Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Mendelssohn's Initals "EFB" Cipher

Felix Mendelssohn by Hadi Karimi

To sum up in a word what was most striking in his character, he was an Evangelical Christian in the fullest sense; he knew and loved the Bible as few did in his time; and from this intimate acquaintance came the assured belief, the steadfast piety, without which it would have been impossible to create works of so deep and strong a spiritual character as he wrought.
. . . Elgar, wishing to write his own libretto for the oratorio, The Apostles, began to collect material. As is well known, his knowledge of the Bible and the Apocrypha was profound. He certainly consulted his friends also, both in his own Roman Catholic church and in the Anglican, for instance Canon Gorton, who helped him a great deal in his researches.

The late romantic composer Edward Elgar (1857–1934) achieved international acclaim with the premiere of his Enigma Variations in June 1899 under the baton of the Wagnerian protégé Hans Richter (1843–1916). The work was revolutionary because its original theme was devised as a counterpoint to a famous melody that remains unheard and mysteriously absent. Elgar labeled the Theme “Enigma” before publication and the inaugural performance to convey his contrapuntal riddle, effectively ruling out the groundless speculation that this puzzling title was merely an afterthought or marketing ploy. In the 1899 program note, Elgar calls the Theme “Enigma.” He continues this practice in a later program note for an October 1911 performance at Turin where he refers to the opening movement as simply “Enigma.” Elgar never veered away from this consistent account of his melodic conundrum throughout his life and impressive career as one of England’s iconic composers.
Conventional scholarship asserts the hidden melody is unfathomable because Elgar took his secret to the grave. As Michael Kennedy opines, “People have ingeniously been trying to guess the tune ever since, a harmless but pointless recreation since the secret, if there was one, died with him.” Did Elgar leave behind no written trace of the secret tune’s identity, forever entombing the solution with his burial? Or is it time to lay that misconception to rest?
Elgar incinerated notebooks that held sketches of the Enigma Variations shortly after the passing of his wife, Alice Elgar (1848–1920). If there was no secret melody, as Kennedy coyly suggests, then what was Elgar concealing from posterity by burning his notebooks? The destruction of those primary sources erased the opportunity to scrutinize intimate details about the genesis and development of his magnum opus. However, there remains another promising avenue of inquiry, one glossed over or entirely overlooked by musicologists. It hinges on Elgar’s obsession with cryptography, the art of encoding and decoding secret messages. Musicologists typically have little to no training in this arcane discipline, lacking the expertise and tools to identify and decrypt ciphers. Given Elgar’s expertise in this specialized field, it remains entirely plausible that he enciphered the answers to the Enigma Variations within the score.

The Dorabella Cipher from Powell's biography

It is generally acknowledged that Elgar excelled in cryptography. His mastery of ciphers merits an entire chapter in Craig P. Bauer’s book Unsolved! The editor of the journal Cryptologia and a mathematics professor, Bauer devotes the bulk of his attention to Elgar’s meticulous decryption of an allegedly insoluble Nihilist cipher published by John Holt Schooling in an 1896 edition of The Pall Mall Gazette. Elgar was so pleased with his solution that he bragged about it in his first biography published with his full cooperation in 1905 by Robert J. Buckley (1847–1938). Cracking Schooling’s challenge cipher is the feat of an expert.
An outstanding specimen of Elgar’s mastery is his seemingly impervious Dorabella Cipher. In July 1897, he mailed an encrypted missive to a family friend named Dora Penny (1874–1964). Two years later, she would be immortalized as the dedicatee of Variation X with the Mozartian nickname Dorabella. Dora could not decipher Elgar’s coded message and filed it away for four decades before publishing it in her 1937 memoir. The ciphertext consists of curlicue symbols that take the place of letters. In one of his surviving notebooks, Elgar wrote a key for converting those cryptic symbols into plaintext. When that key is applied to the Dorabella Cipher, it produces what appears to be random cleartext. Appearances can be deceiving, particularly in the case of a cipher.

Bauer reviews some purported solutions to the Dorabella Cipher and rejects them as untenable. This dismissal fueled a renewed push to penetrate one of Elgar’s most popular ciphers. Recent cryptanalysis found the Dorabella Cipher cleartext openly conceals five Spanish words. Although Elgar did not study Spanish, his wife was fluent in that Romance language. Consequently, these Spanish terms imply her participation. The first is “peca” which means freckle or spot. The second is “ir” which is the verb “to go.” Pairing these two Spanish terms from the first line of cleartext suggests going to the spot. What could Elgar possibly mean by encoding this within the cleartext?

