Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Dorabella Cipher's Spanish Gaps Anagrams

This sketch is an attempt to portray, in the compass of a few bars, the humours of a Spanish fête.
From Elgar’s program note for Sevillana (Scene Espagnole) 

(Herein is enshrined the soul of . . . . .)
Elgar’s Spanish dedication to his Violin Concerto

The English composer Edward Elgar (1857–1934) and his wife enjoyed a long weekend visit in mid-July 1897 with the family of Reverend Alfred Penny (1845–1934), the rector of St. Peter’s Collegiate Church in 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). On their return to Great Malvern, Alice penned a letter thanking the Penny family for their hospitality. Elgar added a short enciphered missive to his wife’s correspondence, addressing it to “Miss Penny” on the back. The incisive salutation is a classic Elgarian pun. “Miss” is an honorific title for an unmarried woman or girl, but 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 over 40 years before eventually publishing it in her 1937 biography, Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation.
Elgar’s coded message to Dora Penny is popularly known as the Dorabella Cipher. The name comes from Variation X of the Enigma Variations (1899), a movement dedicated to her that bears the title “Dorabella.” Elgar procured that playful pseudonym from a soprano role for a young unmarried woman in the opera Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. An operatic nickname for Dora was befitting because she was an avid vocalist who sang in the Wolverhampton Choir Society and her father’s rectory choir. As she recalled in her biography, “I was so mixed up with tunes in those days; Choral music, Church music, and orchestral music – and my own solo-singing, scenes from opera, songs, ballads –, and so on.” Four months before his visit to her father’s rectory, Elgar penned a letter to Dora in which he humorously comments about her weekly singing practices. He wrote, “Alice tells me you are warbling wigorously in Worcester wunce a week (alliteration archaically Norse).” This amusing excerpt is one of many examples where Elgar employs idiosyncratic spellings in his correspondence.

Variation X (Dorabella) from “My Friends Pictured Within”

The Dorabella Cipher consists of 87 curlicue symbols arranged in three rows of varying character lengths followed by a fourth row providing the date “July 14 [18]97”. There are 29 characters in row one, 31 in row two, 27 in row three, and 8 in row four. A conspicuous dot appears over the sixth symbol in row three. Three others appear in row four with small dots to the right of “1” and “4”, and a larger dot affixed to the bend in “7”. In all, there are 87 symbols, four rows, four dots, four letters, and four numbers on the Dorabella Cipher.

The Dorabella Cipher from Dora's 1937 memoir.

Fortunately for investigators, the key to translating this confounding cast of characters into recognizable cleartext is preserved in one of Elgar’s surviving notebooks. A facsimile of that key is displayed below:

Elgar’s notebook cipher key

Elgar created three distinct glyphs using the lowercase c as the primary building block. His motive for selecting that particular letter is easy to surmise because c is the initial for cipher and cryptogram. There is persuasive evidence in support of this hypothesis as Elgar wrote some of those identical symbols around the word “Cryptogram” on an index card dating from 1896.

Elgar's “Cryptogram” card with ciphertext (circa 1896)

With his three prototypes assembled from one, two, and three stacked cs, Elgar systematically arranged them into eight different triplets using various angles and orientations to generate 24 alphabetic avatars. Elgar assigned the English alphabet’s 26 letters to these 24 odd characters by conflating i with j, and u with v. Combining similar glyphs is a standard convention of cryptography. The resemblance of some of Elgar's curlicue characters to the capital cursive “E” from his initials is deliberate, embellishing the cipher with his imprimatur in contrasting guises and angles. Relying on Elgar’s notebook key, the Dorabella Cipher converts into the following cleartext:

