A Most Beautiful and Creative Way to Keep a Secret
An extravagant, deeply artistic method of cryptography.
Communicating a secret is one of those most eccentric of tasks, one capable of stimulating creativity. By a secret’s very nature, it’s logical that everything surrounding it is treated with care, dissimulation, hidden languages, and sometimes, risky missions. And sometimes, as has been said, the best place to hide a secret is right in plain sight.
This is precisely the case with musical cryptography, a method by which it’s possible to encode a message within a tune. The principle is simple because, as with other cryptic systems, it’s a translation from one language to another, and between sender and receiver there’s a key for deciphering the message.
At once, it’s both profoundly elegant and creative, not only because of the knowledge it requires in musical theory and technique. Even more so, because it takes place within music, among the noblest of artistic disciplines and indeed, for many, the most sublime.
It may seem at first to be a tale worthy of a detective or spy novel, but to the contrary, it’s very real. At least since the 17th-century, there have been testimonies as to musical cryptography’s use and even a few treatises written about it.
John Wilkins, famous for his appearance in one of the Jorge Luis Borges’ most acute essays, devoted a part of his interest in language to the field of cryptography. The result was his work Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641). In Wilkins’ opinion, music is one of the best ways to hide and transmit secret messages, in part, because no one ever suspects of an innocent tune.
An illustrious contemporary of Wilkins, the philosopher and writer Francis Bacon also devoted himself to the art of disguising secrets within music. In Bacon’s case, this was achieved by devising a system in which each letter of the Latin alphabet corresponds to a certain number of notes A and B.
The cryptogram has also been used not just for secret but also for creative purposes. Johan Sebastian Bach, for example, codified his surname into a well-known fuge, as did Robert Schumann (in the piece Carnaval), but also Ravel, Claude Debussy, and even Dmitri Shostakovich.
Johannes Brahms was another musician who resorted to cryptography. But in Brahms’ case, it was with an almost magical intention. The composer was tormented by his frustrated relationship with Agathe von Siebold to whom he was on the point of marrying in the summer of 1858. He was 25 years of age and she was 23. Ten years later, Brahms composed a string sextet in which he included the name of his old fiancée in the lyrics (except for the T, for which there is no equivalent in the German musical notation, and with the particularity that, in this composition, H corresponds to the note E). Critics point out that the cryptogram A-G-A-H-E, during the first movement, is perhaps the greatest moment of relief from sorrow. “With this work, I’ve freed myself, at last, from love,” Brahms wrote to his friend Josef Gänsbacher on the piece, which entered his catalog as the Sextet for Strings No. 2 in G major, Op. 36.
Beyond mere anecdote, the story suggests another quality which makes music an ideal medium for the sharing of secrets: music can express the inexpressible (that’s why it is so sublime). It’s why music moves us: because it’s capable of giving meaning to what’s inside us, that which is sometimes well beyond words and language, or at least that which we’ve never elaborated sufficiently to make it accessible. For example, the pain of loss, as was the case with Brahms.
It can be said, then, that music doesn’t only conduct secrets which we can hope to decipher, but that it sometimes reveals other secrets we’ve never even suspected.
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