Code and Cipher in Music

? Radio Script, 1980s

© the estate of eric sams (Typescript courtesy of Miss Audrey Twine)

[For Schumann, Brahms and Elgar's music examples please refer to Eric Sams's essays]




This is all about music as a language. It includes the special language of codes and ciphers. Yet it can be truly universal; here's an example; the beginning of Beethoven's fifth symphony


We can all hear and understand how the music grows out of those first four notes.  But they also sound as if they mean something; a warning, an ominous message; serious news. In the Morse code, the letter V is three dots followed by a dash, three shorts and a long, dit dit dit dah. So the slogan was V for Victory, and the beginning of the symphony was regularly broadcast during the last war to Europe, foretelling the coming invasion and the final triumph. Millions of people heard that message in the music, and took heart or lost heart. Was it just a propaganda trick? I think it was very much more. The music symbolises fate knocking at the door. Listen to it with that idea in mind.

   And the idea of fate knocking at the door isn't just a romantic fancy; that was how Beethoven himself described that music, and he was well placed to know. And if you go further and hear the whole symphony you can hear final victory and triumph in the was it ends.

   So that's the first point; music can work like language, in certain circumstances, and it has the power to affect nations and their destinies.

   Now let's turn to another aspect of broadcasting in a special sort of language, and even more important but nothing like so well-known; indeed still protected by the Official Secrets Act. But the basic facts are now available. Broadcasts messages in code and cipher were analysed and understood by both sides, and that work directly helped to win the war. Each side often knew when and where the next attack could be expected, and could prepare for it. The picture is like a global game of chess. Not by coincidence, some first-rate chess masters were employed in this work, at Bletchley Park. The top people were the mathematicians and computer specialists like Alan Turing. Many of their helpers were also capable musicians. At the must lower level of simple code and cipher there were people like me, straight from school, in their teens. Those who heard about such work, and were interested, could volunteer for the Intelligence Corps, as I did. My interviewer asked me whether I played chess, and could read music, and like crosswords; I said yes, and it's still true. So I found myself in the Army and engaged on duties that included code and cipher breaking. I found that my comrades, men and women, were often keen musicians and chess-players as well as crossword puzzlers. And we can all see what those things have in common; the patterns are across and down, horizontal and vertical, melody and harmony. It's all to do with a certain knack, a particular cast of mind, which can be useful in special circumstances, such as cryptology in the last war. Perhaps that was its finest and its final hour. It's all over now; computer talks to computer, and the pencil and paper people are unemployed.

   But there'll still be plenty of them; it's quite a common type. Past, present and future. Among them are several great composers who were interested in cipher and thought it was important. The main examples are Schumann, Brahms and Elgar; but there are plenty of others, and a much higher proportion than among the general population. There's a basic affinity between music and crossword puzzles, chess and cipher. So perhaps it works the other way round; perhaps people who enjoy those pastimes would also have a special interest in certain kinds of music.

   Ever since music began notes have had names of their own, whether letters of the alphabet like A B C or syllables like do re mi, and in all the languages of the world, east or west, for hundred or years.  Of course, notes have to be called something, for practical reasons of teaching or performing. But it can't be coincidence that their names are chosen from the world of words, because that's where music belongs. No culture, so far as I can discover, has ever used numbers, although there's no logical reason why we shouldn't have a symphony in five flat major, or a sonata in three sharp minor, but that never happened. Music lives at the level of language. And the systems we use nowadays, lines and spaces, E G B D F, F A C E, and so on in the treble clef, although we've got used to them are really just a few possibilities many others and for example they're confined to English and German-speaking countries; Italy for example uses la si do et cetera instead of A B C. All this has happened because music is a very nationalistic art-form, and that has something to do with language; Russian and French musical styles sound different, just as their languages sound different, and for the same reason; music is a manner of speaking. A language with its own accents and intonations. Only a few centuries ago, it was a commonplace to use all the letters of the alphabet, not just a few, and in all European countries. the notes of music included O, P and Q, X Y and Z, not just A B and C. So in the historical European tradition, any note can be any letter whatever, and we still have plenty of variety left over; the note we call B for example is H in German, in French. and the different ways of saying sharp and flat give many other ways of linking tones with language.

   What I shall call music cipher is just one possible way among many others. It just happens to equate musical notes with letters in such a way as to make a work or a phrase. Here's an example; the composer John Field once wrote a letter to his hostess thanking her for a nice dinner she'd given him, but instead of remembering the menu in words he spelled it out in musical notes.  

