Monday, February 14, 2022

Elgar’s Dorabella Dots “MAGD” Cipher

Although squiggles are used instead of letters, the [Dorabella] cipher looks pretty simple, as if it might be a monoalphabetic substitution cipher (MASC) with word spacing stripped out. But none of the techniques used to solve MASCs yield anything reasonable for this puzzle.

The British composer Edward Elgar (1857–1934) and his wife enjoyed a brief stay in July 1897 with the family of Reverend Alfred Penny (1845–1934), the rector of St. Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton. Caroline Alice Elgar (1848–1920) was a childhood friend of the Reverend’s wife, Mary Frances Baker, who married the widower in 1895 and became the stepmother of his only daughter, Dora Penny (1874–1964). Upon their return to Great Malvern, Alice wrote a letter to the Penny family thanking them for their hospitality. Elgar added a short enciphered missive to his wife’s correspondence, addressing it to “Miss Penny” on the verso. The incisive salutation is a classic Elgarian pun. While “Miss” is an honorific title for an unmarried woman or girl, it also functions as the verb “miss” to express regret or sadness over a person’s absence. Elgar was clearly missing Miss Penny when he created his cryptographic pièce de résistance. Dora was unable to decipher Elgar’s enigmatic script and filed it away for forty years before eventually publishing it in her 1937 biography.
Elgar’s coded message to Dora Penny is popularly referred to as the Dorabella Cipher. The cipher’s moniker comes from Variation X of the Enigma Variations (1899), a movement dedicated to her that bears the title “Dorabella.” Elgar derived that playful pseudonym from a character in the opera Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Dorabella Cipher consists of 87 curlicue symbols arranged in three rows of varying character lengths followed by a fourth row giving the date “July 14 [18]97”.

The key for translating this confounding cast of characters into recognizable cleartext is preserved in one of Elgar’s surviving notebooks. A facsimile of that cipher key is shown below:

Elgar devised three distinct glyphs using the lower case c as the primary building block. It is easy to ascertain his motive for selecting that particular letter as c is the initial for cipher and cryptogram. With his three prototypes assembled from one, two, and three cs, Elgar systematically arranged them into eight different groupings using various angles and orientations to generate 24 alphabetic avatars. Elgar assigned the alphabet’s 26 letters to these 24 characters by merging i with j and u with v. Conflating similar letters is a standard convention in cryptography. The resemblance of some of Elgar's curlicue characters to the capital cursive “E” from his initials is deliberate and festoons the cipher with his imprimatur in contrasting guises.
In Unsolved!, a history of unbroken ciphers, mathematics professor Craig P. Bauer observes that the Dorabella Cipher appears to be a simple monoalphabetic substitution cipher (MASC) in which one letter is replaced by one symbol. Gaps between words are excised to make the cipher more difficult to unravel. Ancient Greek and Classical Latin text omit spaces between words, a practice referred to as scriptio continua. Bauer laments that none of the standard techniques for solving such an elementary cryptogram yield any comprehensible results. Even the most advanced computer programs fail to make any inroads. Bauer briefly describes and dismisses purported solutions by Eric Sams, Tony Gaffney, and Tim S. Roberts. He theorizes the Dorabella Cipher has not yet been solved because Elgar’s system of encipherment must be “something more complicated.” It may be reasonably surmised that the appearance of a MASC is a mask that conceals a more nuanced mode of encipherment.
Elgar was a rational and creative innovator. He was also an accomplished musician, a profession that requires a familiarity with multiple languages such as Italian, German, and French. His correspondence evinces an affinity for inventive phonetic spellings and neologisms. One should reasonably expect he would construct an innovative cipher that draws on these skillsets to foil straightforward decryption. One such intricacy could be the use of more than one language. Another complexity would be the introduction of some phonetic spellings. The presumption Elgar would simplistically design the Dorabella Cipher as a MASC framed in one language induces an analytical tunnel vision that impairs all decryption attempts. This readily explains why sophisticated computer programs are incapable of brute-forcing it.
There is ample evidence that Elgar utilized numerous languages in constructing some of his cryptograms. The most compelling illustration is a musical Polybius cipher encased within the opening six bars of the Enigma Theme. Rather than predictably relying exclusively on his native language, he deployed a combination of four languages to formulate the complete decryption: English, Latin, German, and what he would have reasonably believed to be Aramaic. Remarkably, these four languages are an acrostic anagram of ELGAR.
  1. English
  2. Latin
  3. German
  4. Aramaic
Realizing it would be contested, the solution stealthily unveils Elgar’s signature via another tier of encryption. This cipher was produced a little over a year after Elgar sent his encrypted message to Dora Penny, bolstering the hunch he applied similar methods in the Dorabella Cipher. When Elgar solved a challenge cipher by John Holt Schooling in 1896, he wrote his solution on “courage cards” that contain ten symbols from the same cipher alphabet used on the Dorabella Cipher. Schooling’s allegedly unbreakable code was a Nihilist cipher, a variant of the Polybius square. It is highly plausible that the Dorabella Cipher is encoded in numerous languages using fractionated plaintext represented by multiple symbols. This would explain why frequency analysis — a tried and true technique for cracking MASCs — has consistently failed to unlock the contents of Elgar’s coded message.
There is some debate regarding four conspicuous dotes on the Dorabella Cipher. Could they be merely errant ink droplets, or are they something more deliberate? The first dot appears above the sixth ciphertext in row three which is the 66th character in the series. Three other dots appear in the fourth row to the right of the numbers 1, 4, and 7. Based on my original research, those dots ingeniously encipher the abbreviation “A. M. D. G.” for the Latin motto of the Society of Jesus, “Ad Majórem Dei Glóriam” (For the greater glory of God).

