Consider a vast, bustling concert hall in 1750s’ Vienna, home to the performances of several distinguished Baroque composers. The likes of which include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel and many more.
Much like the architecture of that period, their musical pieces were also very ornate and deeply extravagant, with multiple layers. One of these layers dealt with hiding a sequence of notes as cryptic messages for their listeners to decipher, otherwise known as musical cryptography.
The practice of assigning letters to names dates back to the 9th century, but it was only formally recognized in the Baroque period. Composers, as per custom, love to embed ciphered versions of their own or their companions’ names into their music as themes or motifs.
In the early 16th century, for example, the royal orchestra came up with a way to signal different alphabets using the chiming of eight church bells.
Striking the first bell once equaled A;
Striking the first bell twice equaled B;
Striking the first bell thrice equaled C;
Striking the second bell once equaled D; and so on.
This method was employed by an ingenious composer called Porta to spell out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on the 25th of December, 1596 AD. There were only a clever few who managed to pick up on the cues!
How was it done?
The very first instance of musical cryptography being used comes from the Renaissance period, engineered by an innovative French Composer. Josquin des Prez created a technique called Soggetto cavato, which literally translates to ‘carved out of the vowels from these words’.
There are seven musical notes (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti), which correspond to the first seven alphabets i.e. A-G. The question then arises, what is to be done with the remnant 19 letters? History provides us with one main solution; that procured by the Germans.
The German Method
The Germans created a sort of cipher-chart matching the notes of each octave to a certain letter in the alphabet.
This arrangement comprised nine different pitches with four notes each, giving rise to 36 combinations in total. Naturally, that was enough to encode 26 letters and 10 digits. With this method, the possibilities of encryption had become endless! One could signal an emergency number, or pass sacrilegious messages that were to be noted by only a particular section of society.
One of the most successful composers of his time, Johann Sebastian Bach used the German encryption method to his advantage. In his infamous piece, “The Art of Fugue”, we see the notes B flat, A, C and B being repeated in a systematic sequence. In music, there are only seven music notes which extend to A, B, C, D, E, F and G from the alphabet. What the German music nomenclature teaches us, is that in order to match seven musical notes with twenty-six alphabets, we must repeat the sequence using only the notes which have not been used previously in the music score.
This would mean that the eight alphabet H needs to be paired up with any of the musical notes following G. We can’t use A, because that’s the second note of the piece- it’s already been used and there is a strict rule against repetition. We can, however, use B. You see, the first note here is a B flat – which is half a step behind the note we’re looking for. Let’s match H with B. This spells the sequence out as B-A-C-H!
They say one of the greatest harbingers of change, is love. One particular summer, the great composer Johannes Brahms was deeply prepossessed by Agathe von Siebold; a talented vocal student. They were engaged to be betrothed, but the union could not be completed as Brahms chose to focus on his music instead. Grief-stricken, Brahms encoded the notes A-G-A-B-E into his music, so she could still be with him in some form. Note that H matches with B according to the German cryptography method, and T is eluded for simplicity.
The Enigma Variations
This article would not be complete without mentioning one of the greatest musical mysteries of all time; English composer Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”.
This piece is based off an incredibly common theme (such as a nursery rhyme or church hymn) and repeats that theme in 14 different variations.
In a letter explaining his cipher, Sir Edward Elgar had mentioned “The Enigma I will not explain – it's "dark saying" must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme "goes", but is not played. So the principal Theme never appears. The work is dedicated to his “friends and companions pictured within”, indicating each of the variations shall reveal a hidden identity that could be any one of Elgar’s friends.
Over the years, the Enigma has invited much conjecture but lacks a formidable solution. Until recently, when an unassuming insurance company worker and violinist, Robert Badgett offered a probable solution to the Enigma that’s been more promising than any other.
In his letter, Sir Edward had captioned his piece with the psalm “EIN FESTE BURG IST UNSER GOTT” which translates to “A mighty fortress is our God”, from the very famous Martin Luther King hymn. Upon jumbling these words around, he created the following anagram:
GSUS GRTS INOU BETR TENI FETE
GSUS GRTS = Latin for “Jesus Gratis” or “Thanks be to Jesus”. Elgar was always a very religious man.
INOU BETR = the German phonetic spelling for I know you better.
Five months before Elgar began writing the Enigma Variations, a historic event took place that would have helped him know Jesus better: The first photograph of the Shroud of Turin was produced, giving Roman Catholic believers an opportunity to view the face of their savior.
TENI FETE = Aramaic for “dark saying”, a reference to what Elgar had mentioned in his letter.
Altogether, four languages have been employed in the Enigma – English, Latin, German and Aramaic.
Take the first letter of each word, and we get E L G A R.
Quite breathtaking, right? That’s the brilliance of musical cryptography, no one will ever suspect a secret message hidden in a piece of music, yet the depth to these puzzles can be astounding.