   Now the first main point I want to make is that there's nothing at all strange or eccentric, let alone unmusical, about such ideas. On the contrary, it's a natural mode of expression for some musicians. You can read this kind of music too; you can even hear it. I've know people who can recognise the pitch of a note instantly; you play the note B, they hear it and recognise it as B, and you can play B.E.E.F. And they can hear BEEF, or F.A.C.E. spells face just by sheer intuition, without thinking about it at all.

   Now let's consider what a cipher is, in the ordinary sense of that word. It's a systematic way of disguising a message letter by letter. If you want to write “Meet me tonight” for example, you could move each letter one place along in the alphabet, and begin your message NFFT NU... and someone looking over your shoulder might see straightaway that says “Meet me...”, recognising the interval and the structure.

   Well, you can see that a person who could do that instinctively might be or become a good cryptographer, just as someone who could read the notes B.E.E.F. would be, actually or potentially, a good musician.    But I'd like to connect those two abilities. I'd like to say that reading 'Meet me' suggests musical ability, and reading B E E F suggests cryptographic ability.  Because at root, these are the same sort of aptitudes, they both grow out of language and communication. Music - all music -, I would claim, related to language by means of code and cipher. It aims to communicate; and so it does, to those who have the key. It's not coincidence, by the way, that expressions like key and clef, interval and structure, patterns, transpositions and so on are common to both music and cipher. On the contrary its because music is like language: they both have notes, letters, sentences, phrases.

   Cipher belongs on the inside of language, and so does music, and so learns about these secrets, it wants to explore them, soon as music learns how to spell.

   Now here's a few bars for string quartet. what does this music express? Well, as I've said, many musicians could read that music at sight and at hearing too; it says B.E.E.F. and C.A.B.B.A.G.E. Some people might find that very unappetising. Well, you may say that this isn't real music at all.

   I'm sure it's music of a sort, and I personally found it expressive if not impressive when I wrote it.

   It begins with the two words on the violins; then it says them again on the viola and cello;



finally we hear them played in reverse order and backwards, regurgitated, so to speak.

   I don't say it's a masterpiece, good though the Coull Quartet makes it sound; but I do claim that there is no test by which it differs from actual music as that word is commonly understood, although it is essentially cipher. Another reason why you can't tell these two things apart is that they are in fact one and the same thing, seen from two different aspects.

   Here's an obvious example;

   B means B flat in German and H means B natural, so you can write the name B A C H like this:



That's a perfectly good theme, so you can use it to write a fugue for example, and many composers have done so from Bach himself onwards. That does two things; it makes music, and it says a name. Composers can combine those two things into one. they can write music as a sort of homage to the name; it expresses feelings of respect for a great master and devotion to the kind of music he made so very much his own.

   Now let's hear some selections from the D minor symphony of Schumann, written in the year after his marriage to his childhood sweetheart and lifelong love Clara Wieck. This symphony is famous for being constructed from the same basic five note theme throughout, and it's the first such symphony ever written. Everyone could hear and see that it is saying. In Schumann's mind, the letter L can be expressed by the note B, and the letter R by the note G sharp. Now, this is the kind of idea that Schumann had from his very first composition: he wrote names in music. It's easy to say this can't really be CLARA because that note isn't really the letter L and this note isn't really the letter R, but when you come to think of it, this note called C isn't really the letter C either, or this the letter A. It's all in the mind, and that depends on the kind of mind you've got. Well, I think I know something of the kind of mind Schumann had. it was literary, linguistic; he was among the best-read and the most literary of composers, and he thought of music as a language, and he imagines notes as letters, and vice versa, and he regarded them as equivalents and he could interchange them in any way he like, regardless of anyone else's rules or preferences. So the D minor might be a Clara symphony, and its five note theme might be literally, so to speak, Clara. Look for some more evidence - other Clara themes. Well, that seemed worth following up. the first thing you find is that Schumann wrote in his diary; "Meine nächste Symphonie soll Clara heissen", and in it I shall depict her; paint her portrait, draw her features.

      A little further research turns up book written by a professor. of Schumann's subject, law, at his own University, Heidelberg; the professor's name was Johann Klüber and his book was a text book on Kryptographik, and secret languages and ideas of all kinds. It was published in 1809, the year before Schumann was born, in Zwickau near Leipzig, just in time to be supplied to his father's bookshop where he spent so many hours absorbing verbal idea into his musical mind.

   It describes how to make music ciphers using all the letters. So of course he'd be ready to write a theme meaning to Clara, in time, having begun by writing music about the letters of his own name, S C H and making them dance in his piano masterpiece Carnaval. Now all this gives a further and deeper meaning to the many letters he wrote to Clara in his youth about the piano music saying how you will smile when you recognise yourself, and so on, over and over again. All this now means something. Of course people might say, and so say, that even if it means a music cipher that's still just typical Romantic nonsense, and has nothing to do with the real music, as such. But as I've tried to show the cipher notes are the music, and they are the structure, and they are the expression, and they are the key to the composition.

