Musical Themes by Letters

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Musical Themes by Letters

 

themes in a musical composition whose melodic nucleus is made up of sounds based on the letters (or occasionally, the syllables) of a particular word—a first or last name (often the composer’s) or a place name. Sometimes only some of the letters or syllables of a given word are used in the theme.

Many composers, including J. S. Bach himself (The Art of the Fugue), Schumann (Six Fugues for Organ and Piano), Liszt (Fantasia and Fugue for Organ), and N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov (the fugue from the “Paraphrase” cycle for piano duet and Six Variations for piano), have based musical themes on a decipherment of the name “Bach” (the sequence B flat, A, C, B). Schumann often used musical themes by letters. The last name of one of his friends, Abegg, was the thematic basis for his Variations for Piano, Opus 1. Schumann’s Carnival for piano is described by the composer as “small scenes on four notes.” The notes are S, C, H, and A, which, combined in another order, form “Asch,” the name of a town. Among other foreign composers who used musical themes by letters were Brahms, Ravel, and V. d’Indy. Russian composers who frequently used this approach include A. K. Glazunov, who wrote a number of compositions based on a musical decipherment of the letters in “Sasha,” his own first name. A string quartet based on the word “Be-la-f” (the last name of the Russian musical figure M. P. Beliaev), in which the letters function as letters and syllables, was written by N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov, A. K. Liadov, A. P. Borodin, and A. K. Glazunov. In his Tenth Symphony D.D. Shostakovich used a musical interpretation of his initials, D S CH; a passacaglia using these same initials was written by the English composer R. Stevenson.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.