Tuesday, March 15, 2005

keys and symbolism - da capo

Things I can’t wait to read: Alex Ross on Radio and his take on E-flat minor
Jos. Horowitz on Classical Music in America

My blog on key symbolism provoked some response, namely that whatever the attached symbolism is, it lies with the listener. If I feel that C major represents jubilance, happiness, victory, etc. then that’s what it is – for me and whoever else shares that feeling-purely subjective. It’s probably true that many composers have selected particular keys to express particular feelings (but see below) and lists might be made about who wrote what in what key to show an agreement. But, we might find as many exceptions, too.

What I found hard to concede is, if a listener knows a piece is in “melancholy” G minor, and it is transposed down to “somber” F minor, would it sound melancholy or somber to that listener? Would “fate knocking at the door” sound as powerful in B-minor? The answer seems to be-no and yes. Play the C major Prelude from WTC Bk I in D major and the response is different. A friend said, “It’s not as calm - and brighter.”

To be sure, the matter has bothered us for some time. Aristotle and other ancient thinkers defined in detail the emotional/ethical features of the tonalities used in those times. This was typical for Middle Ages aesthetics too, with some additions and corrections. Later, it developed into a principle and a number of tables of tonalities and affects were made. I previously mentioned Berlioz. Here’s Charpentier's table for major tonalities:

C-dur - cheerful and warlike
D-dur - joyful and VERY warlike
E-dur - quarrelsome and irritable
Es-dur - cruel and stern
F-dur - violent and hasty
G-dur - tender and joyful
A-dur - joyful and pastoral
B-dur - majestic and joyful
H-dur - stern and sorrowful

Such tables, and others such as Scriabine’s table of colors, et al, are clearly subjective.

In his Characterization of Tonalities R. Shumann wrote that the difference between major and minor is a “creative, masculine principle” and a “passive and female one". On tonalities he remarks: “The simplest feelings need simple tonalities, more complex feelings seek for more rare ones, less common to the hearing sense". But, he derided assumptions that E-minor is "the girl in white with a bow on the bosom" and G-minor is"unpleasant feeling" and "the gloomy biting one's lips".

So, is “affect theory" right or wrong, and are the semantics of tonalities and the rules of handling them arbitrary? Schumann hints that "the truth lies in the middle, as usual. …The process that enables the composer to choose this or that fundamental tonality to express his feelings, is as inexplicable as the creative process of the man of genius, who creates both the new idea and a form, which serves as a container for it". He goes on: "One cannot say that any certain feeling, in order to be expressed adequately, needs to be translated into music by means of only one certain tonality". But, he can't agree with those who believe that "everything can be expressed in any tonality".

The question is muddled (or settled), by Stravinsky who says, "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature. . . ." Poetics of Music

Closer to our own time, the Special Research Interest Group (SRIG) of MENC has acontinued interest in affected response. See Music Education Research, An Anthology from the Journal of Research in Music Education, 1998.

Finally, it must be conceded that instruments and ensembles have historically changed their pitch with no performer/audience outcry. C minor tuned to B would unlikely cause an uproar. Choral conductors often don’t hesitate to drop or raise the pitch of an a capella piece if it will better suit the sound or tessitura of the singers.

Maybe Alex will figure it out.

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