What secrets are hidden in the music of the past and how can they be revealed?

Musical works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance may seem clear and obvious to us in their interpretation and intentions, but they are full of secrets and enigmas that their creators have subtly hidden. For several decades, many musicologists have looked at the music of the past in the light of cryptological methods of analysis such as gematria and numerology, hoping to unlock its secrets.

Music from vowels

In Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, a new musical practice was formed among the madrigal composers who sought a more subtle allegorical or symbolic representation with their musical creations. Added to this is the intervention of the composer in his own creation, which happened more and more often in the 15th century, which indicates the emergence of the pride of the artist and the claim of the author. Therefore, in accordance with the processes that have become more complicated over time, we often observe the mysterious writing of the composer’s name on the piece of music itself.

It was one of the first examples of a kind of musical cryptography “soggetto cavato slab vocali” (“subject from vowels”). The technique is described in detail in his book by composer and theorist Gioseffo Zarlino The organization becomes harmonious 1558 year soggetto cavato is a compositional technique in which the subject of the work is defined by vowels that the composer wants to hide. For example, a hidden word or message can be set to music by taking the vowels of the name of the person dedicated to the work and transcribing it to music with fading notes.

Hence the “cantus firmus” (main theme). Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae One of the first examples of Josquin des Prés soggetto cavato Published in 1505 and dedicated to Hercule I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, it is actually a musical suite composed of vowels, i.e. ré ut ré ut ré fa mi re (hercUlEs dUx fErrArIaE).

A musical tribute worthy of a Renaissance monarch, immortalized through music, soggetto cavato it also allows to bring the creative talents of the creator to the fore. However, if soggetto Numerological puzzles in music, which lost popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, never cease to amuse the greatest composers.

Gematria and numerology, essential tools

The music of yesteryear is as much about the feeling of music as it is about numbers and calculations. We find, for example, in medieval and renaissance compositions the repeated trace of the number 7, which has a number of key symbolic meanings in Western theology, especially representing perfection and completeness, but also the seven sorrows of Mary.

But there are more sophisticated means of inquiry than simply adding the number of records or coincidences. One of these methods of analysis often used in the search for symbolism in music is gematria. It is a literary research procedure that assigns a numerical value to different letters of a word according to their position in the alphabet (a=1, b=2, etc.). These numbers are then combined to try to find a higher meaning.

Applying this method of analysis to musical works of the 16th and 17th centuries, we find, for example, that a cantus firma has 64 notes. Missa The Armed Man super musical vocals It is a tribute to Johannes Ockeghem by Josquin des Prés. Indeed, converting Ockeghem’s name into numerical values ​​with gematria, we get 64: O (14) C (3) K (10) E (5) G (7) H (8) E (5) M (12) ) = 64. Note that the letters I and J were not considered one and the same letter until 1524, so O, K, M were the 14th, 10th and 12th letters of the alphabet.

If there was any doubt about the connection between the number 64 and the composer Johannes Ockeghem, musicologist Jaap van Benthem discovered in 1982 that cantus firmus A work for 5 voices by Josquin des Prés, The Mourning the death of Johannes OckeghemA musical tribute to Ockeghem with subtitles tree fairiesit consisted of exactly 64 records.

This discovery also allows us to better understand the spelling of the name Johannes Okeghem, which has many variants, from “Okegem” to “Ockham”!

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The study of the numerical values ​​present in any piece of music, i.e. the number of notes in a phrase, the number of bars in a movement, the number of coincidences in the main signature of the piece, can therefore question its significance. Repetition of certain specific numbers gives food for thought.

No other composer inspired more cryptological theories than Johann Sebastian Bach. The latter, a great lover of musical puzzles, writes the musical signature si flat-la-ut-si natural (BACH) in many of his works. The composer’s fascination with numerology does not end there. He will further encode his name by adding the alphabetical order of the letters of his name to create a 14 (2 + 1 + 3 + 8) “Bach Number”. This numerological signature of the composer appears regularly in his music, as well as in its inversion 41 (the sum of “JSBACH” by gematric procedures).

Once this figure is taken into account, some research musicologists begin to see it everywhere, even counting the jacket buttons in the so-called “Wolbach” portrait of the composer from the 1750s!

Celebrity details "Portrait of Wolbach".  Really 14 buttons, just counting the right row...
Detail of the famous “Wolbach Portrait”. Really 14 buttons, just counting the right row…

– Portrait of Wolbach

The danger of fake leads

Beware of those who are tempted to see a mysterious mystery to be solved in every measure of a piece of music. These symbolic intentions are rarely expressed by the composer… so be careful! The quest to unravel the mysteries of the work and find a deeper meaning in it has fascinated researchers and musicologists for more than a century, but these studies sometimes raise more questions than answers.

For example, the probable inspiration for the form of the motet Nuper rosarum flowers Guillaume Dufay caused numerous musicological debates for almost three decades: the proportional proportions of the piece were to be modeled on those of the Florence cathedral.

In 1436, Pope Eugene IV consecrated the new cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore. The completion of its dome is a major achievement for the Tuscan city, which has been waiting for the project to be completed for more than a century. On the occasion of this great event, the French-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay is responsible for the composition – the fruit of his inspiration will be the motet. Nuper rosarum flowers.

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In 1973, musicologist Charles Warren claimed to have discovered a connection between the isorhythmic proportions of this motet and the architectural proportions of the cathedral. This discovery would later be refuted by musicologist Craig Wright, who pointed out a number of flaws in Warren’s architectural analysis. Rather, he suggests that the special proportional arrangement of the coin was inspired by the description of King Solomon’s temple as described in the Scriptures.

Another hypothesis, presented by fine art historian Marvin Trachtenburg, claims that Warren’s and Wright’s arguments are both partially correct, and that the work is actually a cross between three different influences.

Most likely, the origin of Dufay’s work remains an unsolved mystery, and some rejoice. The thrill that a piece gives us is sometimes the knowledge that the music contains an idea or mystery that eludes us, lies beyond our decipherment and understanding.

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