In July 1897 the composer Edward Elgar (later knighted) and his wife, Alice, spent a few days visiting friends in Wolverhampton – the Reverend Alfred Penny, his second wife, Mary, and their daughter from Alfred’s first marriage, Dora (his first wife died in Melanesia where the Pennys had been engaged in missionary work).
On July 14th 1897, after having returned from the visit, Alice Elgar sent a letter to Mary Penny (presumably to express gratitude for the hospitality).
Accompanying the letter was a note from Edward Elgar, addressed specifically to Dora (on the back of the note, Dora reports in her book Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation, he had written “Miss Penny).
The front of the note contained this:
Dora was never able to decipher it and she appears to have been reluctant to ask Elgar outright what the message contained. She published a copy in her book, certainly in the 1949 edition and possibly in the earlier 1937 edition (research is ongoing).
Various people have attempted to resolve the message but all of the efforts have yielded results that are often so contrived that they are unconvincing.
My first involvement with the cipher was a complete accident. In September 2004 I was researching something unrelated online and I followed a link to a site called Something Real (now defunct).
There, in the Science and Tech forum in a thread entitled Elgar Cipher, a poster called Sydney had placed a copy of the image above with some background information, and asked for ideas on its solution.
My curiosity was piqued. Initially I thought a simple analysis would soon yield results, but it didn’t, and six years later I am, I think, on the right path to a solution, but I don’t have anything that I am prepared to say with any confidence is a viable and finalised product – I haven’t finished working on it and there’s still a great deal to be investigated.
Along the way I have encountered sources of useful information, not the least of which is work (both published and unpublished) by the late Eric Sams, a musicologist and Shakespeare scholar, some of which is in the process of being disseminated online by Director Erik Battaglia of the CENTRO STUDI ERIC SAMS in collaboration with, and with the support of, the Sams’ family.
One key piece of information that Eric Sams made available consists of a copy of one (or possibly two) pages from an exercise book maintained by Elgar, dating from the 1920s (well after the note was sent). On those pages are quite clearly examples of the cipher, complete with a sample mapping of symbols to letters, plus a variety of other useful and interesting pieces of information. The significance of some of the items on those pages has yet, I believe, to be fully understood.
The Dorabella Cipher (as it has come to be known) was apparently used at one time by the British Government’s Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park as one of a barrage of tests given to candidates for admission into the code-cracking team. No-one solved it (no-one was expected to) but the approaches candidates took as they analysed the symbols apparently helped to provide an insight into the way their mind worked.
The use of the odd symbols is not restricted to this note and the exercise book. Another example – much shorter – is seen penciled into the margin of a printed music programme that Elgar received when he attended a performance of music by Liszt in 1886. This example is sometimes referred to as the Liszt Fragment. An attempted solution to this fragment was offered by Anthony Thorley in 1977 and I managed to establish contact with Anthony recently. Now retired, he has a wealth of research on the cipher that he wants to publish. It will be interesting to see what he has uncovered.
It is possible that yet other examples exist – written materials on which Elgar worked are scattered among several collections, all of which are still being catalogued and analysed, and few of them (if any) are accessible online.
So that’s the rough and ready background. Next time I’ll present the initial analysis that I undertook and the results that didn’t make sense for months – and then suddenly looked very interesting indeed.