Wednesday, March 02, 2005

key symbolism

What-another music blog site? Well, this one hopes to be different from the others-not that I’m dissatisfied with them. It’s just that I want to express myself on some issues and knowing my peculiar mind, they might be interesting to other musical readers. I don’t intend it to be a regular daily/weekly blog. But, when I have something on my mind, I’ll post it.

Within the past two weeks there have been allusions to the emotional connection to certain keys. Alex Ross started it with his review of Ladu Lupu’s CD of Brahms’ Op.117 , when he wrote, “There is a certain symbolism in the key structure of this piece. The "A" section is in E-flat, which is Beethoven's "heroic" key, the key of the Eroica and the Emperor. …But the middle section is in E-flat minor, which is for many composers the key of death.”

There was a quick follow-up in TheFredosphere: Alex Ross restarts the key character discussion. Alex identified E-flat minor as the key of death, so I rushed to my own key classification table to find out what I think about it. Some keys I can describe clearly: I know E minor is the key of loss, remoteness, loneliness, and nobody is ever going to talk me out of that opinion. Other keys I find harder to express concisely, and E-flat minor is one of them. Sure enough, on my list I chickened out and made a lame joke instead of describing it (where I referred to it enharmonically as D-sharp minor). Looking at the related keys, I see I called C-sharp minor is "desperate" and G-sharp minor is "really desperate." I suppose I could extrapolate from my own list and align my opinion with Alex's at the same time by calling E flat minor ‘suicidally desperate.’”

To be sure, this isn’t a new discussion. Berlioz, the super Romantic, writing about the violin, provided a description for every key and wrote that certain instruments such as the C clarinet, had distinct emotional characteristics. Many persons have attached certain characteristics to, say, Bach’s Bm, or Beethoven’s EflatM Archduke, or Chopin’s Csharp minor.

However, in my view, this is problematical if we view the development of pitch in relation to keys. The sound of the pitch D and its scale formation is contingent on its vibrations per second. If my piano drops a semitone, I only think it’s D (unless I have perfect pitch. More later). It is vibrating D flat.

We have to know that A440 became standard pitch only in 1939. Prior to that there was no agreed universal pitch standard and orchestras and instruments all tuned variously in different parts of the western world. As late as 1885 Vienna adopted 435.4, in 1880 Steinway in New York tuned to 436, but in London Steinway tuned to 454, while Erard tuned to 455.3! In 1877 Chappel tuned to 455.9 and in 1834 the Vienna Opera adopted A436.5. Imagine what that did to instrumentalists who performed in concert with the piano. In Beethoven’s time Broadwood’s C fork was 505.7, a semitone lower than today. Even in the same city pitches varied. In 1811-12 Paris, A was 427 at the Grand Opera while the Conservatoire used 440. During the 18th century and earlier the tunings were even more varied.

So, if FM at 440 is heard as pastoral today, what would it have been to Handel, whose personal fork was tuned to 422.5? Bach, like all Baroque composers, frequently had to transpose parts due to different tunings of organs in different churches. Would the characteristics then change? If the Bm Mass actually sounded closer to Bflatm, or Cm, would the symbolism change? Would it be heard or felt differently?

Perhaps it’s only visual. Six flats on a stave do look lugubrious, and they probably put string players in a bad mood, while they smile at two sharps.

Then there is the matter of those poor souls who have “perfect” pitch. I wonder if anyone had it before 1939? This gift may have been called “imperfect” then. Anyone have more on this?


Blogger Alex Ross said...

Thanks for your comments. I've been working on an update on my blog, and I'll incorporate your comments. I think you're being too absolutist in your approach to this question. If a community of musicians decide among themselves that E-flat minor has a certain meaning, then that association holds, even if E-flat minor is tuned to a different frequency in a different time or place. In the same way, the fact that the word "hell" means "bright" to Germans and "hell" to English-speakers does not mean that it's a nonsense word. When people talk about the meaning of particular pitches and chords, they're talking about relationships relative to whatever is the given pitch. "Perfect pitch" means, again, perfect relative to whatever is the prevailing A. Music is a language, or, more precisely, a set of languages, not a science.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Marcus Maroney said...

Musica transatlantica had a great post about this here:

I wholeheartedly agree. I think to people who listen to classical music regularly, D major acquires a certain character because of the way it makes instruments behave, regardless of what frequency they tune A to. Further evidence of this is a piece like Prokofiev's first quartet, where he chose B as tonic specifically because it lies a half-step below the cello's lowest open string.

9:07 AM  

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