Uncovering Hidden Meanings in Classical Music: The Intriguing World of Musical Cryptograms
Musical cryptograms have been a part of classical music composition for centuries, with composers using hidden messages and themes encoded in their music to convey personal messages or honor patrons and fellow musicians (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001). This article explores the fascinating world of musical cryptograms and their use in classical music.
The earliest known example of a musical cryptogram is the BACH motif, which consists of the notes B, A, C, and H in German musical notation. This cryptogram was used by Johann Sebastian Bach to represent his own name and can be found in several of his works, including the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor, BWV 867 (Griffiths, 1995).
Robert Schumann used a musical cryptogram to convey a personal message in his Symphony No. 2. The notes G, E-flat, D, and B were used to represent his wife Clara’s name. These same notes appear in several other works by Schumann, including the piano piece “Carnaval” (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Antonin Dvořák used a musical cryptogram in his Symphony No. 7 to honor his friend and supporter Ludwig von Fröhlich. The opening notes of the symphony spell out the letters “L. V. F.” in tribute to Fröhlich (Johnson, 2019).
Johannes Brahms used a musical cryptogram in his Variations on a Theme by Haydn to honor his friend and colleague Joseph Joachim. The theme itself was based on a melody that Brahms believed to be composed by Haydn, but was actually written by a different composer named Ignaz Pleyel (Swafford, 1999).
Musical cryptograms continue to be used in contemporary classical music. John Adams incorporated a cryptogram in his piece “Harmonielehre,” with the opening notes of the piece spelling out the letters “E A D G,” referencing the opening guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” Similarly, Thomas Adès used a musical cryptogram in his “Concerto Conciso,” which spells out “V.I.V.A.L.D.I.” in the second movement, referencing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Beethoven’s “Lebewohl” Sonata
Another famous example of a musical cryptogram is found in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, also known as the “Lebewohl” Sonata. The sonata was written as a farewell to Beethoven’s friend and patron Archduke Rudolf, and features a cryptogram in the second movement in the form of a series of chords that spell out “Le-be-wohl” in German (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”
Gustav Mahler used a musical cryptogram in his symphonic song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde.” The final song, “Der Abschied,” features a melody that is repeated several times throughout the movement, with each repetition transposed to a different key. The transpositions represent the passing of time and the cycle of life (Griffiths, 1995).
Variations One of the most famous examples of a musical cryptogram is found in Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. The piece consists of a theme and fourteen variations, with each variation dedicated to a different friend or family member of Elgar. The theme itself is the “enigma,” as Elgar claimed that it contained a hidden message that he never revealed (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Motif Dmitri Shostakovich used a musical cryptogram to represent his own initials in several of his works. The motif consists of the notes D, E-flat, C, and B in German musical notation, which in German transliterated as D, Es, C, and H, correspond to the letters in his name (Griffiths, 1995).
Vaughan Williams’ “Sinfonia Antartica”
Ralph Vaughan Williams used a musical cryptogram to represent the name of his second wife Ursula in his “Sinfonia Antartica.” The name is represented by the notes U, S, and A, which are woven into the music in several places throughout the piece (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel”
Richard Strauss used a musical cryptogram to represent the prankster character Till Eulenspiegel in his tone poem of the same name. The motif consists of four notes that spell out the letters T-I-L-L in German musical notation, and is used throughout the piece to represent Till’s mischievous spirit (Johnson, 2019).
Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus
George Frideric Handel used a musical cryptogram in his famous “Hallelujah” Chorus from the oratorio Messiah. The opening four notes of the chorus – G, F-sharp, E, and D – spell out the letters H-A-L-L in German musical notation, a reference to the word “Hallelujah” (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta”
Béla Bartók used a musical cryptogram in his “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” to represent the composer himself. The notes B-A-C-H (using the German notation) appear throughout the piece, and were used by Bartók as a nod to Johann Sebastian Bach, who was a major influence on his music (Griffiths, 1995).
Jean Sibelius used a musical cryptogram to represent his homeland of Finland in his tone poem “Finlandia.” The opening theme of the piece is based on a traditional Finnish hymn, and Sibelius used the notes of that hymn to create a musical code that spells out the words “Finlandia” in German musical notation (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Variations Ludwig van Beethoven used a musical cryptogram in his “Diabelli” Variations, a set of variations on a theme by the music publisher Anton Diabelli. Beethoven used the notes A-B-C (German notation) to spell out the word “Diabelli” in the music, and included this code in several of the variations (Johnson, 2019).
Mozart’s “Musical Joke”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used a musical cryptogram in his “Musical Joke,” a satirical piece that pokes fun at amateurish musicians. The piece includes several intentionally incorrect notes and harmonies, but also includes a hidden message: the opening theme of the piece is based on a tune called “Three Blind Mice,” which Mozart uses to spell out the word “Arschloch” (a German insult meaning “asshole”) in German notation (Sadie & Tyrrell, 2001).
Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”
Arnold Schoenberg used a musical cryptogram in his unfinished opera “Moses und Aron.” The opera features a recurring motif that consists of four notes – A, E-flat, C, and B – which Schoenberg used to represent the words “Es muss sein” (“It must be”) in German notation. The phrase is a reference to a letter written by Mozart in which he described his music as “a perfect image of the will of God – that is, a will that demands that everything be as it is, and that everything that exists must necessarily exist” (Griffiths, 1995).
Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet
Joseph Haydn used a musical cryptogram in the second movement of his “Emperor” Quartet. The movement is a set of variations on the Austrian national anthem, and Haydn used the notes of the anthem to create a musical code that spells out the word “Franz” (a reference to Emperor Franz II, to whom the quartet is dedicated) in German notation (Johnson, 2019).
Musical cryptograms are a fascinating aspect of classical music composition, and composers have used them to convey personal messages, honor patrons and colleagues, and even make humorous or satirical statements. These hidden messages add a layer of intrigue and depth to classical music, and continue to captivate audiences and scholars alike.
Griffiths, P. (1995). Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945. Oxford University Press.
Johnson, T. (2019). The Puzzle of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/arts/music/antonin-dvorak-symphony-no-7.html (retrieved September 2021).
Sadie, S., & Tyrrell, J. (Eds.). (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Macmillan.