The Amadeus code
Forget Leonardo da Vinci: sleuths looking for hidden messages in art will find plenty in classical music, which is full of mystery and cryptic clues, writes Matthew Westwood
February 18, 2006
DAN Brown's breathless quest for the secrets of the Holy Grail in The Da Vinci Code cleverly patched together gossip and curiosities from the visual arts. Had the story taken another turn, it could easily have followed a path of mystery and mysticism in classical music. The music world is no less a fertile place for cryptograms, hidden messages, secret societies and weird religion. And so many of the great composers could have a role to play: J.S. Bach, Edward Elgar, Alban Berg and, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The story could still have started in Paris, at the end of the 19th century, with the eccentric and truly inventive composer, Erik Satie, best known for his piano miniatures, his strange and haunting Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. Less known is his involvement with the cult of Rosicrucianism and its self-styled "Sar" or priest-king, Joseph-Aime Peladan. The Rosicrucians were a secret society with roots in the medieval Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar, organisations well known to readers of Brown's tale.
Another French composer, Claude Debussy, may also have met Peladan, and was even rumoured to have been a grand master of the Priory of Sion.
Fin-de-siecle Paris was a hotbed of mysticism, symbolism and the decadence espoused in such influential books as Joris-Karl Huysmans's Against Nature. Indeed, much of the Rosicrucianism of Satie's circle was a quest for a new aesthetic, and Satie's own contribution included incidental music for a mystical drama, and piano pieces composed of solemn, liturgical-sounding chords. According to one analysis, Satie structured some of his Rose+Croix pieces in accord with the so-called divine ratio: the number denoted by the Greek letter phi, that is thought to give especially pleasing or auspicious dimensions.
Satie's infatuation with Rosicrucianism was short-lived however, and the composer broke with the Sar and invented his own religion, the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Leader, with a congregation of just one: himself.
Composers through the ages have embedded codes in their music, both for the purpose of secret communication and private amusement. Music and cryptography - the science of codes - are often said to be closely aligned, as both disciplines rely on communication through symbols. Indeed, the ability to read music was a desirable skill for Britain's Nazi code-breakers in World War II.
The composer best known for inserting extra-musical ideas into his work was Bach. He signed his compositions "Soli Dei Gloria" - to the glory of God alone - but he also signed within his works a tribute to himself, using the letters of his surname. In English notation, only the letters A to G are used in the musical scale; in German, the letter H denotes B-natural. So Bach was able to sign his own name, with the notes B-A-C-H, in such magisterial works as The Art of Fugue.
Other composers took to this idea of musical Scrabble. The Irish composer John Field wrote melodies on the themes of B-E-E-F and C-A-B-B-A-G-E; the pious Frenchman, Olivier Messiaen, used entire quotations from Thomas Aquinas in his organ work, Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme are more popularly known as the Enigma Variations because of the wordplay therein. The 14 variations are musical sketches of Elgar's friends, and the title of each holds the key. The best-known variation - its noble theme is widely used in film scores - is the Nimrod, for the music publisher and Elgar's best friend, August Johannes Jaeger. Puzzle solved: Jaeger means hunter in German; Nimrod was the mighty hunter of mythology.
Numbers, too, figure heavily in music. Those with sacred associations - such as three for the trinity, or 12 for the apostles - appear again and again: in three-note motifs, for example, or in the key of E-flat major, which has three flats.
In the 20th century, when composers broke with convention in search of new means of musical expression, number-crunching became more prominent. Bela Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste uses the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number in the series is the sum of the two before. Later composers such as Iannis Xenakis would use ever more sophisticated methods.
The musical modernists of the Second Viennese School in the early 20th century were highly analytical in musical thought yet, oddly enough, deeply superstitious of numbers. Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of 12-tone serialism, was triskaidekaphobic: afraid of the number 13. It's not clear that this influenced his music, but he changed the name Aaron to Aron in his opera Moses und Aron so the title would not have 13 letters.
