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Games Composers Play

One would think the act of writing music would be enough of a task for most people, but with some composers, creativity is not enough. They enjoy a challenge, and some have an interest in letters and numbers and what they can do to arrange them into cryptograms. It’s a way to bury a message, if you know how to listen and study the score.

For myself, I’m happy listening to any work by J.S. Bach numerous times. And he produced such a large body of work, I’m always learning a new piece, usually during a live performance. But if the day arrives when I need more motivation, I could listen to and study these scores for hidden messages; The Goldberg Variations, BRM 02776, The Musical Offering (nos. 8 and 9), BRM 35597, The Art of the Fugue, BRM 02635, or the beloved Mass in B minor, a new transcription from the NLS Music Section at BRM 35967. David Rumsey states that C.P.E. Bach dismissed his father’s fascination with mathematics; “the departed, like myself or any true musician, was no lover of dry mathematical stuff.” But, with Bach’s membership in the Correspondence Society of Musical Sciences founded by his own pupil Lorenz Mizler, I would propose this is a life-long learner, seeking to connect his work with the larger scheme of the Universe. Below is a representation of the treble clef and music staff with the notes of Bach’s name in whole notes. B-flat in German notation is a B, while B-natural is an H.

Bach cryptogram motif

                                                                         B              A             C             H

Robert Schumann’s Variations on the name of “Abegg,” recently mentioned in our new music titles post, is thought to refer to Schumann’s fictitious friend Meta Abegg. The first name, Meta, might be an anagram for the Latin word for theme, “tema.” The first five notes of the work, introducing the theme are A-B-E-G-G. (B in German is understood to be the pitch B-flat.) I think this is quite clever, but a more down-to-earth reason is 20-year old Robert Schumann met Pauline von Abegg and dedicated this work to her. Perhaps a combination of both. Carnaval Op.9, at BRM 00442 a favorite of mine, is another inspiration from romance. Presented as a series of twenty scenes, there are three cryptograms. First, the notes Es-C-H-A (in German notation s=flat, and H=b natural, thus E-flat, C, B-natural and A). Next is As-C-H (A-flat, C-B-natural) and the third grouping is A-Es-C-H (A-E-flat, C-B-natural.) These motifs are found in every scene. At the time he wrote it, Schumann was secretly engaged to Ernestine von Fricken. The letters SCHA can be found in Schumann’s name, and when they are inverted, spell Ernestine’s hometown of Asch. Isn’t that romantic? This goes above and beyond a dozen roses.

But the 19th century is not the only place for romance in scores. Alban Berg worked the number 23 and 10 throughout his Lyric Suite for String Quartet after reading about biorhythms. He decided his unique number was 23 and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin was 10. Movements and metronome markings contain multiples of either 23 or 10. Using this secret code he declared his love for Hanna. Their initials were translated into music as well, H (B-natural) F, A and B (B-flat.) The NLS Music collection has plenty of drama from Berg, Lulu, the libretto at BRM 35287 and the libretto from Wozzeck, BRM 35568.

Who would guess, that the composer responsible for developing a method dependent on twelve-tones and a specific order, would suffer from a neurosis of the number thirteen?


Black and white photo of Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg suffered from triskaidekaphobia, a fear of the number thirteen. He was obsessed with that number all his life and created self-induced terror of specific days and years on the calendar. Ironically (or otherwise?) he died on Friday the 13th, July 1951. But don’t let that keep you from enjoying Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11, BRM 20340, available from the NLS music collection, an early example of atonality from the composer.

Carry on with your listening pleasure, and remember, there may be more to that melody than you hear!


“Away with Harmony as the Cement of my Architecture!”: Arnold Schoenberg at 140

This Saturday, Arnold Schoenberg celebrates his 140th birthday. All those who have studied music have come across Schoenberg’s compositions in one way or another, and whether they love, despise, or are intrigued by his works, it’s undeniable that Schoenberg had an enormous impact on 20th and 21st century art music. I must admit, I have […]