The relevance of this breakthrough is there are four conspicuous spots on the Dorabella Cipher that some mistaken for ink blotches. There is only one spot in the body of the ciphertext over the sixth character in the third line. That spot pinpoints the cleartext sequence “EDU”. “Edoo” is Alice’s pet name for Elgar sourced from the German spelling of Eduard. That Teutonic pseudonym is the title of his musical self-portrait (E. D. U.) in the Enigma Variations. Shockingly, the vaunted experts failed to spot Elgar’s stealth pseudonym lurking within the cleartext of the Dorabella transcription.

The Dorabella Cipher’s ingenious system of dots encodes the Jesuit motto “AMDG”. This Latin dedication is inscribed on sacred works such as The Dream of Gerontius. The acronym stands for “Ad majórem Dei glóriam” (For the Greater Glory of God). This covert expression of Elgar’s faith resonates with Dora Penny who was the daughter of an Anglican Rector and served in her father’s church choir. It is surprising how nobody previously managed to connect the dots and decrypt their Latin dedication, one written by Elgar on some of his Christian compositions.

The same dotted symbols encode an anagram of the German word for “Maid” (Magd). That label is wholly appropriate for Dora Penny who was still a young maiden in 1897. These multilingual decryptions in Spanish, Latin, and German escaped the notice of investigators who naively assumed Elgar would limit his cipher to English. The use of multiple languages is a sophisticated technique to harden a cipher against decryption. The Dorabella Cipher reflects Elgar’s flare for original codes that baffle professionals like Craig Bauer and Keith Massey.

In The Code Breakers, historian David Kahn theorizes that the solution to the Enigma Variations may be concealed within the Dorabella Cipher. On page 800 he writes:
Even music has a touch of cryptography. About 1898, composer Sir Edward Elgar, best known for his Pomp and Circumstance march, wrote Variations on an Original Theme, in which he musically depicted in each variation a member of his circle of friends, his wife, and, to end the piece, himself. Elgar labeled the basic theme in G minor, on which the individual portraits were the variations, “Enigma,” and said that it was itself a variation on another piece of music—which he never disclosed. “The Enigma I shall not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed,” he wrote, adding, “. . . the principal theme never appears.” Many persons have tried to guess what the Enigma theme might be : a phrase from Parsifal, one from Pagliacci, or the theme of Auld Lang Syne. None has won acceptance. But it is possible that a clue to the Enigma lies hidden in a cryptogram that Elar sent to one of the “variationees” in 1897—Miss Dora Penny, the Dorabella of Variation X. As a girl in her twenties she spent much time with Elgar, and when she asked him about the Enigma, protesting that she simply could not figure it out, she was told by the composer, “I thought you, of all people, would guess it.” He would say no more. The cryptogram consists of 87 characters consisting of one, two, or three curves in various positions and looking as a whole rather like a flock of sheep. Nobody has solved it, and so nobody knows whether it will shed any light on the Enigma. But if it does, it may help resolve one of the oddest mysteries in the musical domain.

The multilingual solutions to various ancillary ciphers in the Dorabella Cipher bolster the prospect that Elgar would deploy multilingual cryptograms within the Enigma Variations. This impression is supported by the published score that employs four languages: English, German, Italian, and Latin. The number four is carefully emphasized in Variation XIII, a pelagic Romanza with an austere title of three hexagrammic asterisks. Elgar sprinkled some gargantuan clues about the secret melody in that movement. On four occasions, he cites a four-note melodic incipit from the concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). The original German title of that overture is four words: Meerestille und glückliche Fahrt. These four Mendelssohn fragments are exhibited below with facsimiles from an autograph score of the title page and page 14 showing the source of the melodic quotation in the cello staff:

Why would Elgar cite four thematic fragments, each consisting of four-notes, from an unrelated overture with a four-word German title? The stress on the number four is unmistakable. This line of inquiry fueled the deduction that Elgar quotes Mendelssohn in a symphonic work to imply by imitation that Mendelssohn quotes the covert Theme in one of his own symphonies. There are four fragments, each with four sounding notes, that impose a pronounced emphasis on the number four. Is there a famous tune quoted by Mendelssohn that may be convincingly linked to that number? Mendelssohn quotes the famous hymn Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther (1483–1546) in the fourth movement of his Reformation Symphony followed by a set of variations.