   The great German writer Thomas Mann understood this very clearly; and in his novel Dr. Faustus he created a musical genius who composed in exactly this way; and that character was based on Schumann, who certainly did the same. So let us pay him the compliment of supposing that his way of composing was not trivial, and that his cast of mind was not superficial. What is he saying in the D minor symphony? The music is surely autobiographical and personal. It expresses deep feeling. Not only married love, there is sadness, trouble, gloom even despair. so how can it be a Clara symphony addressed to his wife, or trouble and    Sounds more like trouble and strike literally than his much loved wife. But we have to understand that Schumann's music is a tonal analogue, a sound picture of his emotional life, and the nature of all human life as he understood and experiences it at the time; as true in 1841 as it is today, and for some centuries in the future. I have no doubt al all that the main theme is an encipherment of the name Clara, from letters into notes. But it means Schumann's own difficulties and doubts, unworthiness, even guilt-feelings, and how these are going to be transcended, and overcome and left far behind because of a new force and strength and comfort, a very present ade in trouble. From those strands all listeners can evolve their own personal patterns of appreciation, and they'll find their own special pleasures and beauties and surprises in this symphony, renewed at each hearing. the important thing is that we have to approach this music and all music with our own imagination; and that imagination is I believe helped and enhanced by the idea that this is indeed a Clara symphony, written with great intelligence as well as emotion. Schumann was a Romantic  composer, in every sense.

   It may be that for him as an artist Clara herself was a symbol of the highest in human live and achievement, and what it could mean. The reality of course was different. But if we wanted the everyday world we'd be looking elsewhere; we wouldn't be much concerned with music at all. All the same, Clara Schumann was a very remarkable woman, who dominated the later nineteenth century in Germany with her own art and personality as a pianist and composer, and the great composers she directly inspired. The other one was Brahms of course, who loved her very deeply all his life, from the moment they first met in Düsseldorf, before Schumann's madness and attempted suicide and all that tragic and terrible history. Brahms took up the letter-writing and theme-writing where Schumann left off; the musical homage was continuous for about seventy years.

   The Schumanns, man or wife, must have told Brahms about their special Clara theme and other such confidences taken Brahms into their confidence about the special Clara theme and other such secrets  Brahms fell in love with her from the first of course; he tells her in his letter all about his own ways of writing music for her about her, with special expressiveness. Some of his musical ciphers are public knowledge; for example his spelling out of the name AGATHE in the extet Op. 36; that's Agathe von Siebold for whome he had very tender feelings, and he told friends that he had taken his farewell of her in music. What I think he meant was this: [...]

   He writes ADE, goodbye in German, and he combines it spelt A G A H, using the D in ADE as the T in her name, and making a chord, like this  [...] and that expression says it all, speaks her name and waves goodbye, with great tenderness you can hear in the music that he's not heartbroken, it's not all that tragic, but as the same time the sounds are piercingly sweet and tender.

   Now if he could do that for AGATHE he could do no less for Clara; indeed, on his own confession, he expressed her name lovingly and his music a no less lovingly and adoringly than Schumann had done; and they both admitted owing some of their best melodies to the Clara theme.

   The Intermezzo from the Op. 25 piano quartet could hardly speak her name more clearly; C for Clara is the repeated pedal note, and the five-note theme is unmistakable.

   I don't find any record that Brahms mentioned that idea to any one. We can infer it from the music. The piano quartet Op. 60 was much more explicit. He was rather more explicit about the piano quartet Op. 60; he told his publisher that it was inspirational, that it was related to Geother's novel Werther, about an unhappy Romantic hero who committed suicide for love for another man's wife; and he certainly meant that he was in love with Clara Schumann, and during her husband's lifetime. Note the sustained C for Clara. These theme ideas incidentally help to date the music, for those who care for such tings; they tell us that these parts Op. 25 and Op. 60 of the piano quartets were written in about 1855, when Brahm's infatuation was at its height.

