Archive for January, 2014

A Song of Summer

My wife Jean and I are slowly put together a very difficult 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle: Monet’s The Waterlily Pond. Look at the picture and you’ll see why it is so difficult! I have been putting on some of Delius’s music to provide the necessary ambience for this task: calm, calming, intense, harmonically complex. Then I came across Ken Russell’s docu-drama (as it would be called these days) on the composer Frederick Delius as experienced by Eric Fenby. The title of this post is the title of this television programme made the 1960s. This led to some more listening of many atmospheric compositions by Delius.

It dawned on me a few days ago that listening to Delius is completely unencumbered by the key anxieties reflected in these posts. I have never been aware of key in Delius’s music. There are keys, there are changes of key, but clearly, to me, they are not germane to the music’s feeling, structure or power. This is so freeing, adding a dimension of delight to this most glorious music. I have a feeling that Delius would be delighted too, since the constructs of “classical” form (including key relationships) were something to be avoided, as Russell’s film made plain. Though it cannot be true that a composer as aware of colour and tone would not have been acutely sensitive to the ‘colours’ of the keys he chose. But his key choices are not an aspect of this music that comes across as essential to my enjoyment.

As if to emphasise this point, later the same day my daughter Ursula was playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata on the piano. This slow movement is in one of my favourite keys, A flat major. And as she started, Beethoven’s music was indeed in this mellifluous key. So it remained all the way through until the end, but throughout my listening, I was never sure that it might not slip up to the relatively emotion-free (to me, at least) key of A major. So mine was not an entirely relaxed listen to this wonderful music.

There are no such worries with Delius.

Beethoven again, revisited

As reported in the previous post, I’m trying to understand why Liszt’s piano arrangement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in A major played on a CD by Cyprien Katsaris sounds so clearly to me to be in B flat major, at least in the first movement. The clinician scientist is experimenting. I took the CD and put it into our CD player at home and started playing. I tested the sound against the piano A and found that the recording is definitely sharp compared to concert pitch but closer to A than to B flat. I switched off and started again. The first chord was a definite B flat major one, but as the ascending scales began the music switched over into A major to my hearing. I repeated the exercise and the same thing occurred. At the end of the slow introduction with its alternating heavy scales and wistful oboe melody, all the repeated Es alternating between the winds and strings (all on Mr K’s piano, of course) were very clearly E, and as Mr Beethoven finessed into the main part of his first movement, A major and all modulations, tonal twists and turns, sounded exactly as they should from beginning to end. At the end of the movement, I shuffled a CD player back to the beginning of the movement and not surprisingly (since the sound of A was very clear in my mind at the end of the movement), it all started in A major again with no hint of B flat.

My next step was to record the opening music on to my digital recorder to see if there was a difference between the two CD players’ renditions, the one in the car and the one in the house. While recording these two players in 30 second sequences, both sounded to me as if they were in A major; the car had changed – or more likely, I had. Perhaps the sound of A was so strong in my mind after the first phase of my experiment, that in the car it sounded in the correct key whereas it hadn’t before when I came in cold. Comparing the two openings in sequence on the digital recorder, it is not clear to me that there is any difference; perhaps the one from the car is slightly brighter suggesting that it may be slightly sharper, but in terms of tonality I cannot hear a difference.

If the difference is that subtle and both are slightly sharp compared to what my brain has learnt over many years to be the sound of A major, why was there a clear difference between the two players? I must now check whether the car B flat sound is consistent.

The mysterious change at the end of 2nd movement from the ‘wrong’ B flat minor to the ‘right’ A minor still requires an explanation. That is the next experiment.


Update: I played the CD again in the car this week one afternoon on the way home from the hospital having not listened to any music all day, so presumably with a fairly cleansed tonal palate. The first two movements had reverted to the pattern described at the beginning of the first post on Beethoven’s 7th symphony: first movement all in B flat major and second in sombre B flat minor reverting to A minor for the final section.

Beethoven again

Last year we acquired a set of CDs of Cyprien Katsaris playing Liszt’s piano arrangements of the nine Beethoven Symphonies. I have gradually been working my way through the recordings. I reached Number 7 this week and put it on as I travelled between my base hospital, New Somerset, and the new Mitchell’s Plain hospital 27km away. I know these symphonies very well; I played them as duets in my teen years, have read the scores and have the Liszt piano arrangements, most of which I have kind-of played my way through. Listening to Mr Katsaris is a revelation after my efforts. My parents and I had an enjoyable car journey listening to Liszt and him tackling the mighty 5th (C minor, A flat major and C major, all steady and correct) the other day.

The first orchestral score I ever looked into (as a teenager) was that of Beethoven’s A major 7th Symphony. it was wonderful to see that sound divided up vertically across the orchestra. So began a life-long delight with orchestral music. So I was a bit surprised when Mr Katsaris started with a B flat major chord and ended the grand introduction with its (B flat major???) scales with repeated answering Fs instead of Es before the rhythmic dance took over. Knowing the music so well I could ‘see’ the notes and chords on the piano as he played. All the themes, harmonies and modulations were a semitone up, full of flats rather than sharps. It felt odd, but I have a recording of the wind version of the symphony that is in G major so I have heard the music in the ‘wrong key’ before. What surprised me more was hearing the A minor second movement in B flat minor. I had thought that A minor was one of the stable keys in my shifting tonal sensory world – mildly melancholy, bald and bereft of decorating sharps and flats. So having it clothed in the richer tones of B flat minor and ‘seeing’ the music full of black notes was a novel experience. But further peculiarities were to follow. When Beethoven brings back the main theme at the end he divides its phrases across the orchestra – different instruments to do the low, middle and high registers. Inexplicably this sounded in A minor from that point until the end of the movements and its questioning inverted chord. It had reverted to the correct key. The following F major Scherzo alternated between its F  and D major sections without any shadow of a shift. But the wild 4th movement returned to the B flat major of the altered first.

After my meeting at the new hospital, I thought I’d give Mr B and Mr K a test. I put on the music again starting at the beginning. Everything was an exact repeat, even the internal shift at the same place in the 2nd movement.

The clinician scientist within me demands an explanation. I am going to listen again on another machine and test the recording against the piano. Perhaps the recording engineers have made a slip up (or down). I don’t think Mr K’s piano can have done so, and I know Liszt didn’t.

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