Respected scholars such as Julian Rushton hastily ruled out Luther’s epic hymn as a credible candidate due to Elgar’s fervent Roman Catholicism in 1898-99. They cannot reconcile Elgar’s faith with a Protestant Reformer who was denounced as a heretic and excommunicated by Pope Leo X (1475–1521). What those highly credentialed academics fail to appreciate is that Mendelssohn was baptized into the Lutheran Church as a child, remained a committed Protestant in adulthood, composed the Reformation Symphony, and produced a large body of sacred works such as the oratorio Elijah and numerous settings of the Psalms. By citing the music of a Lutheran psalmist in Variation XIII, Elgar shines the equivalent of a klieg light on the composer of the covert Theme and its literary fountainhead. Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage and Christian faith adds further clues about Elgar’s secret friend whose name “Jesus” and title “Christ” appear in the lyrics of Ein feste Burg.

The Mendelssohn fragments are like a small thread that, when tugged, unravels a vast tapestry of intersecting musical cryptograms and counterpoints. Far from being extraneous to the Enigma Variations, the Mendelssohn fragments conceal a rich cache of cryptograms that disclose and authenticate the covert melodic Theme and the secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII. A comprehensive survey shows they harbor more than a dozen ciphers that encode a highly specific set of mutually reinforcing solutions that disclose and authenticate Ein feste Burg as the melodic cornerstone to the Enigma Variations, and Jesus as the secret friend commemorated in Variation XIII.

Mendelssohn's Initials “EFB” Cipher

It is exciting to report the discovery of yet another cipher associated with the Mendelssohn fragments. This cryptogram is derived from the initials of Mendelssohn’s name. Mendelssohn’s full name is Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. However, he signed his name as “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” as evidenced by a letter from July 1840 and an autograph manuscript from 1842.

The name Bartholdy can be traced to his maternal uncle who served as the Prussian consul-general in Rome. During his service in the Italian capital, the uncle converted to Christianity and built a house called Casa Bartholdi. As a sign of his newfound faith, he adopted the Christian name Bartholdy. When Mendelsohn’s father, Abraham, decided to raise his children in the Protestant tradition, his broth-in-law persuaded him to adopt the name Bartholdy.

A subtle emphasis is imposed on the number three by the Mendelssohn fragments. Each fragment has three discrete notes. The incipits are framed in three contrasting keys: A-flat major, F minor, and E-flat major. Three quotations descend stepwise by a major third. The remaining F minor incipit descends stepwise by a minor third. The Mendelssohn fragments stress the significance of the number three, the very same number of initials (FMB) in Mendelssohn’s signature. This pattern is reinforced by the ambiguous title of Variation XIII consisting of three asterisks. The asterisks signify three absent initials, a feature shared by the absent Principal Theme.

The initials for Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy are “FMB”. Two of those letters (F and B) match the initials of the title Ein feste Burg. In the Dorabella Cipher, Elgar reorients the capital cursive E glyph to replicate the letter M. Applying this same technique to the M from Mendelssohn’s initials permits it to be rotated 90 degrees upright akin to a dial on a safe to resemble an E. This elastic procedure transforms the initials “FMB” to “FEB”, the abbreviation for February. When viewed as an anagram, “FEB” may be reshuffled as “EFB”, the initials of the secret melody. Kahn's suspicion that the Dorabella Cipher may hold the key to unmasking the covert melody to the Enigma Variations proved to be prescient. 

Elgar wrote “FEb” twice within an angular square on the lower left-hand cover of the autograph score. He recorded that the orchestration began on “FEb 5th” and concluded on “FEb 19th”. Next to these dates is a large bracket with the year 1899. The bracket resembles a capital L facing leftward with its mirror image atop separated by a small dividing line. The letter L is the initial for Luther. 

    Elgar penned an anomalous completion date on the last page of the original Finale as “FEb 18 1898”. It predates the actual date by one year and one day. The erroneous date turns out to be another cipher as it marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s death 353 years earlier in 1546. The end of the score presents a coded reference to the end of Martin Luther. This parallels the incorrect year (1595) attached to the Tasso paraphrase from the Jerusalem Delivered, an epic Christian poem published in 1581. The Italian poet Torquato Tasso died in 1595 at Sant'Onofrio, the official church of the papal Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The Holy Sepulcher is revered as the tomb of Jesus Christ, the anonymous friend memorialized in Variation XIII. Two incorrect dates on the original Finale's final page allude to the deaths of two eminent artists.

