Archive for the ‘Pitch imperfect’ Category

Wonderful experience

I have had a wonderful experience. It was like old times – better in fact because of the novelty and sense of restoration that I could not have had before the pitch changes began to alter my musical perception and to undermine my consequent appreciation.

I was listening to the early morning programme on BBC Radio 3 (available online at any time of day). Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto in A major’s final movement was the next item on the playlist. It started vigorously in A major. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘this won’t last. How long till B flat major arrives?’. On we went with no hint at all of any shift. This was strange. What was going on? I thought back to the announcement – a fortepiano performance with Michael Chang. Perhaps the performers including the fortepiano were playing in the pitch of Mozart’s time, significantly lower than modern concert pitch. Holding an A in my head, I went to the piano and played an A. Not the A they were playing – it was a sharper version. They were in 18th-19th century concert pitch.

I settled down to enjoy uninterrupted A major, knowing that there was no chance of any shift taking place. I could enjoy each modulation, every return to the tonic key. Freedom! Rare joy!

Please will someone invent a hearing aid that auto-translates music to a pitch that my brain will interpret as the original key. Or it is period performances for me if I crave a ‘retro’ experience. That limits the eras I can retro-fit sadly, so it is not a complete answer.

Juxtaposition of regret

By coincidence I have listened to the slow movements of Brahms’ 2nd symphony and the ‘Emperor’ concerto of Beethoven this morning. Both were written in dark, warm B major to be heard and experienced and appreciated in dark, warm B major. Sadly this beautiful key chosen by the composers for their statements of slow thoughtfulness now, from the outset, has the light blue sky colour of C major for me – utterly wrong for the music. No trace of B major remains.

The Rhine is fine

I had a lovely splurge of Wagner the other day. I watched an orchestra playing an arrangement of the highlights (best bits) from The Ring of the Nibelung. It started in the Rhine (‘in it!’, as Anna Russell emphasised). This is a long, long crescendo in E flat major that starts deep in the orchestra. I wondered whether the Rhine would change colour from E flat major to E major as flowed from the deep ever more strongly. I can happily report that it did not. The Rhine is fine.

The Valkyries still ride in B minor, I am happy to report.

The Rainbow Bridge over which the Gods make their harp-filled entrance into Valhalla was rather wobbly between G flat major and G major. I could shift what I was hearing between the two keys at will. I feared for the Gods’ future.

Samson is Strong

Well, technically it was Delilah in this instance. I was driving to the accompaniment of Delilah (in the form of a Russian mezzo-soprano) singing ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’, from Saint Saens’ opera ‘Samson and Delilah’, with its sinuous descending scale tune. I was enjoying the composer’s wonderful skill and the soprano’s interpretation thereof when it occurred to me that I was hearing it in Saint Saens’ chosen key of D flat major. No suggestion of neighbouring D major. Samson and I were seduced by D flat major all over again.

Transposing a tenor part

Last Sunday I stood in for a missing tenor in Jean’s church choir. I had not been able to attend the practice so i was sight-singing the tenor part for the hymns. The Offertory hymn was the glorious Abbot’s Leigh in D major. I had the music inform of me; Jean played the introductory bars on the organ. E flat major I heard. Coming in at the start of the verse, I found that I had to do instant transposition of the tenor part’s D major notes up a semitone in order to sing them. My brain had to reconcile what I was hearing with what I was reading.

My sound world is to a large degree (but not completely) up a semitone these days. I recently attended a concert at Maynardville Open Air Theatre. The orchestra tuned to the oboe’s B flat, it seemed to me. That that seminal A has become a B flat is a measure of the change.

At the piano, all is well. Fingers, music and brain all agree with the key the eyes see. Or the keys the eyes see, when I look down at my fingers.

Bright Blue Music

Fortunately I am not a synaesthete. If I were and keys were seen as colours, I would be having a nervous breakdown, or would live in psychadelic world a shifting shades or multiple swirling colours.

On the radio is Bright Blue Music by Michael Torke, who does see colours with keys. This piece is in D major, his bright blue key. A lively piece which managed not to shift from the chosen key, either for the musicians (as intended) or for me (as not considered). Can I assume that Torke’s music is so true to its colourful key that even my wobbly key sense lost its wobble? I doubt it, D is not one of the major shifters in my key cupboard.

For me D major in lively mood is a burnished Brown colour – wood or brass. Poetic not synaesthetic. But real nonetheless. This is probably why it is less shifty than some other keys.

That said, Saint Saens’ 1st Piano Concerto (D major) which I have only got to know since being given the Jean-Philippe set last year is in E flat to my new hearing. So perhaps Mr Torke’s writing palate does capture something of the key’s true character when it is in high spirits.

What colour would the slow 2nd movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet be for Mr Torke, I wonder?