   Now we come to Edward Elgar. He was mainly self-taught, and he learnt about music from Schumann and Brahms, his ideal composers. His mind worked in exactly the same way that I've tried to describe in their music; he thought in terms of names and ciphers. One of his earliest works was used, the theme G.E.D.G.E. because he knew someone named Gedge; it's just the same idea as Schumann's opus one, the Abegg variations. Elgar was also a serious cryptogtrapher; he invented his own cipher, (Dora Penny) and he broke a cipher which he had published as insoluble; that was quite a feat. He was also obsessed with word-games and puzzles and crosswords. His daughter once told me that when he had finished a cryptic crossword in the Sunday papers, it was as if he had finished one of his own compositions; the feeling of complete satisfaction was similar, and the household could relax. Let's look at a picture of him; it has the dreamy look of the thinker of secret and private thoughts. I have no doubt at all that he used cipher in music from his earliest years, and it was a great source of inspiration to him. ODIN in King Olaf. Now he also listened to Schumann and Brahms, and he understood their secrets too. And his first real success, and his first great masterpiece, came when he followed the example of Schumann and wrote music about his friends„ in the Enigma variations, subtitled my friends pictured within. The evidence that this work was inspired by Schumann comes in a programme note which was derived from Elgar himself and mentions the ABEGG variations and the Carnaval dances of Schumann and it says that music contained pictures of people and expressed their characteristic qualities. Chopin’s style of piano playing and composing for example, and quotation from his work. Clara Wieck piano playing and personality. And what bound all these various Schumann pieces into a unity was the musical letters of his own name; S C H A or A S CH which gives you the note E flat, A flat and B natural in German, as well as A and C. S. makes no secret of this he writes these notes on the score, so we can all check them and analyse his proceedings. An dyet one fact has escaped notice; the cipher notes are also used as a chord, and a very nasty nopise it makes. Just for a fleeting moment which is quite enough; but there is no doubt that it is absolutely deliberate.

   Here's a perfectly legitimate way of using your ciphers, your notes of music which are also letters of the alphabet, you play them all together, and make a word or an idea in a chord instead of single notes. And he does exactly the same in his ABEGG variations; he begins A B E G G to make a melody, and later he goes A/BEGG.

   Now these ideas have generally escaped comment; but I have no doubt that Elgar noticed them because his mind worked in exactly the same way. So when he came to write his own music about friends and friendship, the same idea was already fixed in his mind. Make a chord of it. So that's how Auld Lang Syne is fixed into the theme; it's notes are turned into chords like this

   Well I think we know that the hidden music in the Elgar is Auld Lang Syne. For two reasons. First the actual idea of the music is how to symbolise friendship, and that's the obvious and inevitable choice. Auld Lang Syne has become THE music of friendship and comradeship - it's famous all over the world for being exactly that and nothing else comes remotely near it. So that's what it has to be. And the second reason is even more compelling, for anyone who takes evidence seriously. It's this. Elgar said to his friend Dora Penny: I thought you of all people would have guessed it. And later on she did guess it; And for the last 40 years of her life she knew perfectly well that it was ALS, and she is on record as having said so, freely enough, in her intimate circle. She told her husband for example. Now anyone who like can pretend that they know better - but that's ,just pretence, in the absence of different or better external evidence of the same personal kind of recorded testimony - not just some other theory.Until some better evidence comes forward, we're stuck with Auld Lang Syne. And the rational question is HOW was it done?

   Well I suggest it was done like this. Elgar uses ciphers in his music. Take the very peculiar chord that begins KING OLAF whenever the name ODIN is mentioned. The music is all about Norse gods, and Odin was by tradition the master of the runes, the inventor of the ancient secret writing. So Elgar would have felt a special affinity for him. Whenever that name or idea appears there's a very peculiar chord 16 four notes played together.

   I'm rather sure that's one of Elgar's typical encipherments, and I think I can see how it might be done. Don't forget that he is known to have composed in exactly this way: GEDGE the example I gave already, and the standard biography says he enciphered the name sof his enemies in the Dream of Gerontius. he would have heard Schumann's use of symbolic notes, and he would have heard how S turned them into symbolic notes, and uses these notes as a chord, also in music depicting friends and friendship.

   SO here goes with Auld Lang Syne. First of all you play it in the minor key, because you felling out if sorts and a bit sorry for yourself, just as CLARA appears in the minor key at the beginning of Schumann's symphony.

   Now you can't really sound all these notes together [...]

   music hadn't quite reached that stage of acceptable dissonance. But you can take the notes three at a time [...]

   Full of ideas; goodbye to all that, leave the past behind, greet the new year, move from darkness into light and a new life surrounded by love, friendship and above all success, greatness, fulfilment as a composer and a musician, thro the secret power of cipher, intense personal feelings. But here the illusions to All thro the Night, and the burying of old bad dreams, as in Dichterliebe, and carillons of the new year; and the chimes of the exactly the same as in the Symphony in D Minor (which also says ADE as I hear it). Brahms in a rather different mood says the same in the same note; and the Brahms CLARA symphony (n. 1), I with C pedal and themes, and indeed the Beethoven 5th all move from minor to major, from darkness into light, the characteristic pendulum swing of this kind of mind, which perhaps psychologists can explain; a better brighter future for me and mankind, they say. And indeed help to bring it about, by their sopotent art.