Elgar used twenty symbols from his lineup of twenty-four characters, omitting those for m, n, o, and z. The three contiguous absent letters (m, n, o) are an anagram of nom, the French term for “name.” That word appears in nom de plume, a French expression for a pseudonym or pen name. Elgar’s signature is conspicuously absent from his coded missive. Could this nom anagram sourced from his missing letters be a clue that Elgar’s name is hidden within the ciphertext? The absence of these four letters parallels the structural emphasis placed on that number by four rows, four dots, four letters, and four numbers. Elgar is clearly hinting at the importance of the number four. The explanation could be that the fourth letter of the alphabet is D, the initial for Dora, a four-letter name.
Cryptographers are baffled by the Dorabella Cipher’s seemingly incoherent cleartext. In his history of unbroken cryptograms titled Unsolved!, mathematics professor Craig P. Bauer concedes 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 code even more difficult to unravel. Like modern ciphers, ancient Greek and Classical Latin text omit spaces between words in a practice called scriptio continua. Bauer laments that when applied to the Dorabella Cipher, none of the standard techniques for solving a MASC yield any sensible or credible results. Even the most advanced computer programs fail to make any inroads. A limitation of this approach is the presumption that Elgar’s message is a MASC restricted to English. Bauer briefly describes and dismisses purported solutions by Eric Sams, Tony Gaffney, and Tim S. Roberts, before concluding that the Dorabella Cipher has not yet been solved because Elgar’s system of encipherment must be “something more complicated.”
Recent cryptanalysis of the seemingly impregnable Dorabella Cipher determined that its dotted symbols encode solutions in Latin (AMDG) and German (Magd). Elgar penned the Latin abbreviation “AMDG” on some of his master scores as a sacred dedication, most notably The Dream of Gerontius. Used to refer to a young unmarried woman, the German word Magd means “maid” and “virgin.” This solution is consistent with the recipient of Elgar’s coded missive, Miss Dora Penny, the young unmarried daughter of Reverend Penny. The Dorabella Cipher also presents some English words as the note is addressed to “Miss Penny” and the month is shown as “July”. Remarkably, these three languages — English, Latin, and German — are an acrostic anagram of the first three letters of “ELGAR.” The linguistic sophistication of the Dorabella Cipher readily explains why experts failed to penetrate it since they naively assumed it was confined to English. Such a unidimensional mindset is utterly incompatible with an autodidactic polymath like Elgar. Unconventional methods, like Elgar’s odd spellings, are the keys to unraveling the Dorabella Cipher.

Three of the four absent letters (m, n, o, z) from the Dorabella Cipher are an anagram of nom, the French word for “name.” Remarkably, the dot above the sixth character in row three of the Dorabella Cipher pinpoints a familiar nickname for Elgar. Relying on Elgar’s notebook key, the raw decryption of the character below the dot in row three is the letter E. One dot in International Morse Code is also E. Consequently, the dot and the symbol encode Elgar’s initials (EE). Immediately following the encoded E, the next two characters encode the letters d and u/v. The small dot above the ciphertext in the third row tags the text sequence “Edu” which is one of Elgar’s primary nicknames.

Elgar’s wife coined the pet name “Edoo” 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 signed by its author. The solution comports with the feasibility of spelling nom from absent letters in the cipher and the glaring absence of Elgar’s signature from his note. The discovery of Elgar’s nickname is consistent with other cryptograms in the Enigma Variations that are similarly tagged by his name or initials.
Far from being an entirely random assortment of letters as posited by investigators like Dr. Keith Massey, the cleartext presents a coded form of Elgar’s name expertly woven into the fabric of the cleartext. Elgar made it an obvious place to look because of the anomalous dot above the sixth character in row three. This “EDU” Dot Cipher furnishes the author's signature conspicuously missing from his missive to Miss Penny. It is astonishing that his signature remained undetected since the cipher was first publicized 85 years ago. One reasonably wonders what else the so-called experts failed to detect lurking just beneath the surface of the Dorabella Cipher cleartext. After all, Elgar's encoded signature was not difficult to spot.

Elgar’s earliest compositions such as Sevillana (1884) and Spanish Serenade (1891) gravitate to Spanish themes. Composed at the zenith of his career, his Violin Concerto (1910) offers a cryptic dedication in the Spanish language. Elgar’s interest in Spanish spurred further cryptanalysis of the Dorabella Cipher cleartext in search of Spanish terms. This endeavor uncovered seven discrete Spanish words: Peca, y, ir, cerré, se, sed, and ser. The first (peca) in row one means “spot” and conforms with the conspicuous spots on the Dorabella Cipher. Occurring twice in the first row, the second (y) means “and.” The third (ir) in row one means “to go,” suggesting that one should go to the singular spot above the sixth character in the third row where Elgar’s nickname is unveiled. The fourth (cerré) in row two means “I closed,” an apt characterization of enciphering a message to conceal its contents. The position of cerré in the second row is directly above Elgar’s pseudonym in row three, visually confirming the source of this cryptic statement. The fifth (se) that bridges the second and third rows means “I know”, affirming that Elgar knows the solution to his concealed message The sixth (sed) in row three means “thirst,” overlapping with the first two letters of “Edu.” The seventh (ser) in row three is the verb “to be.” The discovery of these Spanish words in the Dorabella cleartext indicates the participation of Elgar’s wife who was fluent in that Romance language. These cryptograms evaded detection because cryptographers incorrectly assumed Elgar’s message could only be English.
There is a total of eight identifiable Spanish terms in the cleartext of the Dorabella Cipher. Four correctly spelled Spanish terms with lengths of three letters or more (cerré, peca, sed, and ser) endorse the inclusion of shorter Spanish words of two letters or less (ir, se and y). These words consume 21 out of 87 characters for just over 24 percent of the ciphertext. Such a high percentage makes it highly improbable that so many Spanish words are coincidental and the unintended result of a random text string. With so many Spanish terms dispersed throughout the ciphertext, it was theorized that gaps of varying lengths between them could encode further information. To assess that possibility, a tabulation of character lengths for all gaps between Spanish words was compiled.
The cipher begins in row one with the first gap of one character before peca. The second gap has four characters between peca and y. The third gap has five characters between y and ir. The fourth gap has seven characters between ir and a second y. The fifth gap has twelve characters between y in row one and cerré in row two. The sixth and largest gap has seventeen characters between cerré and se that spans the second and third rows. The seventh gap has three characters between se and sed. The eighth gap has three characters between sed and ser. The ninth and final gap consists of fourteen characters that conclude row three. There are nine gaps with a total of 66 characters with sizes ranging from one to seventeen. The sums nine (9) and 66 are similar because they are constructed from the same homoglyph in differing orientations.