Emperor’s old clothes

I have not done this for a while. No big changes combined with a very busy work load precluding many emotional forays beyond that child health domain.

On holiday today on the Isle of Man, Classic FM UK is on. Not my favourite (short items, too many adverts). I miss the pre-announcement, but from the outset the muted string ensemble in mid-register tells me the next excerpt is Beethoven. Very quickly (3 chords) I identify ‘the Emperor’  slow movement and simultaneoysly I know that it is in C major. No vibrating string warmth of B major; the plainness of C major is in command. The Emperor has been demoted. When we reach the fading conclusion, the final held C drops a semitone to an octave held by the horns as Beethoven scored. They hold a B  (to my hearing, not the B flat that he wrote) which means that the finale will be in the non-Emperor clothing of E major. And so it is. Something happens to distract me from the music. When I return, I wonder if my ears are deceiving my key-deceiving brain. I hear E flat major. Yes, it is! The Emperor, wearing all his fine E flat major clothes, has been restored to his throne. And there he sits all the way through to the soft timpani tattoo on B flat at the end of the cadenza, through the rushing scales of the short coda, to the final imperial E flat major chords.

Siegfried not ideal

The Siegfried Idyll is a work I have always enjoyed for its cocoon of beautiful sounds, expressing love for wife and newborn baby (admittedly while Wagner nods vigorously in the direction of his vast Ring Cycle). It is cast in E major for the majority of the time, especially when the strings are taking the front line.

FMR’s Karen Miller introduced this work in the 13 instrument version last night. I knew that I would not hear it in E major, so I was ready for disappointment as the first octave leap on the strings announced that it would be in F major, a semitone up. But while the warmth of the ‘sharp key that masquerades as a flat key’ was not there, the beauty of the music overcame this deficit, such that I had very pleasant time with the themes, leitmotivs and gentleness that makes this the wonderful work that it is. The A flat major middle section was in A major – a little confusing to hear all those sharps when I was reconciled to not hearing them in the extended E major sections.

So, not ideal, Siegfried – but still enough Idyll to satisfy this listener.

Beethoven symphonic slow movements – a census of where the sense is

Having had the A minor experience a few days ago, I thought it would be interesting to conduct a census of the other slow symphonic movements of Beethoven. I have known them well for decades; I have played in performances of all of them (clarinet or oboe) with the Bulawayo Philharmonic Orchestra and National Orchestra of Zimbabwe in the 1980s.

So each one has an expectation and a subsequent experience:

Symphony No 1. F major. Expectation: No change because F major is proving to have a resilience beyond that expected of her gentle undemanding soul. Experience: as expected. Unvarying F major, and no modulation flirted with the raised semitone.

Symphony No 2: A major. Expectation: it might start in A major but would soon sound in B flat and its related keys. Experience: B flat major from the first chord till end last one.

Symphony No 3 (Eroica). C minor with C major ‘maggiore’ section in the middle. Expectation: To remain in the funereal C minor, but every now and then flirt with a switch to C sharp minor. C major section would not change. Experience: Totally solid in all its magnificence.

Symphony No 4: E flat major. Expectation: I would not be surprised if from beginning to end or soon after beginning it would be be in E major. E flat major is an unsteady key in this phase. This movement is the least well known of all the Beethoven symphonic movements to my cognitive and emotional brains.Experience: unequivocal E flat major. The Beethoven influence?

Symphony No 5: A flat major. Expectation: Unswerving A flat major, but a frisson of concern that I would be let down. Experience: No let down. A flat as it should be. Towering C major explosions unimpeded by doubts about key.

Symphony No 6 (Pastoral): B flat major. Expectation: Very unlikely to shift into B major with all its spiky sharps. Experience: A ghastly experience. I chose a version on Youtube in which the whole thing is a quarter tone sharp from concert pitch. This threw me out completely. The beginning was in a flat C major – nearly a whole tone from the expected B flat major. Gruesome! It was a relief to find (by rushing to the piano to check the key) that it was not because of my hearing that this happened. I did make myself listen to the whole thing, flat C major cuckoos and all. I will find another recording to do the test with.

Symphony No 7: See recent post on this movement that engendered this census.

Symphony No 8: B flat major, but not really a slow movement. But as with No 6, unlikely to shift into B major.

Symphony No 9 (Choral): B flat major again with Excursions into D major, G major and E flat major. Unlikely to shift as in the other B flat movements, but an expectation that it would quite easily happen soon because B major’s character would fit well with the smooth string scales as they become more and more liquid as the movement progresses. Experience: All the keys were as they should be, beginning to end. I wondered if the regular key shifts battened things down.


A minor musical wonder

I wonder if the wonderful A minor second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony will be the last piece of music to capitulate to the semitone shift? I am listening to it now. ‘A minor A minor A minor A’ it repeatedly and rhythmically intones in this most spare and Spartan of keys. Unchangeable surely?

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