The real Da Vinci Code: Is a Scottish Da Vinci responsible for the Rosslyn melodies?

A 500-year-old message in stone.
May 19 2011 7:28 AM

The Rosslyn Code

Is a Scottish Da Vinci responsible for the Rosslyn melodies?

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Mitchell originally experimented with combining melodies in counterpoint—two voices playing at the same time, complementing one another. His fascination with DNA gave him the idea that the melodies from crisscrossing arches might intertwine like a double helix. (This would be the second-most interesting DNA-related discovery to come out of Roslin: Dolly the sheep was cloned down the street.) The result, though, was cacophony, so he scrapped the idea in favor of a simpler one-melody-at-a-time approach.

Arranging and recombining music is a standard part of composition, and the role of the arranger varies widely. In an extreme case, a composer takes a simple theme and builds a whole new piece around it. One of Bach's most-popular works, his "Musical Offering," begins with a 21-note melody provided by King Frederick II of Prussia and grows into a piece that is unmistakably Bach's. At the opposite end of the spectrum, an arranger might take a complex piano piece—say, one of Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsodies"—and adapt it for an entire orchestra. Stuart Mitchell's composition, a four-part piece called the Rosslyn Motet, rests somewhere between these poles. The music is closely structured around the Rosslyn melodies, but the harmonizing voices and transitional melodies are his own.

"What he's given us is a basic melody to work with," Stuart said one night over dinner, alluding to Rosslyn's unidentified composer. We were eating at a restaurant called The Shore in upper Edinburgh, on the edge of the North Sea—a place he chose because it has a piano. "Some of the exercises I used to get in university and college were where you'd get about eight bars of Bach or Purcell, and underneath it was all blank. And you would add harmonies to this as Bach would have done or as Purcell would have done." Forming a listenable work out of the Rosslyn Code took a great deal of knowledge of musical history, but it was more technical than creative. You could think of it as Stuart taking an ancient strand of dinosaur DNA and mixing it with modern frog DNA to make a Stegosaurus.

Stuart Mitchell's Rosslyn Motet trades off between the instruments carved in stone in the chapel: lute, fiddle, organetto, bagpipes, and shawm (like an oboe). (The motet also includes several singers—a few of the angels are depicted singing from hymnals.) The melodies are difficult to categorize, but they generally resolve to a version of the A-minor scale. There are melodies that repeat the same note four or five times in a row and others that never resolve. The bagpipe line—one of the most moving melodies in the suite—ends on a D, which sounds tentative and incomplete until the next voice takes up the mantle. A G-sharp makes several guest appearances, giving parts of the piece the Halloween sound of a harmonic minor scale. Taken together, it's an elegantly structured sort of musical prayer, with each melody fitting neatly into an overarching voice that is solemn and arresting.

After dinner, we retired to the keyboard, where Stuart launched into an improvisation on the motet. He began soberly, running through the major themes. From there, his left hand propelled the piece into an extended blues solo over the Rosslyn chords, occasionally drifting back to motif. It was like "Fly Me to the Moon" in the hands of Oscar Peterson. From there he lands on "All the Things You Are," which later turned into the fantastically difficult first movement of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, followed by "Nice Work if You Can Get It"—an appropriate characterization of the Rosslyn composition, I think.

In his hands, the music of the cubes—whether an actual relic of the 15th century or an elaborate misreading of some wall decorations—sounds like the most natural thing in the world.

To hear piano renditions of five of Stuart Mitchell's melodies, click "Play Notes" on the interactive feature below. To hear the corresponding melody from Mitchell's finished product, "The Rosslyn Motet," click "Hear Motet." Mitchell took a few small liberties when arranging the melodies into a piece of chamber music. For example, he replaced the first note of the fourth melody with a B to match the opening notes of the first three melodies. He also replaced the last note of the fifth melody with a D, instead of an E, to lead more naturally into the next melody.

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