According to a nice little 2004 New Scientist article by Kevin Jones (Professor of Music at Kingston University, my most recent alma mater), even though Elgar composed his cipher note to Dora Penny in 1897, he appears to have reused the same 24-token cipher alphabet in an exercise book 30 years later. (Kevin Jones doesn’t mention in which collection the exercise book is to be found: there’s a nice listing of Elgar’s notes and immense collection of letters here.)

As with the majority of self-conceived ciphers, it was born of a simple idea:-

[Elgar] listed the symbols used in the Dorabella cipher matched against the letters of the alphabet. The cipher follows a simple pattern, with single, double and triple E-like characters, each in eight possible orientations – upright, rotated 45 degrees clockwise, 90 degrees clockwise and so on. This gives a total of 24 potential characters, and as with many ciphers, I and J share a single character, as do U and V.

Elgar then tries it out on some samples, which when deciphered read:-

M-A-R-C-O E-L-G-A-R (Marco was his pet spaniel) and A V-E-R-Y O-L-D C-Y-P-H-E-R. But when applied to the Dorabella cipher this key does not generate anything that makes obvious sense.

It certainly was “a very old cypher” (probably 30+ years old at that stage). But there’s something a bit back-to-front about this whole thing. If he was reusing an old cipher, why would he be going through the palaver of trying it out again? He would surely have gone through his experimenting phase decades before? But according to Kevin Jones’ subsequent notes to the 2007 BBC Proms:-

Elgar scribbled an 18 character code using the same cipher symbols in the column of printed programme notes for a concert he attended at Crystal Palace in April 1886 – opposite a musical example from Liszt’s “Les Preludes”. (Copy at the Elgar Birthplace Museum.) Annotations on other pages are not ciphered – so it’s possible that this may have been added at a later date.

And so even though this was used as a cipher circa 1886 (probably), and post 1927 (probably), was it also one circa 1897? All these scraps muddy the water once again – which is perhaps what Elgar was hoping to achieve. I just wish we knew what Dora Penny’s favourite song was…

Interestingly, one of the comments to this page was by Peter Brooks, who said he was “increasingly confident that the message consists of two parts separated by an evident period on the last line”, with a first apart in Latin and the second in some kind of vertically arranged English. Personally, I’m not sure how that would be any less obscure than the solution proposed by Eric Sams discussed here recently: but I’m sure Peter Brooks has plenty of sensible reasons to back his notion up.

Following on from the Proms post, “The Elgar Apostle” (“the Elgar on-line newspaper”) held a Dorabella cipher competition, which “seven individuals were brave enough to submit entries”.

The final Dorabella bombshell of the day comes from Peter Brooks, who noted (in his comment) that “there is a moderated Yahoo group Elgar-Cipher“. If you want to find out more about the Dorabella Cipher, this is surely the first place you’d want to head towards.

Incidentally, the “enigma” of the 1899 “Enigma Variations” was Elgar’s claim that they all played in counterpoint to a well-known melody (which he never disclosed, and which has never been worked out) – might the Dorabella Cipher be enciphering this tune, too? (The timing would be basically right.)

PPS: the German WWII Enigma machine was (apparently) specifically named after the Enigma Variations: yet another non-obvious connection between music and cryptography…

16 thoughts on “Dorabella: one step forward, two steps back…

  1. “I just wish we knew what Dora Penny’s favourite song was…”

    Dora Penny’s favourite song at the time of the Dorabella Code in 1897 would possibly have been “Lullaby” from the six choral songs by Elgar, entitled “From the Bavarian Highlands” (1896). Elgar then orchestrated 3 of the pieces including the Lullaby, and that suite (called “Three Bavarian Dances”) was first performed in a concert in the October of 1897.

    Dora describes in her book “Memories of a variation” how she enjoyed dancing to the Lullaby while Elgar played it on the piano. I have a copy of the music and I have to say, as a musician and piano teacher, I can’t find anything in the notes or words to link them to the Dorabella Code – yet!

  2. Thanks for clearing that up, Liz – much appreciated! In the world of cipher mysteries, every little fragment plays its part. 🙂

    I’ll be posting on the Dorabella Cipher again quite soon, so will let you know when there’s an update…

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Stan Clayton on November 16, 2009 at 10:42 pm said:

    could the dorabella code be limked to the three rows of latin inscriptions at boscobel house Elgar had them translated which shows his inrerest in them
    Stan Clayton

  4. Hi Nick. Hey dude I didnt know that you were that famous overthere!, in fact good work done here. Hey Im not the kind of guy who break promisses so heres my proposed solution to the Dorabella Code, seems to fit perfectly. I really would like your opinion, PLUS I want to talk with you about my unpublished book. Do you remember the Shugborough Hall Solution? Ok, It takes another level each time I review it, just incredible, so some feedback Nick ok dude?

    Thanks and Cheers

  5. Cybermacht: good luck with your “From the Ashes of Babylon” novel (“an obscure pirates society have enough money” etc)!