His pupil Alban Berg was even more carried away. Berg was paranoid about the number 23, stemming from the date of his first asthma attack, at the age of 14, on July 23, 1900. This "fateful" number recurs in works such as the Lyric Suite, the opera Lulu and his Violin Concerto, and is often paired with the number 10. That number, musical detectives believe, is a symbol for Hanna Fuchs, the woman with whom Berg had an adulterous affair.
The very act of playing a musical instrument involves patterns of numbers and nature's own codes.
In the sixth century BC the Greek mathematician Pythagoras discovered the relationships between notes in the musical scale. A plucked string, when divided in half, he found, will sound an octave higher. Divided by two-thirds, it will produce a note a fifth higher. All the instruments in the modern symphony orchestra - violins, flutes, trumpets - work according to the same fundamental principle.
Pythagoras's discovery had such pleasing elegance that his followers believed the same properties could be found elsewhere in nature. It was thought, for example, that the planets charted their course in the heavens according to similarly harmonious rules, hence the "music of the spheres".
The recent discovery that the Perseus galaxy, some 250 million light years away, emits the very deep note of B-flat adds a tantalising detail to the idea of a celestial harmony.
But Western music couldn't live with the idea of a perfect Pythagorean universe. As people started to impose their creative will on nature, and compositions became more complex - using, of all things, chords! - instruments tuned in the Pythagorean way sounded shockingly out of tune.
Alternative methods were developed to overcome this. One of them was championed, perhaps invented, by Bach, who showcased the system in his collection of preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Mozart, whose 250th birthday falls this year, is the composer best known for his involvement with secret societies. He became a Freemason in December 1784, and many of his musical works bear the hallmarks of the "Craft". His Meistermusik, for example, is some of his most beautiful for male voices, and Masons later set their texts to other pieces by the composer.
Freemasonry is a quasi-religious movement guided by principles of fraternity. It has its origins in the ancient guilds of stonemasons, and uses the symbols of masons' tools - the square and compass, for example - as metaphors for self-improvement: God is regarded as the divine architect of the universe.
The movement requires only that its brothers be men, and that they follow a monotheistic religion, Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
The Magic Flute, completed in 1791, the year Mozart died, was not written for Masonic ceremony but daringly took its symbols into the domain of the public opera house. As Goethe, another Freemason, wrote: "It is enough that the crowd should find pleasure in seeing the spectacle: at the same time, its high significance will not escape the initiates."
Freemasonry had flourished in Vienna in the late 18th century but was under threat: the movement was condemned by the Empress Maria Theresa (the character of Queen of the Night is sometimes said to represent her), was suspected of being involved in the French revolution, and rival lodges were being formed that allowed women as members. The Magic Flute is, in many ways, a public relations campaign for Freemasonry.
There are many symbols that Masons would recognise in the Flute. The number three is prevalent - in the key of E-flat, in the three boys, in the three-note motifs said to echo the secret Masonic "knock". It refers to the three pillars of the Masonic temple: wisdom, beauty and strength.
Characters would be understood as taking part in a Masonic drama: the prince Tamino is the new initiate who must go through a ritual purification; Sarastro is the Persian prophet Zoroaster; the Queen of the Night refers to the realm of darkness and ignorance; the moor Monostatos is said to refer to the assassin of King Solomon's architect, Hiram.
The Flute can be read as a parable of the triumph of light over darkness, an end to superstition and the beginning of a new age of peace.
Freemasonry is implicated in the circumstances surrounding Mozart's death, but not with the suspicion that was levelled at rival composer Antonio Salieri in the film Amadeus. In his book Mozart's Last Year, H.C. Robbins Landon writes that the composer contracted a streptococcal infection at a Masonic lodge meeting in November 1791, which exacerbated his poor state of health. He certainly wasn't murdered.
Nor were his family left unaided: Masons have always looked after the families of their brothers, Robbins Landon writes, and it appears they did so with Constanze Mozart. The lodge raised money for Constanze by subscription, although the Masons themselves were on the way out: Freemasonry ceased to exist in Austria in 1794.
So no suspicious circumstances there - just the enduring mystery of the wonder of Mozart's magical music.
Opera Australia's new production of The Magic Flute is in repertoire at the Sydney Opera House, February 20 to April 1.