Decoding Mendelssohn’s initials “FMB” as “FEB” produces an organic link to the cover and final sheet of the Master Score to the Enigma Variations. On these first and last pages, Elgar penned “FEb” a total of three times. “FEb” is an anagram of “EFB”, the initials of Ein feste Burg. These abbreviations of February are a thinly disguised anagram of the initials for Ein feste Burg. Remarkably, the solution to Elgar's melodic riddle is hiding in plain sight on the front and back of the score. It is noteworthy that the top three lines of text on the original Finale's last page encode an acrostic anagram of “EFB” — Fine, Bramo, and Edward.

The Mendelssohn fragments encode the initials for the secret melody in a variety of ways. An elegant example is the Mendelssohn Fragments Scale Degrees Cipher. The key to this cipher is to count the number of times a fragment is stated in a given key and use that sum to select the corresponding scale degree in that particular mode. There are two quotations in A-flat major. The second scale degree of that key is B-flat. There is one incipit in F minor and another quotation in E-flat major. The first scale degrees of those two keys are F and E-flat respectively. The note letters “BFE” divulged by this cipher are the reverse of “EFB”. This backward decryption is significant because Elgar mapped Ein feste Burg in retrograde above the Enigma Theme. The reverse decryption “BFE” hints at Elgar’s sophisticated backward counterpoint.

Joachim’s Motto “FAE” Cipher

There is a second three-word German phrase encoded by the Mendelssohn fragments. They are performed in three contrasting keys: A-flat major, F minor, and E-flat major. Those key letters are an anagram of “FAE”, the acronym of the German romantic motto “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely) formulated around 1853 by the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (1831–1907). He may have coined this maxim in opposition to the declaration, “Der Einsame ist unfrei” (The solitary individual is unfree) by Richard Wagner (1813–1883). The FAE motif forms the basis of the F-A-E Sonata, a work composed collaboratively for Joachim in 1853 by Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Albert Dietrich (1829–1908), and Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Joachim was a renowned violinist, composer, conductor, instructor, and champion of German romanticism. He was mentored by Mendelssohn who conducted his historic London debut before the Royal Philharmonic Society in May 1844. Joachim embodied Elgar’s childhood dream of attending the Leipzig Conservatory and becoming a famous violinist. Elgar’s admiration for Joachim permeates the Enigma Variations with overt and covert allusions to his storied life.

The encoding of Joachim’s motto by the Mendelssohn fragments is contextually appropriate because Mendelssohn and Joachim were colleagues and friends. Like the covert Theme’s title, the FAE cryptogram consists of three German words. Remarkably, the FAE cryptogram presents another coded connection to the absent Theme. The initials “FAE” may be interpolated as “FAM” when the E is turned 90 degrees downward like a safe dial to reproduce an M. The significance of this decryption is that “FAM” is an anagram of “AMF”, the acronym for A Mighty Fortress.


This foregoing cryptanalysis showed how the Mendelssohn fragments are associated with its composer's initials (FMB) and encipher Joachim's motto as an anagram (FAE). Two sets of three initials suggest a coded version of Elgar's initials as the 3 glyph is the mirror image of a capital cursive E. There are discernable patterns in converting “FMB” and “FAE” into two companion sets of initials for the hidden melody’s title. First, they encode three-letter acronyms of the covert Theme’s title in German (EFB) and English (AMF). Second, they share two of three initials with those corresponding acronyms. Mendelssohn’s initials (FMB) supply the second and third letters of “EFB”. Joachim’s motto (FAE) contains the first and third letters of “AMF”. Third, the absent letters needed to round out both decryptions are obtained by rotating like a safe dial the matching E and M glyphs 90 degrees in opposite directions. This transposition device revolves around the letter E that Elgar’s wife used in her diary to represent her husband. The E glyph is the key to unlocking these two initials ciphers and evince Elgar’s cryptographic fingerprints. The outcome of both decryptions yields complementary and mutually consistent anagrams of the covert Theme’s initials. This reliance on initials is consistent with ten of fifteen titles from the Enigma Variations that are comprised of initials.

An alternative way to construct the related acronyms “EFB” and “AMF” from Mendelssohn's initials (FMB) and Joachim's motto (FAE) is to exchange corresponding glyphs (M and E). Trading the second initial from “FMB” with the first from “FAE” produces “FEB” and “FAM” respectively. These reciprocal glyphs spell me, a pronoun that intimates how Elgar identified with Mendelssohn and Joachim. “ME” also conveys a cloaked version of his initials (EE) due to the resemblance between M and E in cursive. The Mendelssohn fragments in Variation XIII are a nexus of cryptograms that authenticate Luther’s Ein feste Burg as the covert Theme to the Enigma Variations. To learn more regarding the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.

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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.