Archive for February, 2017

Berlioz’ ball in B flat

FMR’s Saturday morning programme was on my car radio as I headed to work. Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique’s ‘Scene at a ball’ was next on the playlist. It rustles in the strings in a minor key as the 2 harps play arpeggios, gradually modulating into the key Hector B chose to illustrate the heightened excitement of the appearance of the beloved at the ball: A major. We got there, but it was B flat major, not A. Released from the trammels of A major, the ebullience and whirling of the dance were literally and figuratively raised a notch in the new key. It was all I could do to prevent myself speeding to work in my excitement.

An old world found in the New World

I have conducted the experiment that I suggested in my post on finding true E major in Mendelssohn’s E minor violin concerto. I hypothesized that a second subject in E major nested in an E minor movement will not be subject to the upward key shift that has engulfed the key elsewhere in music. Dvorak’s E minor New World symphony was to be the composition for the experiment. In the first movement recapitulation of the second subject the flute played the theme in a clear E major. Proof number 1. In the Finale the cellos passed muster in the thoughtful lyrical tune that is answered by the flutes, also in E. Proof no 2. But more proof was to come. Dvorak reintroduces E minor as his symphony enters its final phases. But E major appears – and appeared – twice more. The first horn reprises the main theme from the first movement but switches into the major, including a challenging high E in the arpeggio-like motif. Pure E major. From here the composer builds up the tension in E minor with a loud unison statement of the Finale’s main theme. He then races to the end with alternating major and minor chords, ending so satisfyingly to this listener with an E major chord in the winds that is held, fading to nothing but the sound of E major in my soul.

Unduly pessimistic about E major

I have sadly opined about the almost total obliteration of E major. The other day I heard the Finale of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto start a semitone higher than its written key i.e. in E major rather than E flat major. But hearing music in the lost key when it is the wrong key is no compensation.

But all is not lost (yet). I have stumbled upon a circumstance in which E major has been preserved (for the present). I was listening to the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor – partly listening while working in the kitchen. After a spell of culinary concentration, I tuned once again into the music as it slowed to the recapitulation of the gentle second subject. Here Mendelssohn switches from E minor to E major. And E major it was as the clarinet played the lovely theme above the pedal violin E, and so it remained till the music changes back to E minor through to the movement’s end.

So it seems that when E major arises from an E minor ambience, my key sense is not affected (yet). Good news! I must try the New World symphony and its second subject recapitulations in the second and final movements to see if this hypothesis holds. I hope it does.


Two A flat majors

In church today I didn’t want to sing in case I was out of out of tune. I harmonised quietly within. The first song was one I know to be in G major. Not unexpectedly I heard it very clearly in A flat. I could visualise the chords in the key as the guitars played. As sometimes is done to heighten the excitement, the band shifted the music up by a semitone in the final verse,

What key was this? It took a while to identify it. It certainly wasn’t A major, the key I would expect. I eventually identified it as A flat major, but a less mellow version of the key than the one I’d started in. I tried to shift the music into A major but could not change it into a sharp key.

So, two A flat majors a semitone apart! I need a musician audiologist to help me explain these fine gradations of altered key sense.

Out of tune

I have been preparing recordings of sessions from our Child Health Priorities Conference from December 2016 for uploading to YouTube. As a tribute to my late colleague Prof Maurice Kibel and to promote the conference’s geist on World Aids Day, I sang one of his songs karaoke style. In Maurice’s inimitable style Cole Porter’s “Let’s do it; let’s fall in love” becomes ” Let’s talk about Aids” to comic effect.

Listening to the recording I was mortified to find that I sang the whole song marginally sharp. While the right brain sinks in mortification and confusion, the left brain raises a question: Is it a corollary of hearing ‘out of tune’ that I now sing out of tune; that I sing ‘in tune’ to my hearing (and satisfaction) but out of tune to the actual pitch – and other people?

I find the idea deeply embarrassing. It is a shock to my understanding of my musicianship; an assault on my persona.


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