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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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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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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Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” Overture: Toscanini and the NBC Symphony

The legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was born on this date in 1867. Over the course of a career spanning nearly six decades, Toscanini served as music director of La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. He presided over the premieres of works including Puccini’s La bohème, La fanciulla del West, and Turandot, and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and First Essay for Orchestra.  Between 1937 and 1954, …

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Frank Bridge’s “Enter Spring”: The Symphonic Poem as a Force of Nature

Enter Spring, a shimmering orchestral tone poem by the English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), blossoms like a force of nature. It evokes the bright colors, turbulent majesty, and joyful sense of renewal we associate with the seasonal change from winter to spring. It grows out of the English countryside— specifically the green rolling hills and chalk cliffs of Bridge’s native Sussex Downs on England’s south coast. But its harmonic language is also surprisingly daring, …

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Remembering André Previn

André Previn passed away last Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89. Previn will be remembered as one of the great Renaissance men of twentieth century music. As a jazz pianist, he accompanied singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day and put his stamp on the “great American songbook.” As a composer, he contributed film scores, Broadway musicals, operas, orchestral music, chamber music, and songs. As a conductor, he …

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