All gap lengths are divergent except for two sequential threes in the third row immediately before and after Elgar’s pseudonym. The context of these two equal gaps is significant because the three glyph (3) is a mirror image of the capital cursive “E” in Elgar’s signature and initials. Consequently, these back-to-back gaps of three characters enveloping “Edu” supply a coded version of Elgar’s initials.

The next step in the cryptanalysis was to convert character lengths of the nine gaps in the cleartext between Spanish terms into corresponding letters of the alphabet using an elementary number-to-letter key (1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C, etc.). This conversion relies on Elgar’s notebook key which condenses the cipher alphabet from 26 to 24 by conflating similar letters (i/j and u/v). The results of this number-to-letter conversion are summarized in the table below:

Four of the plaintext letters (A, D, E, G, M, R, C, C, O) furnish an anagram of “DORA”, the recipient of Elgar’s coded missive. This is a very promising start. The remaining five letters (E, G, M, C, C) permit the anagram “CC GEM.” Before attempting to read it, one must first recognize Elgar’s proclivity for phonetic spellings. For example, he respelled excuse as “xqqq.” With this understanding, “CC” may be interpolated as a homonym of “sees,” a word that harbors Elgar’s initials. Combining the results of these anagrams produces “DORA CC GEM,” which reads as “Dora sees gem.” What could be the jewel that captures Dora’s gaze? The answer is apparently Elgar’s coded message, for it is certainly a gem of cryptography that staunchly resisted decryption since its publication in 1937. An alternative anagram is “E CC GM DORA,” which translates as, “E[lgar] sees g[e]m, Dora.” Both anagrams are equally suitable and applicable following their first meeting at the rectory. This cryptogram is labeled the Spanish Gaps Anagrams.
The Spanish Gaps Anagrams Cipher may be enhanced by including Elgar’s coded pseudonym (EDU) pinpointed by the spotted ciphertext in row three. Adding his pet name is warranted because he authored the note, his name is the only one in the plaintext, and his initials appear in the word sees. The result of this addition is “EDU CC GEM DORA.” This statement reads as “Edoo sees Gem, Dora.” Such a declaration from an older married man to a younger unmarried lady is respectful and appropriate following their first encounter. With so many overlapping interests and family connections, Elgar and Dora became fast and enduring friends. Their friendship is movingly depicted by Variation X (Dorabella), a coruscating gem in the Enigma Variations. As one of the longest movements at 73 bars, Elgar clearly longed for Dora’s attention and company.
There is a secret melody that serves as the contrapuntal cornerstone of the Enigma Variations. Dora pleaded with Elgar to share the title of that mysterious melody, but he steadfastly declined her persistent overtures. When she begged for the solution, he replied, “Oh, I shan’t tell you that, you must find it out for yourself.” “But I’ve thought and racked my brains over and over again,” she insisted. He answered, “Well, I’m surprised. I thought that you of all people would guess it.” The reason Elgar suspected Dora, the daughter of an Anglican Rector who actively sang in church, would guess the hidden melody is because it is the famous hymn A Mighty Fortress (Ein feste Burg) by the German Reformer Martin Luther. Little did Dora realize that the ending phrase from that Protestant anthem is quoted twice in Variation X by the inner voice. If only she had searched for the mysterious tune’s ending rather than its beginning, she would have soon unmasked the solution for herself, for she sang it many times in church.

Dr. Massey presents some persuasive evidence in favor of meaningless text strings in the Dorabella Cipher. His assessment may be correct regarding the non-Spanish sections of the cryptogram. That would explain why even the most advanced computer systems fail to yield any sensible results. Based on my independent analysis, however, the varying lengths of these “nonsensical” text strings segregated by Spanish words encode a message that includes the name Dora, the recipient of Elgar’s coded message. In a potent irony, Elgar deploys nonsense text strings to encode something entirely sensible. In the process, he secured a cryptographic coup that stumped the best and brightest for more than eight decades. To learn more about the secrets behind 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.