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Musical cryptogram

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A musical cryptogram is a cryptogrammatic sequence of musical notes, a sequence which can be taken to refer to an extra-musical text by some 'logical' relationship, usually between note names and letters. The most common and best known examples result from composers using ciphered versions of their own or their friends' names as themes or motifs in their compositions. Much rarer is the use of music notation to encode messages for reasons of espionage or personal security (see steganography).

Because of the multitudinous ways in which notes and letters can be related, detecting hidden ciphers and proving accurate decipherment is difficult, thus avoiding claiming the existence of inaccurate nonexistent ciphers may also be difficult.

The Enigma Variations are an example of a musical cryptogram.


From the initial assignment by Western music theorists of letter names to notes in the 9th century [1] it became possible to reverse the procedure and assign notes to the letters of names. However, this does not seem to have become a recognized technique until the Baroque period. From the mid-19th century it has become quite common. Sporadic earlier encipherments used solmization syllables.


Syllables to solmization namesEdit

It is believed that this method was first used by Josquin des Prez in his Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie. It was named Soggetto cavato by the later theorist Zarlino. Under this scheme the vowel sounds in the text are matched to the vowel sounds of thesolmization syllables of Guido of Arezzo (where 'ut' is the root, which we now call 'do'). Thus the Latin name of the dedicatee 'Hercules Dux Ferrarie' (Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara) becomes re-ut-re-ut-re-fa-mi-re, which translates as D-C-D-C-D-F-E-D in modern notation with C as 'ut'. This is used as the cantus firmus of the mass setting. Josquin's method was imitated by several of his contemporaries and successors, including Adrian Willaert and Costanzo Festa (see the article on Soggetto cavato).

Letters to note namesEdit

Since the note names only cover letters A to G (reflecting the octave repetition of these names), the problem arises as to how to cipher the rest of the alphabet. Historically there have been two main solutions, which may be labelled for convenience the 'German' and the 'French' methods.


Because the development of note names took place within the framework of modes, in the German-speaking world B-flatwas named 'B' and B-natural was named 'H' (see the entry for musical Note). The most common musical cryptogram is the B-A-C-H motif, which was used by Johann Sebastian Bach himself, by his contemporaries and by many later composers. Other note names were derived by sound, for example E-flat, 'Es' in German, could represent 'S' and A-flat the digraph 'As'. Composers less fortunate than Bach usually seem to have chosen to ignore non-musical letters in generating their motifs. For example Robert Schumann, an inveterate user of cryptograms, has just S-C-H-A (E-flat, C, B-natural, A) to represent himself in Carnaval. Sometimes phonetic substitution could be used, Schumann representing Bezeth by B-E-S-E-D-H.Johannes Brahms used B-A-H-S (B-flat, A, B-natural, E-flat) for his surname in the A-flat minor organ fugue, and the mixed language Gis-E-La (G-sharp, E, A) for Gisela von Arnim, among many examples.[2]


The 'French' method of generating cryptograms arose late in the 19th century and was more akin to normal encipherment. The most popular version involved writing out the letters H-N, O-U and V-Z in lines under the original diatonic notes A-G, as follows:


so that A, H, O, and V are enciphered by note 'A', B, I, P and W by 'B' (flat or natural) and so on. This scheme was used byJules Ecorcheville, editor of the journal S.I.M., to solicit centenary commemorations of Joseph Haydn in 1909, except that he diverted the 'H' to B-natural, presumably to avoid too many repeated notes.[2] Writing to Gabriel Fauré about the invitation,Camille Saint-Saëns said he was writing to Ecorcheville asking him to prove that Y and N could signify D and G as "it would be annoying to get mixed up in a farcical business which would make us a laughing stock in the German musical world." [3]The many-to-one mapping of this method makes it more difficult to extract possible motifs from the musical score than theone-to-one correspondence (apart from 'As') of the German system.

20th centuryEdit

A French tradition of celebratory uses developed from the Haydn centenary, with tributes to Gabriel Fauré by Maurice RavelFlorent SchmittCharles Koechlin and others in 1922 (added to later by Arnold Bax, 1949[4]) and to Albert Roussel byFrancis PoulencArthur HoneggerDarius Milhaud and others (using various ciphering schemes) in 1929. Honegger's system involved placing the letters after 'H' under sharpened and flattened notes,[2] an example of how chromatic cryptograms could be more easily accommodated in 20th-century music.

Olivier Messiaen developed his own full cipher, involving pitches and note lengths, for his organ work Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969).[5]

Dmitri Shostakovich used the German scheme for his personal motto D-Es-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B-natural), representingD.SCH, which appears in many of his most characteristic works. Elliott Carter featured both a cryptogram for the last name "Boulez" in his piece Réflexions (2004) and a sonic symbol of the first name "Pierre".[6]

Cryptograms were less common in England, but Edward Elgar, who was also interested in general cryptography and puzzles, wrote an early Allegretto for his pupils the Gedge sisters using G-E-D-G-E [7] and part of the 'enigma' in the Enigma Variations involves cryptograms.


