Vidas: Let’s start Episode 140 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Listen to the audio version here. This question was sent by Irineo, and he writes:
Hello there once again, maestro Pinkevicius.
Now THAT IS an interesting subject you chose for your podcast. Actually, I suspect different keys have different "taste" or meaning depending on each individual.
For instance, Bach's splendid Toccata in G-minor BWV 915 has a fantastic Fugue which is not only splendid, but jocular. It's extremely witty as far as I'm concerned. It sure DOESN'T sound "sad" or "dark" a bit.
But there's supposedly this "treaty" about different keys and the way they "taste" or are perceived by people.
I couldn't locate a good friend of mine who told me about it many years ago, nor could I learn its name. But I recall having read about a luthier who developed a very special instrument (harpsichord) and stated that keys might actually have their own "flavor". Like C having a tart/sour taste, D being tasteless, E having a sweet one, F a bitter one and so on and so forth.
Can you perhaps guide me here, maestro?
By the way, I'm still working on the translation of my short chorale (which has a feature I've yet to see in music history, I daresay) but as soon as I finish it, I'll upload it as you kindly suggested.
Keep up the good work, you both!
Greetings as usual.
Very truly yours,
So, this is a big question, right Ausra?
Ausra: Well, yes.
Vidas: What do you think about it?
Ausra: Well, I think it’s a fascinating subject, talking about different characters of different keys. And there is actually so much information written about it--not so much nowadays, but you know, in historical sources.
Vidas: And today, this information is sometimes transmitted incorrectly, because the instruments might sound alike because of the temperament, and the player doesn’t feel the difference between the keys.
Ausra: Yes, and that’s very true, because the equal temperament sort of loses all those colors that ancient instruments had, and historical temperaments had.
Vidas: What’s your favorite key, Ausra?
Ausra: Well, I don’t have one particular key, but I definitely prefer keys with flat accidentals, with flats.
Ausra: Such as, for example, F Major, or E♭ Major, c minor, g minor, d minor--d minor, I like d minor a lot.
Vidas: And what’s the difference between d minor, let’s say (this is with 1 flat), and e minor (with one sharp), for you--in your mind?
Ausra: Well, I don’t know, but flat keys sound better to me, and it’s actually more comfortable for me to play. And even on historical temperaments, I think d minor is a much more used key than e minor; and that’s because of the dominant chord of both keys.
Vidas: Which is...?
Ausra: Which is, you know...in e minor, it would be B, D♯, and F♯. And basically, it’s quite uncommon to have D♯ on historical instruments.
Vidas: It usually is E♭ instead of D♯.
Ausra: Yes, yes, because E♭ is used more often; so if it doesn’t have a split key, it has E♭, not D♯.
Vidas: And if it doesn’t--if you can play any kinds of keys--then it means the temperament is adjusted or modified.
Ausra: Yes; and in d minor, the dominant chord would be A, C♯, and E; and C♯--everything is fine with it because C♯ is C♯, not D♭.
Vidas: C♯ is much more common than D♭?
Ausra: Yes. And I’m always wondering, when I’m thinking about the early music like Buxtehude’s f♯ minor Praeludium...I just can’t imagine how it could be played on historical temperament. Because it starts with F♯, A, and then E♯ and G♯. It’s unbelievable. I think maybe somebody just transposed it for, I don’t know, scholarly purposes!
Vidas: F♯, A, E♯, and G♯, right?
Vidas: That’s E♯. Imagine--E♯ is extremely rare. It seems like you’re hitting the note F.
Ausra: Yes, and it should sound quite badly on the mean-tone temperament.
Vidas: From Buxtehude’s time.
Ausra: Yes, yes.
Vidas: Didn’t he order some kind of adjustment of the temperament, in his Marienkirche in Lübeck?
Ausra: No, I have to check Kerala Snyder’s book about it. I cannot recall it exactly--
Vidas: He did it, but
Ausra: I think he did something.
Vidas: But was it about the same time or not? We cannot tell.
Ausra: Yes. Yes, and because no autograph score is available of Buxtehude’s organ works, so we might just guess.
Vidas: So, another option of course is to transpose this piece.
Ausra: I know. And I think maybe some of the pieces were transposed, actually.
Vidas: And...to transpose to which key, in this case? Up or down?
Ausra: Well, that’s a good question. I think up.
Ausra: G minor.
Vidas: Oh! G minor is quite common, right?
Ausra: Yes, yes, that’s very common, yes.
Vidas: It only has 2 flats, and the dominant is…
Ausra: With F♯. So that’s ok. D, F♯, and A.
Vidas: One of the most common keys, actually.
Ausra: I know, it is one of the most common.
Vidas: That’s why Franz Tunder composed so many Praeludiums in G.
Ausra: Yes. And Buxtehude, too.
Ausra: There are quite a few Praeludiums in g minor. But what about you? What is your favorite key?
Vidas: I’ve been trying to avoid this question, therefore I’ve been questioning you!
Vidas: Um...okay. I like E♭ Major, maybe because of that famous Prelude and Fugue in E♭ Major by Bach. Right? It has this solemn character--maybe even a royal character. Why royal? Because you remember the opera by Mozart, Zauberflöte?
Ausra: Yes, I remember it--The Magic Flute.
