Musical Ciphers Encode a 19th-Century Romance

Newberry Fellow Katharina Uhde’s violin resonated through the library during her colloquium presentation on October 26. As an Assistant Professor of Violin and Musicology at Valparaiso University, her work on nineteenth-century German composer Joseph Joachim took her to the Newberry—the only collection with significant materials related to Joachim outside of Europe, including personal correspondence and original compositions.

As a violinist, Uhde had come across Joachim’s cadenzas for the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos, and learned of his performance practice—including his restrained use of vibrato—early in her studies. His short composing career called out for more in-depth research.

Uhde’s work at the Newberry has focused on Joachim’s compositions from the 1850s–specifically, how these compositions reflect Joachim’s tumultuous romance with noblewoman Gisela von Arnim. Joachim injected narrative into his music through musical ciphers: notes assigned to Gisela (G#, E, and A) and to himself (F, A, and E). Uhde tells us that in Joachim’s Abendglocken, “A quick tally of the ciphers in just the first page of 42 bars yields 38 statements.” (Listen to Uhde playing Joachim's Abendglocken.)

Uhde learned the meaning of these ciphers through the correspondence between the lovers wherein they referenced Joachim’s music and defined the ciphers explicitly. According to Uhde, the letters reveal that Joachim used “F A E” to refer to himself in two ways: “Free but Alone” [from the German Frei Aber Einsam], referring to his bachelorhood in spite of his love for von Arnim; and “For All Eternity” [from the German Für Alle Ewigkeit], when he told von Arnim he loved her always, even when she broke off their engagement and later married Herman Grimm in 1859.

In addition to the content of the correspondence between von Arnim and Joachim, the materiality of the letters and their envelopes has helped Uhde uncover aspects of the affair.

Even the stamps the two used to seal their envelopes encoded information and flirtatious allusions. The wax seals Joachim used on his correspondence to von Arnim feature the same musical cipher, but in print: “F A E.” Joachim told von Arnim he would be hers “for all eternity” with the wax seal. Von Arnim, meanwhile, responded to Joachim’s letters affectionately, using the stamp of Psyche on her wax seals in reference to the myth of Amor and Psyche, a story of flirtation and forbidden love.

By Jamie Waters, Communications Coordinator at the Newberry