    …but as for your “SHES NOT MINE, WOMAN, MORNING MOON, 33. OH MAN! YOU ONCE WON ME WOMAN, NOW MY NAME IS WHERE IS NO OTHER MAN’S NAME. NOW I AM WHO WIN AMOUR, MY OWN ETERNITY WHERE IS MY END”, sorry but I somehow don’t think that this is what Elgar wrote to Dora. Ciao!

  6. Hey thanks Nick. You know somehow this is going to somewhere I cant define, Nostradamus predicted the solution to the Shugborough Hall Inscription

    Century VIII, Quatrain 66 {edition de 1568}

    Quand l’escriture D.M.trouuee,
    Et caue antique lampe descouuerte,
    Loy, Roy,& Prince Vlpian esprouuee,
    Pauillon Royne & Duc sous la couuerte.

    When the inscription D.M. is found
    in the ancient cave, revealed by a lamp.
    Law, the King and Prince Ulpian tried,
    the Queen and Duke in the pavilion under cover
    As you remember the D.M. inscription could match
    perfectly with the D.O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V.M. Shugborough Inscription
    Sso thats part of what my blog is about, trying to
    say that Nostradamus is wrong.

    Certainly HE COULD BE RIGHT (remember your merlin prophecies, Mayan large count and some little basic school math
    , but for other serious SERIOUS SERIOUS reasons devealed on my book
    and that I cant even say here,. I decoded the inscription
    and found 3 possible locations on Greece for the cave, at the center can be traced another historic polygon with other seven different and historical locations. Most of all thats the land where the Occidental Christ Born, Greece, not Jerusalem

    And for Dorabella, sounds a little bit weird (not as much as the other ones) but the decrypting process seems to fit very well. i dont know. Thats why I expect some post that can tell me the odds

    Do you know about some editorial interested on my book?

    haha ok Nick Cheers man


    -The Cybermacht

  7. Robert W. Padgett on August 1, 2010 at 12:35 am said:

    The melodic solution to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” has been found – “Ein feste Burg” by Martin Luther as realized by J.S. Bach. A sound file of this solution is available at:

  8. sudncdedintrst on September 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm said:

    @The Cybermacht

    Classify me hebetudinous if you must but I don’t understand your explanation of “the key” I think what you have said is interesting, am hesitant to follow, but I feel if I can understand that better then it may change to be a bit more assured…

  9. The Cybermacht on February 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm said:

    @ sudncdedintrst

    Its ok we can discuss all together this if I only could upload the “key” used by Elgar, remember that it must be so simple that Dora could diciphered it

    soo nick?

    regards The Cybermacht

  10. escher7 on November 28, 2011 at 6:07 am said:

    Will be releasing the cleartext in the next week.

  11. escher7: looking forward to it – but please let me know if you’d like to find someone (i.e. not necessarily me) to verify it for you.

  12. I am desolated – Ciphermacht’s blog is evidently closed 🙁

    But Nick – I’m also unable to find any reference in your blog to Terzi’s Prodromo…

    Perhaps the search git is flawed; I can scarcely believe you’d not know this one..

    However, just in case:

  13. escher7 on July 20, 2012 at 9:10 am said:

    I posted previously that I thought I had it. There is an Elgar poem that has precisely the same number of symbols, including two punctuation marks:

    Like the rosy northern glow
    Flushing on a moonless night
    Where the world is level snow,
    So thy light.” (87 characters)

    and I thought I had a fit but alas no. I have, (probably to my detriment) studied all of the standard works on cryptology and am fairly convinced that this thing cannot be solved using standard code-breaking techniques. I believe that there are three possibilities:
    1. Elgar made some incredibly dumb (mistaken) use of his system giving nothing but gibberish;
    2. The decryption is in a combination of other languages like German and Latin, plus a reference to their private shared experience, giving a transcription that is unintelligible to anyone else;
    3. It ties in to his music in a way that no one has discovered.

    There are a finite number of ways that the “clock” system could have been used and I am pretty sure I have tried them all. Often a fairly large number of likely words emerge, but then nothing else fits, suggesting that half way through he forgot what he was doing and shifted systems.

    Finally, he wrote this for Dora and she was not an expert cryptographer, so it is doubtful that he used some complex procedure. Even a double encryption or a Verniere-like cipher would very likely been beyond her yet he said he was surprised she didn’t get it. My best guess is a simple substitution but one where he inadvertently screwed up part way through.

    I have set it aside for awhile, but still have some thoughts to try.

  14. The Cybermacht on April 2, 2013 at 8:43 pm said:

    @Diane The blog was closed due to some online threats, but it will be reopen near may or august. Thank you so much for your interest

  15. , Rick A. Roberts on March 2, 2014 at 7:53 am said:

    Rick A. Roberts

  16. , Rick A. Roberts on June 27, 2014 at 8:59 am said:

    I deciphered the Dorabella Code(Message), back on 02MAR14. I sent my work to the Elgar Society, but never received a reply back from them. Anyone out there want to share their ideas or thoughts on my work? Thanks,
    Rick A. Roberts

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