszt: The Final Years: 1861-1886 (Cornell University Press, 1987), 228.

  5. Merriam-Webster Dictionary accessed December 23, 2020.

  1. Bauer, Craig P. Unsolved! (Princeton University Press, 2017), 154.

  2. Puslowski, Xavier Jon. Franz Liszt, His Circle, and His Elusive Oratorio (United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014), 87.

  3. Saffle, Michael, and Lachmund, Carl. Living with Liszt: From the diary of Carl Lachmund, an American pupil of Liszt, 1882-1884 (United Kingdom, Pendragon Press, 1995), 276.

  4. Millington, Barry. The Sorcerer of Bayreuth (Oxford University Press, USA, 2012), 118.

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About Mr. Padgett

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Mr. Padgett studied violin with Michael Rosenker (a student of Leopold Auer), and Rosenker’s pupil, Owen Dunsford. Mr. Padgett studied piano with Sally Magee (a student of Emanuel Bay), and Blanca Uribe (a student of Rosina Lhévinne). He attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Vassar he studied music theory and composition with Richard Wilson. Mr. Padgett has performed for Joseph Silverstein, Van Cliburn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Steve Jobs, Prince Charles, Lady Camilla, Marcia Davenport, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other prominent public figures. His original compositions have been performed by the Monterey Symphony, at the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club, and other private and public venues. In 2008 Mr. Padgett won the Max Bragado-Darman Fanfare Competition with his entry "Fanfare for the Eagles." It was premiered by the Monterey Symphony under Maestro Bragado in May 2008. A member of the Elgar Society, Mr. Padgett is married with five children.