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.
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