In 1947 Friedrich Smend also been suggested that Bach enciphered significant numbers through methods including repetitions of a motif, word, or phrase; the notes played on the continuo; the use of sequence; and the notes played by theaccompaniment. However, Ruth Tatlow has presented evidence questioning the plausibility of Smend's claims.[8]

Summary of signature motifs[edit]Edit

[1][2]"Aschbeg" set in Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19, no. 1, m.5[9] Note that the notes do not come in spelling order but are all adjacent (not separated by other notes).[3][4]BACH motif followed by transposed version from Schumann's Sechs Fugen über den Namen B-A-C-H, op. 60, no. 4, mm. 1-3[10]  Note that C and H are transposed down, leaving the spelling unaffected but changing the melodic contour.[5][6]Sacher hexachord:[11] Eb (Es) A C B (H) E D (Re)[7][8]Gade, Drei kleine Clavierstücke, no. 3, Alla marcia, mm.20-21[10] [9] Play (help·info).

The following list includes only motifs which are known to have been used in published works.

  • A, B, E, B, A
for Aubrey Brain, used in Gordon Jacob's Sextet for Piano and Winds, which was inscribed "In memoriam Aubrey Brain"
  • A, B, B, F (= A, B, H, F)
for Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (AB. and HF.), used in Berg's Lyric Suite[12]
  • A, B, E, G, G (= A, B, E, G, G)
for Meta Abegg, the fictional inspiration for Robert Schumann's Abegg Variations, op. 1[13]
  • A, D, A, A, F (= A, L, A, I, N)
for Jehan Alain, used by Maurice Duruflé in his Prélude et Fuge sur le nom d'Alain (op. 7) and derived on the French system but leaving H = B-natural and starting the second line with 'I'
  • A, E, C, B (= A, S, C, H) and A, C, B (= As, C, H)
used in Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9.[13] He was romantically involved with Ernestine von Fricken, who came from the town of , in German "Asch". Every piece in the whole cycle is based on one or other of these motifs. The letters are also the note names from 'Schumann' and he added the motif E, C, B, A (= S, C, H, A) so that three are displayed in breves in the section 'Sphinxes'. It has been noted that ASCH and SCHA also appear in the title of Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26.
  • [A], E, C, B, B, E(), G (= [A], S, C, H, B, E, G)
for Arnold Schoenberg (ASchönberg),[9] set 6-Z44
  • B, A, B, E (= B, r, A, H, m, Es)
for Brahms, used by Alfred Schnittke in his Quasi Una Sonata along with the B-A-C-H motif and other quotations, and allusions[14]

Main article: BACH motif*B, A, C, B (= B, A, C, H)

for Johann Sebastian Bach
  • B, A, D, D, G (= H, A, Y, D, N)
for Joseph Haydn, used by Maurice Ravel in his Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn and by other contributors to the S.I.M.commemoration and derived on the French system
  • B, E, B, A or B, A, B, E
for Béla Bartók (la Bartók, the latter motif recognizing the Hungarian practice of placing the family name before the personal name, see eastern order)
  • C, A, G, E
for John Cage, used by Pauline Oliveros[15] and, in the composition CAGE DEAD, by Simon Jeffes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Main article: DSCH motif*D, E, C, B (= D, S, C, H)

for Dmitri Shostakovich (DSchostakowitsch)
  • E, A, C, B, E, D (= Es, A, C, H, E, Re)
for Paul Sacher, known as the Sacher hexachord
  • E, A, E, D, A (= E, La, Mi, Re, A)
for Elmira Nazirova, pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, used in his Symphony No. 10
  • E, C, B, A (= S, C, H, A)
for Schumann, used in Carnaval, it is a re-ordering of that piece's A-S-C-H motif
  • F, A, E and F, A, F
for Frei aber einsam and Frei aber froh, "free but lonely" and "free but happy" in German; the former, his friend Joseph Joachim's motto (F-A-E Sonata), described as "more romantic" than the latter, a "gender-separatist" motto of Johannes Brahms's[16] Symphony No. 3
  • F, E, C, B (= F, S, C, H)
for Franz Schubert (FSchubert)[citation needed]
  • G, A, B, D, B, E, E, F, A, G, D, E (= G, A, B, Re, H, E, Le - F, A, Ug, Re, E)
for Gabriel Fauré, used by contributors to Henri Prunières' Fauré celebration in the October 1922 issue of La revue musicale [17] (F, A, G, D had also been used 20 years earlier for "Fauré" in a collaborative string quartet)
  • G, A, D, E
for Niels Gade; the motif is the basis of Robert Schumann's "Nordisches Lied", No. 41 from Album for the Young, Op. 68. Its subtitle is "Gruss an G."


External linksEdit

A Cypher Mysteries musical cryptogram can be found at [10]

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