Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Attractiveness of Musical Riddles

By Katelijne Schiltz

What has one eye but cannot see?

Yes, I confess: this is a silly riddle, and its solution—a needle—is rather trivial. But we somehow feel attracted to it nevertheless, because it is a little game. When we don’t know the solution, what do we do? We start trying to make a connection between the elements of the question, even if the riddle suggests an incongruity (how is it that something that has an eye cannot see?).  After a while, we start to realize that the key to the solution is a double entendre of the word “eye”: used here not to mean the human eye or an organ of vision, but in a metaphorical sense.

The person who came up with this riddle clearly wants to test our cleverness.  He teases our curiosity by playing with the ambiguity of words, their meaning and context.  And we know that it is our task to bring the seemingly incoherent pieces of the puzzle together into one image.

Now this a curious way of communicating: why can’t the author just say what he wants to say?  But that clearly is not the point.  On the contrary, the way in which it is said is equally important—if not more important—than what is being said. Riddles—whether the age-old riddle of the Sphinx or a brainteaser in a newspaper—have a special motivational and cognitive structure.  Above all, the answer is already contained in the question (an element which distinguishes a riddle from a mystery or a secret); this recursive, autotelic aspect lends the riddle a high degree of self-referentiality.

When I started working on Music and Riddle Culture in the Renaissance—a project that almost logically resulted from the book Canons and Canonic Techniques, 14th-16th Centuries I co-edited with Bonnie J. Blackburn (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2007)—I set as a major goal to investigate if and how such riddles connect with the broader culture of the enigmatic.  I discovered a wealth of books and articles written by scholars from the field of literature, psychology, philosophy, sociology and anthropology, who all tried to understand somehow what makes riddles so special.  Two central categories that emerged from this research proved to be fundamental to musical riddles as well: the positive appreciation of obscuritas—i.e. the quality of concealing and revealing at the same time—and the riddle’s transformative nature.

Consider for example the encoded voice from the first Agnus Dei of Josquin des Prez’ Missa Fortuna desperata as it is presented in Heinrich Glarean’s Dodekachordon (Basel, 1547; printed with permission from the Bischöfliche Zentralbibliothek in Regensburg):


The enigmatic Latin inscription, which can be translated as “They descend eleven steps multiplying, and in the same manner they increase in the opposite direction” implies that the singer has to apply no less than three transformations to the superius melody of the famous song Fortuna desperata (which, it should be stressed, is clearly identifiable on the page): he has to transpose the melody downwards an eleventh (meaning that what looks like a cantus voice is in fact a bassus!), to sing the notes in inversion and to multiply them by four.[i]  Here is the solution provided by Glarean:


It becomes clear that the relation between what is notated and how it has to be sung always implies a transformation.  In my book, I discuss musical riddles in which the performer is prompted to change the reading direction (in the horizontal [retrograde] or vertical [inversion] sense), to drop, pick out, substitute or add notes for rhythmic and/or melodic reasons, to treat the note values in hierarchical order, etc.—the number of transformations is indeed vast.  As a result, the written music is often changed beyond recognizability.  (Here you can listen to the Agnus Dei from Josquin’s Missa Fortuna desperata in a recording by Cut Circle under the direction of Jesse Rodin [from their CD De Orto & Josquin: Musique à la chapelle Sixtine autour de 1490; many thanks to Prof. Rodin for giving permission to use this recording])


In all these cases, the singer sees something he cannot sing as written because the notation has to be subjected to alteration.  This can be hinted at through a verbal instructions (the extensive catalogue of enigmatic inscriptions, taken from the Bible, Classical Antiquity, word games, proverbs etc. that Bonnie J. Blackburn published as an appendix to my book shows the composers’ sheer endless inventiveness in this field) and/or an accompanying image.

As in a literary riddle, which—as a consequence of its metaphorical structure—plays with the “double sense” of the words, the ambivalence of the notation is central to the musical riddle too.  The notated melody is at the same time a point of reference and a flexible entity that needs to be transformed.  In other words, the notation and the solution are intrinsically linked on a conceptual level, but drift apart in the performance.

But as soon as a riddle is sung, it is no longer a riddle.  The listener—however he is to be defined in the Renaissance—can only hear the solved version as it was decoded by the performers.  The sung version of a musical enigma is a paradox par excellence: it is and is not (or no longer) a riddle.

Every composer has to deal somehow with the “double existence” of music: on the page and as sound.  But in the case of musical riddles, this tension is not a mere “side effect”, but plays a central role in the very conception of the music.  Riddles, then, confront us with basic notational, performative, analytical and aesthetical strategies for Renaissance music, which makes them a highly significant phenomenon of the period.



Katelijne Schiltz is professor at the Musicology Department of the University of Regensburg. Her monograph Music and Riddle Culture was published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press. She is currently editing a book on Cipriano de Rore: New Perspectives on his Life and Music (with Jessie Ann Owens) and a Companion to Music in Sixteenth-Century Venice.



[i] For a brilliant analysis of how these transformations relate to Fortune, see Anna Zayaruznaya, “What Fortune Can Do to a Minim”, Journal of the American Musicological Society 65 (2012): 313–81.

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