Vidas: And in which key does the Overture start?
Ausra: In E♭ Major. And because it has 3 flats, there are speculations that it might mean in general also the Holy Trinity, too.
Ausra: Especially in Bach’s case. But also in Mozart’s case, it’s sort of the magical key.
Vidas: Why is it magical?
Ausra: Well, it’s related to the Masonic Order, and all those kinds of mysteries.
Ausra: And with alchemy.
Vidas: And the number 3 is very sacred.
Ausra: Yes, yes, it’s a sacred number in actually many religions and different cults--3 is a magical number.
Vidas: Why couldn’t Mozart have written it in, let’s say, A Major, with 3 sharps? If it’s 3, then why not sharps?
Ausra: That’s a good question. I never thought about it. Do you know why?
Vidas: Sharps should be a little more difficult to play for his beloved clarinet.
Ausra: And I think maybe it’s related to trombones, too. Because it’s a rare case: actually, trombones were used very often in religious music--
Ausra: Like religious cantatas. And it was very seldom the case to use it in opera. And I think it’s much easier for trombones to play in flat keys--and for most brass instruments, as far as I know.
Ausra: And I think that’s why he chose E♭ Major.
Vidas: Exactly. Then, I like, of course...I like A Major, though. Remember the Prelude and Fugue by Bach, BWV 536?
Ausra: Yes, I remember it. But when I think about A Major, the first piece that comes to my mind is actually not an organ piece, but it’s Mozart’s Variations in A Major, and that very famous theme. I think everybody knows it.
Vidas: Oh, you mean the Variations from the sonata--
Vidas: --where the last movement is the famous...or am I mistaken…? Which one is Turkish March?
Ausra: I think it’s of that sonata, yes. So the first movement is not written in sonata form, but it’s variations--in A Major.
Vidas: Mhm, exactly. And what’s the character of those variations?
Ausra: Very sweet, actually, very sweet. Nice and sweet.
Vidas: And what’s the meter, then? 6/8? *starts humming*
Ausra: Yes, it’s 6/8.
Vidas: *continues humming* Yeah, it should be like 6/8.
Ausra: Yes, it’s 6/8.
Vidas: And what dance could it remind you of?
Ausra: Well, very often the gigue is written in 6/8, but it’s not that kind of character of the gigue. It’s more...it’s more like a barcarolle.
Vidas: Barcarolle, or sicilienne.
Ausra: Yes, or sicilienne, yes.
Vidas: But a gigue is usually faster.
Ausra: Yes, so it’s probably a sicilienne.
Vidas: So maybe 9/8 or 12/8.
Vidas: So if it’s a sicilienne, it has a pastoral character/nature right?
Ausra: Yes, and A Major is very suited for nature, for pastoral use.
Vidas: Mhm. So guys, you see what we’re doing here: we’re remembering well-known pieces in various keys, comparing the characters, and then finding out similarities between them; and maybe discovering the meter, and what kind of dance goes with that meter, right? And then it appears you can have a system of keys, meters, and dances, also. True?
Vidas: So when you play any organ piece in any key, look at the key, meter, and the character, and see if you can find a similar one by another composer--maybe from another instrument or even period, which has a similar character, key, or meter.
Ausra: Yes. And I’m sure that you might find some similarities between different composers. Because those keys were not chosen accidentally, or you know, a particular meter.
Vidas: Exactly. They have symbolic meaning, always.
Ausra: Yes, and there are quite a few famous theories of musicologists or composers that have talked about it, and made treatises; such as, for example, Jean Philippe Rameau; or, you know, also Quantz on playing the flute--he talked about keys, too.
Vidas: Marc Antoine Charpentier
Vidas: And these are the main ones. And C. P. E. Bach, of course, should have…
Ausra: Well, he did not talk so much about keys. He talked more about thorough bass that kind of stuff.
Vidas: Ah. What about Kirnberger?
Ausra: Yes, I think you can find things…
Vidas: Mhm. Kirnberger was a student of Bach, so...
Ausra: Yes, so by studying Kirnberger, you can think about what Bach thought about keys and meters.
Vidas: Excellent. So...this is a fascinating subject for you to explore. And please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow--don’t we, Ausra?
Vidas: Okay, this was Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
When you play the organ in public, do you think of the notes you are depressing or do you think of something else, like tonal plan and structure of the composition?
In other words, do you try to think like a composer who created this piece long time ago?
I think some people who would like to do this, simply forget about it, simply get carried away by the music. Why is this happening?
One of the reasons of course is our ability or inability to notice musical text and the details. When we first start playing the organ and when our music theory experience is low, we notice very few details about that piece. Perhaps recapitulation of the theme or something else that is very obvious.
But mostly beginners think about the notes.
Later, we can start to pick up some more intricate details, like keys, thematic entrances, sequences, cadences etc.
Very advanced organists can of course know all the musical material of the piece, they can see how the piece is put together right away.
I suggest you try to at least discover major tonal areas (tonal plan) of the piece and notice them while playing. Say to yourself, "this is Eb major or C minor or G major or E minor." Transposing a piece or a part of it to other keys helps a lot too.
Of course, you have to be really comfortable with the musical text, have almost memorized it. Only then you can start noticing things that the composer worked hard to hide from an average eye.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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