Elgar and cryptology

Letter to the Editor 

The Musical Times, May 1984, p. 251 © the estate of eric sams

   How sad that Brian Trowell should spoil his otherwise admirable article (March MT, p. 139) with all those confusions about cryptology. As to whether Elgar's solution to the Schooling challenge cipher was really 'a feat of considerable intellectual power' much depends on one's starting-point; but I bet some MT readers could do just as well in half an hour, even without previous experience. There is however little chance now that anyone will 'break his head over it', because the article itself has (in­advertently?) disclosed the answer. Next, Elgar's so-called 'notes on the Dorabella cipher' are no such thing; they are other possible applications of that cipher's symbols, a very different matter. Then it is naive to suppose that the Dorabella cipher properly so called, i.e. the note to Miss Penny dated 14 July 1897, relies on so sim­plistic a notion as varied vowel-frequency; that would hardly have baffled any com­petent analyst far five minutes, let alone 70 years. Of course Elgar the practised crvptologist and arch-mystifier would have dug much deeper defence. My suggestions included phonetic spelling because Elgar was notoriously obsessed with phonetic spelling; that idea still seems rather reasonable to me. The fact that he used no such phonetic devices when explaining some other cipher to a child 50 years later is obviously quite irrelevant The most un­fortunate misconception of all is that the Dorabella cipher should now be approach­ed via some entirely different and uncon­nected alphabet. Interested readers are warned to work solely from the symbols themselves, as published in Mrs Powell's 1937 book Edward Elgar or the February 1970 MT; the proposed Trowell translit­eration is not only silly in itself but misleadingly inaccurate. Looking again at those original symbols, incidentally, I can now envisage more clearly the actual cipher-tableau from which Elgar was working in 1897. I aim to submit a further article on that topic later this year.