Musical Notes

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Seek and ye shall find

The topic of secret autobiographical signatures in musical works has been visited before in h2g2 entries – for example Gnomon's entry A44196942 on the B—A—C—H motif. Before going any further, I'm going to borrow the opening paragraph from that entry1, to make clear what follows it (hopefully):

Musicians have a way of writing down music. Each note is given a letter to denote its pitch. These go: A, B, C, D, E, F, G and then back to A. In fact, it is more normal to start with C, as this gives the normal major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then back to C. These notes are also known by the names do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do2.
Not all the gaps between the notes are the same size, although this may not be immediately obvious to the listener. It can be seen easily, however, on a piano keyboard, where the named notes are the white keys, and there is room between some of them for extra notes on the black keys. One such black note is the one between A and B. It is normally known as B flat and there is a special symbol which looks like a 'b' with a pointed base to denote 'flat'.

At least, that's the way we write the notes in English. In Germany, they do it differently. Instead of calling the note B flat, the Germans call this note B. Our B flat is their B. So what do the Germans call our B? They call it H! The major scale in Germany goes: C, D, E, F, G, A, H, and then back to C.

Going a little further, in the German notation, flattened notes such as E flat are written as Es ( pronounced 'ess', like the ending of 'happiness'.) So by writing the notes B flat—A—C—B natural in the German notation (B—A—C—H), it is possible to encode Bach's name as a four-note musical cypher. Bach himself did this in his unfinished work The Art Of Fugue, and other composers have quoted the B—A—C—H motif in their own works.

Bach is of course not the only composer to have encoded their own or other people's names in their works. Another famous example is in the third movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's 10th Symphony. Here he places a cipher for his own name as another four-note motif: D—S—C—H = D—Es—C—H = D—E flat—C—B natural, together with that of a young female student of his, Elmira Nasirova. To encode her name – Elmira – in which the letters L, M, I and R have no musical note significance, Shostakovich had to resort in part to using the alternative French notation do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do. Thus Elmira's name becomes the five-note motif: E—A—E—D—A = E—l(a)—mi—r(e)—A.

There are many similar examples of composers using this musical cipher trick. A new claim to the use of this trick has been made very recently by Professor David Lamaze of the Conservatoire de Rennes, regarding the work of the composer Maurice Ravel. Lamaze claims that Ravel's work is permeated with references to Misia Sert, a Paris socialite beauty who was acquainted with most of the artistic elite of fin de siècle Paris and subsequently, through to the 1920s and 30s – she sat for both Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir. The cipher in this case is formed by the notes E—B—A, or (as in the manner of Shostakovich's Elmira cipher) mi—si—la in the French notation. Lamaze suggests that Ravel may have been infatuated by Misia Sert, a suggestion that would run counter to the long-held suspicion that Ravel was gay, a suspicion that it has to be said is based largely on nothing more substantial than the fact that was a very private man. Perhaps that is Lamaze's agenda, to 'disprove' the suspicion. As an example of his hypothesis, Lamaze says that Ravel's masterpiece La Valse entwines E—B—A (Misia) with A and E, which he claims represents the composer himself – it is Misia and Ravel who are dancing a Viennese waltz. How he gets from the notes A and E to Maurice or Ravel is not clear to me, other than by the obvious stratagem of removing the first, third and fifth letters from Ravel – hardly a cipher – but it's amazing what you can find when you're looking for it.

Till next time, happy signature hunting.

Musical Notes Archive


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1I am grateful to Gnomon for his permission to reproduce the extract.2As taught by Maria in The Sound of Music.

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