Clarinet cryptograms: Are there hidden messages in our repertoire?

Last week, I began exploring the history of musical espionage (as one does) and found myself delving into the world of musical cryptography.

Musical cryptography is using the musical alphabet, notation, solfège, and other elements to encrypt messages into music. Bach, Shostakovich, and many other composers throughout history have used musical cryptography to spell their names. Bach used B-flat-A-C-B natural (the German H) to spell his name, and Shostakovich used D-E-flat-C-B natural to spell DSCH (again, using German H) for Dmitri Schostakowitsch.

However, some composers used musical cryptography to notate the names of their beloved or short messages and quotations to share with those who were able to crack the musical code. Michael Haydn (sibling to his more famous older brother Franz Joseph) even proposed a musical cipher system, and Irish composer John Field even spelled out B-E-E-F and C-A-B-B-A-G-E in his music.

After some more research, I discovered that Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Poulenc, and some other beloved composers of clarinet repertoire have used musical cryptograms, and the score-sleuthing properly began.

Johannes Brahms

Let’s begin with Brahms. You might recall that Brahms was in love with Clara Schumann, but you might not know that he was also in love with soprano Agathe von Siebold. After breaking his engagement with Agathe, Brahms immortalized her by including his A-G-A-H-E theme in his String Sextet No. 2 in G major.

Here are some other cryptograms Brahms used, according to this article: “Though he remained unmarried, Brahms retained his penchant for musical codes, referring to Adele Strauss by the notes A–Eb (A.S.) and to Gisela von Arnim, a writer known for her fairy tales, with the notes G#–E–A (Gis-e-la) in his letters.”

He also could have used B-D (re)-A-B natural-E natural (mi)-E-flat (German S) to spell his own name.

Robert Schumann

Here are a few ciphers used by Schumann:

  • A-S-C-H (S=E-flat and A=A-flat in the German musical system) – represents Asch, Germany, which was the hometown of Schumann’s former fiancée Ernestine von Fricken
  • S-C-H-A – a variation of Schumann’s name
  • G-A-D-E and A-B-E-G-G – friends of Schumann
  • FA-E – frei aber einsam (free but lonely)
  • E-F – Florestan and Eusebius, two characters or personalities of Schumann’s (Coincidentally, these are the very first two notes in the piano part to our beloved Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73!)

According to this article, “His other overt music–ciphers used in extant letters or manuscripts include A–C–H, A­D–E, B–E–D–A (a pet name for his wife Clara Schumann, née Wieck), B–E–S­E–D–H (the nearest equivalent to the name of a friend, Bezeth), E–H–E (“marriage”) and, no doubt the longest example on record, (L)–A–S–S D–A–S F–A–D–E, F–A–S­S D–A–S A–E–C–H–D(T)–E, or “leave what is trite, hold fast to the right”, in a musical rebus.”

Calling all clarinet cryptologists!

The study of musical cryptography is vast, as is the clarinet’s body of repertoire. If you’d like to do some of your own research, here are some pieces which might contains musical ciphers. Can you crack these musical codes to find any secret messages?

  • Brahms Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1
  • Brahms Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2
  • Schumann Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73
  • Poulenc Clarinet Sonata
  • Debussy Première rhapsodie
  • Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Sources & further reading:


  • Daniel Dorff

    Thanks for the fascinating cryptography references! For Brahms, there’s also his motto of “frei aber froh” meaning “free but happy” which is how he described never marrying – note the play off of Schumann’s similar phrase. Brahms used that as the F-Ab-F at the start of his third symphony (which has rhythmic similarities to the start of Schumann’s third symphony).

    I sort of giggled because I recently finished a piece for Duo Amicitia, titled BFF’s…

    • jennyclarinet

      Thanks so much Daniel, I’m really glad you enjoyed the article! I’ve read about Brahms’ usage of the “frei aber froh” and have been trying to locate usages of this in his clarinet repertoire, but it’s a work in progress. Perhaps I’ll discover another hidden message he left us?

      I can’t wait to hear Duo Amicitia perform your new piece!

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