The first dot above the ciphertext symbol in the third row pinpoints the glyph for the letter m. The application of an elementary number-to-letter key (1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C, etc.) to the dotted numbers in the date generates the letters A, D, and G. The combination of these dotted characters generates the anagram “A. M. D. G.” The four dots even provide the periods needed to segregate those initials to complete the dedication. This subcode is labeled the Dorabella Dots Dedication Cipher. Elgar inscribed those four initials on the title pages of major sacred works such as The Dream of Gerontius (1900), The Apostles (1903), and The Kingdom (1906). The discovery of the Dorabella Dots Dedication Cipher is consistent with Elgar’s adoption of “A. M. D. G.” as a personal motto. Elgar’s fingerprints are all over this subcipher.

The dot above the sixth character in row three of the ciphertext marks more than just a glyph that replicates the letter m. It pinpoints a well-known pseudonym for Elgar. Relying on Elgar’s notebook key, the raw decryption of the character below the dot in row three is the letter E. A single dot in International Morse Code is also E. The following two characters encode the letters D and U/V. Remarkably, the small dot above the ciphertext in the third row tags the text sequence “E D U”. “Edoo” is a pet name for Elgar coined by his wife. She conceived of this nickname using the first three letters of the German version of her husband’s forename, Eduard. Elgar assigned this pseudonym to his musical self-portrait in the Enigma Variations (1899), the martial Finale with the title “E. D. U.” Dora Penny was familiar with this pet name as she spent a substantial amount of time around the Elgar family and heard Alice call her husband “Edoo.” This fragmentary decryption confirms that the Dorabella Dots Dedication Cipher is covertly initialed by its author. The discovery of Elgar’s nickname is consistent with other cryptograms in the Enigma Variations that are similarly tagged by his initials.
Far from being a random assortment of letters as posited by cryptanalyst Keith Massey, the cleartext presents a coded form of Elgar's name expertly spliced into the fabric of the cleartext. Elgar made it an obvious place to look because of the anomalous dot above the sixth character in the third row. This “EDU” Dot Cipher furnishes the author's signature conspicuously missing from his missive to Miss Penny. It is astonishing that this signature remained undetected since the cipher was first publicized 75 years ago in 1947. One reasonably wonders what else the so-called experts failed to detect lurking just beneath the surface of the Dorabella Cipher. To be frank, Elgar's encoded signature was not difficult to spot.
The Latin solution to the Dorabella Dots Dedication Cipher intimates Elgar possibly employed other languages in the Dorabella Cipher. There is circumstantial evidence in support of this hypothesis. The date on the cryptogram is given in English. Elgar’s German nickname is encoded precisely where the first dot appears in the third row. Elgar knew how to read and write in three languages: English, Latin, and German. Could the dots in the Dorabella Cipher harbor another German decryption?
When the Dorabella Cipher is scanned from top to bottom and left to right, the highest visible dot appears over the sixth character in row three. As previously observed, that dotted glyph resembles the letter m angled slightly upwards. Scanning right, the next highest dot is positioned to the right of the “1” in row four followed by the larger dot affixed to the upper right corner of the “7”. The lowest dot is to the right of the “4”. The application of a number-to-letter key to those numerals yields A, G, and D. When read in this descending left-to-right sequence, the dotted characters generate the plaintext “MAGD”. The German word “Magd” means “maid” and “virgin.” Martin Luther used the word “Magd” to refer to Mary in his hymn Sie ist mir lieb, die werte Magd (She’s dear to me, the worthy maid). One of the titles for the Virgin Mary is “the pure maid.” This leads back to Dora Penny whose middle name is Mary. She was given that name in memory of her mother Mary who died six days after delivering her.

Elgar was an aficionado of wordplay. Consistent with this character trait, the German word Magd contains a Zweideutigkeit or double entendre. An alternative way to interpret the cleartext magd is as scriptio continua as suggested by the uninterrupted flow of characters on the Dorabella Cipher. This permits it to be read as the German word “Mag” followed by the initial D. “Mag” is the first person singular conjugation of the German verb “mögen” which means “to like.” D is the initial for Dora, the recipient of the coded message. The expression “Mag Dora” means “Likes Dora.” Elgar struck up an enduring friendship with Dora after meeting her at the Wolverhampton Rectory in July 1897. The Dorabella Dots “MAGD” Cipher reflects both her maidenhood and Elgar’s affinity for her agreeable company. Uncovering these coded German expressions in the Dorabella Cipher was simply a matter of connecting the dots.
My cryptanalysis of the Dorabella Cipher determined that Elgar employed English, Latin, and German terms in its construction. The English words are overt with “Miss Penny” addressed on the back and “July” on the front. The Latin abbreviation “AMDG” is encoded by the four dotted characters. Likewise, the German word for maid (Magd) is also enciphered by those same dotted symbols. Remarkably, the initials of those three languages provide the first three letters of Elgar. In my next article, I will document the discovery of various Spanish words in the Dorabella Cipher cleartext. That will bring the tally of tongues to four in Elgar’s coded conundrum. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

Soli Yah Gloria

Madonna of Humility by Domenico di Bartolo (1433).

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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.