In our day and age, we tend to scoff at symbols. This is a symptom of the general malaise of our superstitious but self-righteous era. Rituals, symbols and traditions – who needs them? We assure ourselves that we are quite beyond all that, as we don brightly coloured shirts and scream at television sets while a sports match plays. We feel smugly maternal about those silly pre-moderns who believed that symbols and words had power, while we haggle over the meaning of words like “male” and “female”.
But symbols are real, and a great deal of communication happens in esoteric code. if we are perceptive enough, we can find whole universes of meaning beneath the surface of works of art, paintings, music, poems, architecture. In this post we will be looking at musical cryptograms in works by some of the greatest composers.
What is a Cryptogram?
The word “cryptogram” comes from the combination of κρυπτειν (to hide) and γραμμα (letter). Bright children create cryptograms by, for example, writing stories in which the first letter of each sentence spells out a word. This kind of behaviour is almost instinctive for humans. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to find it in music. One of the most famous examples of encryption in music comes from the works of Bach. He famously encoded his name into many of his works. Most famously – and most mysteriously – the cypher “B flat – A – C – B natural” features in Contrapunctus 14 from The Art of Fugue.
But Bach is by no means alone in his fixation with the relationship between numbers, symbols, and the fabric of reality. Pythagoras was chasing the same whirlwind millennia ago. More recently than both of these, I’ve chosen three examples of musical cryptograms from the Romantic and Modern eras.
Musical Cryptograms: Paying Tribute
In 1909 AD, Ravel responded to a commission to write a tribute to Haydn. Haydn had died a century before and his shadow loomed large in the consciousness of composers, as it continues to do to this day. Ravel was not the only composer who contributed to the project. His arch-rival Debussy also composed a short piece in honour of the classical giant. Ravel’s contribution is in the form of a Minuet, a simple dance in 3/4 time. Haydn himself had taken this form to great heights in his time, and here we see Ravel infusing modernity into a traditional form, in much the same way Haydn had done.
At the beginning of the piece, the composer provides a key to the code. For the five letters of the name H-A-Y-D-N we have B-A-D-D-N. The motif comes back several times, sometimes inverted, flipped around, or transposed to lower octaves.
Musical Cryptograms: a Personal Motto
Cryptograms can also encode slogans or mottos. One of the most well known of these is a collaborative composition for piano and sonata. The three composers are Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Albert Dietrich. Each composer composed a movement, taking “F-A-E” as inspiration. This acronym stands for a slogan of the group’s close violinist friend, Joseph Joachim: “Frei Aber Einsam”: “Free But Lonely”. The piece is a meandering paean to the spirit of Romanticism – in other words, it’s longwinded and melodramatic. But, in the hands of the right performers, it is spectacular.
Spiritual Cryptograms: The Cross Motif
Perhaps the most sophisticated form that musical cryptography takes is the use of codes with multiple layers of meaning. One example of this is in the music of Franz Liszt. In his Dante Symphony he draws together two ancient strands of European culture and spirituality. From the Gregorian chant Crux Fidelis he derives a simple sequence of notes: G – A – C, or tone and minor third. This “Cross Motif” adorns the Magnificat that ends his monumental tribute to Dante: