Here’s the dilemma: you’re desperate to get a message out, but only to the right people. It’s imperative that the wrong people don’t hear it. So, what options do you have? How do you ensure it gets hidden in plain sight?
Well, for those with ears to hear, music is the perfect medium. Forget about codenames, dead-letter-drops and Moscow rules (although friends well know I’m a sucker for good spycraft). Barlines and key signatures offer up even better possibilities.
Overture, The Magic Flute (K. 620)
—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austrian)
Claudio Abbado (cond.), Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Now, the first rule of Freemasonry club is (obviously) don’t tell a soul you’re a member of Freemasonry club. It’s Freemasonry 101. And then, whatever you do, you must never, ever, reveal Freemasonry Club secrets.
But Mozart had an irrepressible and subversive impishness. He just couldn’t help himself, it seems. Conspiracy theorists (akin to those hooked on Peter Schaffer’s ingenious but seriously speculative play, Amadeus) will insist that the great composer’s untimely death (he was only 35!) was somehow masonic retribution for his indiscretions. That’s nonsense. And yet, the provocations in his final opera, The Magic Flute, must have infuriated fellow Lodge members.
We’ve already heard one of my favourite moments in the opera (see 5&1 playlist #7). But now it is time for the overture. The house lights are dimmed but the stage curtain is still closed; the orchestra briefly has our exclusive attention as it heralds the imminent drama’s big themes. Now let’s face it, the story (written by Wolfgang’s friend and fellow Mason, Emanuel Schikaneder) is just plain silly. Just skim the wiki synopsis, if you need convincing. But it is brimming with all kinds of masonic tropes—such as solemn initiation ceremonies, priestly hierarchies and ancient Egyptian symbolism. Which is very strange since Mozart regarded membership of the Viennese lodge as far more significant than offering networking opportunities. He apparently bought into its philanthropic humanism.
So, what on earth was he thinking to lacing the opera (and especially the overture) with masonic symbols and scenes? For example, listen out for the many types of 3, and the 3 x 3s. They just loved their symbolic numbers, the masons. Then after almost a minute, you’ll hear a fugato (a hurried fugue), whereby voice upon voice piles in to create an urgent, stunning whole: representative of the masonic ideal of the universal brotherhood of humanity. One might even think Mozart was relishing the chance to let the secrets out of the bag.
Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor (BWV248)
—Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, German)
Hilary Hahn (violin)
Something that marks classical composition out from, say, jazz improvisation or a band’s work in the studio on a new album, is the desire to make performance replicable in some way. Why else try to capture it on paper, for all the many shortcomings of dots, scratches and accidentals? How else can it be performed again?
But those dots and scratches offer the secret messenger other opportunities as well. The conventions of musical notation have little to do with the ‘sound’ of those notes, per se. There is nothing about 440hz (so-called ‘concert pitch’) for example, that means it must be called ‘A’ above ‘Middle C.’ It is just the convention. Because letters of the alphabet are used, the scope for codemaking fun is endless. And Bach knew it. He scatters his ‘musical signature’ across his works.
Now, for reasons best known to themselves, German notation doesn’t exactly follow anglophone convention (weird, huh). Confusingly, what we call B flat, they call B; what we call B (or B natural) they call H. But look! Hey presto! Bach can now sound out the letters of his surname.
Bach’s solo string compositions are demanding on the ear, especially if you’re not used to them. The solo cello suites are perhaps an easier way in, not least because of the popularising efforts of Yo-Yo Ma and others. But try to ‘hear’ the orchestral accompaniment that Bach is hinting at throughout, even at those moments when only one note is sounded at a time. The Chaconne (all 17 minutes of it) is breath-taking because so much is hinted at with so little. Then, on top of that, some powerful coding is taking place. As well as using the motif of his own name, Bach includes other elements. The use of the key of D minor was a common convention among composers to connote death and defeat; and that was fitting, because Bach’s beloved first wife, Maria Barbara had recently died. He is in mourning. But halfway through the Chaconne, it shifts into D major—symbolic of triumph and overcoming. And so on and so on. I’ve not even mentioned the complexity of its mathematical structures (mainly because I don’t understand them) and its profoundly Christian theology.
Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.” Joshua Bell has said the Chaconne is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” In that famous experiment of him busking at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC rush-hour, this is one of the pieces he played.
Largo, Quartet No. 8. (Op.110)
—Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich (1906-1975, Russian)
The Fitzwilliam Quartet
Many composers after him would incorporate the B-A-C-H motif as a kind of homage to the master. Many also played around with the musical notations of their own names. Shostakovich did it frequently in his symphonies and concertos, for example. It’s a kind of autobiographical marker, suggesting that he himself inhabited the emotional force of a particular musical moment. The added ingredient necessary for understanding this one is the fact that E flat in German notation is called Es (rhyming with Bess)—hence written as S.
Now, for Soviet composers, work really was a matter of life and death. And after decades of resisting pressure to join the Soviet Communist Party, Shostakovich finally relented. The self-loathing and despair that this prompted crushed him. And he poured it out in the 8th String Quartet, of which this is the opening movement. It is melancholy, dark and despairing… but exquisite. Each of the quartet’s movements contains the DSCH motif—but it is most obvious in the opening bars precisely because each instrument sounds it in turn in a fugue. Heart-breaking. Danny Elfman (Simpsons and Hollywood composer) described the 8th Quartet as “Simply one of the most beautiful, exquisitely sad, and soulful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.” But the most telling insight about it comes from this little anecdote which I included in my 2019 Hutchmoot seminar:
Two years after the work’s premiere, in 1962, the Borodin Quartet played the work to the composer at his Moscow apartment, hoping for constructive criticism. Instead, Shostakovich buried his head in his hands and wept, at which the musicians decided that the best thing to do was pack their instruments and creep away.—How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, Steven Johnson
Inspector Morse theme (full version)
—Barrington Pheloung (1954-2019, Australian)
Now for something completely different.
It is the mid-1980s and you’ve been commissioned to compose the music for a brand-new British detective show. It’s going to be set in and around Oxford and each episode will last two hours and draw on cinematic production values. Oh, and the copper in question is an opera-loving, cryptic crossword fanatic but curmudgeonly old goat called Morse. What do you do?
Well, you incorporate Morse code into it, obviously. And, for good measure, spell out Morse’s name in code. So instead of tonal messaging, this is rhythmic. But what’s more—and this is the part that I really love—Pheloung occasionally beats out the killer’s name in the soundtrack halfway through; or he might throw in another character’s name purely as a red herring. Brilliant!
But to top it all, it is a superb piece of music, perfectly capturing the show’s pathos and melancholy as the end credits roll.
Allegro non troppo, String Sextet no. 2 in G (Op. 36, 1864-5)
—Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, German)
The Amadeus Quartet, with Cecil Aronowitz (viola), William Pleeth (cello)
Brahms never married. His life was dedicated (like so many other great composers before or since) to a relentless pursuit of musical creativity. But more than that, one might say he was unlucky in love. Or rather, fell for women who were unattainable, for whatever reason. Most famously, he adored Clara Schumann, wife of his good friend Robert Schumann, both of whom championed his music. And then there was Agathe von Siebold.
Into this gorgeous piece of chamber music, one full of passionate intensity, Brahms smuggles his burning love, using A-G-A-H-E. They had actually been engaged in 1859, but for various reasons, it was called off. Here he is six years later and still agonised.
—Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934, English)
Sir Mark Elder (cond.), Hallé Orchestra
So here at last is the whole point of creating this list!
Elgar wrote this theme and variations as a way of honouring his most precious friends, and it was dedicated “to my friends pictured within.” Each variation is given headed with a set of initials, so there is little mystery about identifying them. He is a little more opaque with a handful, though.
- CAE (I) is (Caroline) Alice Elgar, his devoted wife—the wistful musical fragment (of just four notes) in this variation was what Elgar would whistle whenever he arrived home!
- Ysobel (VI) is for his violin pupil Isabel Fitton, and the opening bar includes a phrase that crosses over the strings and is therefore quite difficult for the beginner; but it is glorious in its sense of musical yearning.
- Nimrod (IX) is perhaps most famous. It depicts Elgar’s great publisher and musical champion, Augustus Jaeger—it is obvious how indebted he felt to Jaeger by the exquisite pathos of the various. And the name is a play on words: Jäger is German for hunter, and Nimrod was of course the mighty hunter of Genesis 10:8.
- EDU (XIV) is actually a self-portrait. Edu was Alice’s nickname for him and the variation incorporates elements of both Alice’s and Jaeger’s variations, depicting them as his two most significant influences.
None of this is especially enigmatic, however. So where is the enigma? Elgar himself wrote, “The Enigma I will not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played… So the principal Theme never appears…”
He took the ‘solution’ with him to his grave and while ingenious suggestions have been made, nobody has cracked it…
But what keeps me repeatedly returning to this piece is its exuberant joy in friendship. Each portrait is so distinct and alive. Each one clearly contributes so much to the composer’s life. And each time I find myself reflecting in deep gratitude on what each of my own friends bring. Elgar’s Enigma somehow encapsulates for me precisely what C. S. Lewis was getting at in his reflections after Charles Williams’ death:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald… In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.—C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
This playlist will be updated each Friday with new music recommendations from Mark Meynell.