Musical Cryptograms: Five Scores that Contain Hidden Messages

Imagine transmitting a secret message by using the pitches (from A to G) that are embedded in a musical score. It’s been the subject of mystery novels and television shows as well as Philip Thicknesse’s 1772 book, A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: with an Harmonic Alphabet. During the Second World War, codebreakers considered the possibility that German and Japanese spies might use musical notes as a …

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Brahms’ Third Symphony: “Free But Happy”

Three bold chords, rising in an expansive wind choir, set in motion Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major.  This powerful, attention-demanding proclamation flings open the door to a ferocious “con brio” first theme which seems to growl with intensity. Filled with wide, octave-exceeding leaps, it’s a theme which is always in motion, restlessly searching for a way forward, and veering continuously between major and minor. Rhythmically, it sets up our expectations, and then …

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Remembering Soprano Heather Harper

The British operatic soprano Heather Harper passed away on Monday at the age of 88. Born in Belfast, Harper came to international attention when she stepped in at ten days notice for the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. (Galina Vishnevskaya, for whom the part was written, was denied permission by Soviet authorities on the grounds that Britten’s work was too “political.”) Harper went on to perform …

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New Release: András Schiff Plays Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

Sir András Schiff’s new album takes us back to the sounds Schubert would have heard. The Hungarian-born British pianist performs on a fortepiano made around 1820 by Franz Brodmann. The instrument, once owned by Karl I, the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, is an early version of the piano. In the liner notes, Schiff writes, It is to me ideally suited to Schubert’s keyboard works. There is something quintessentially Viennese in its timbre, its …

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Chopin’s Four Scherzos: Darkly-Veiled Jest?

On Monday, we explored five monumental scherzos from nineteenth and twentieth century symphonies. These ferocious works leave behind the original lighthearted concept of the “scherzo,” which means “joke” in Italian. The dynamic, sometimes terrifying, drama unleashed in this music is anything but a joke. Fryderyk Chopin’s four Scherzos for solo piano are similarly definition-shattering. They are filled with moments of haunting mystery, turbulence, soaring Romantic fervor, and intense drama. In his review of Scherzo No. …

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This Scherzo is No Joke

In Italian, the word “scherzo” means “joke” or “jest.” Theodore Baker’s Schirmer Pronouncing Pocket Manual of Musical Terms (an invaluable resource my first violin teacher recommended to me as a child) defines the musical scherzo as 1. An instrumental piece of a light, piquant, humorous character. 2. A vivacious movement in a symphony, with strongly marked rhythm and sharp and unexpected contrasts in rhythm and harmony; usually the third movement. There are a host of pieces which fit these …

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Berlioz for Spring

Hector Berlioz’ song cycle, Les nuits d’été, Op. 7  (“Summer Nights”), based on the poetry of Théophile Gautier, dramatizes the progression of love from youthful innocence, to death, to ultimate rebirth. Villanelle, the first of the six songs, evokes the arrival of spring and the joyful exuberance of young love. The text celebrates the abundance of nature, from flowers and berries to the wildlife of the forest. Berlioz’ song, composed on March 23, 1840, teems …

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