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Classical music pieces with same key but different impressions

Classical music pieces with same key but different impressions

Posted November. 21, 2017 07:31,   

Updated November. 21, 2017 08:26

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Classical music pieces with same key but different impressions

Let us assume you are listening to a classical music radio, and a DJ has just said, “Next is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.” Then you would easily wonder what C minor refers to.

When it comes to songs, we can adjust the pitch of a song up or down to match our voice. On the contrary, the pitch of classical music pieces is fixed by composers. For example, if a piece is major and the scale is based on C, it is called “C major.” The same piece can also become “D major” if the composer changes his or her mind and make it a key higher.

Some say each key has its own “color” or “character.” Albert Lavignac, a French musical scholar in the early 20th century, characterized the particular characteristics of each key in his work, describing C major as “simple, naive and commonplace,” and F major as “pastoral and rustic.”

Still, it seems doubtful that such an interpretation can be applied to all pieces. Take Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” as an example. They are all E minor, but each has clearly distinct atmospheres. Brahms’ piece evokes a bleak atmosphere that you would encounter in late autumn while Tchaikovsky’s Symphony sounds melancholy and lonely. The famous work of Dvorak makes one picture an individual looking around a strange place.

Moreover, the pitch itself has been changed over time without being noticed. Thus, today’s C note is higher than that of Mozart’s era almost exactly by a half note. This means the pitch of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 C major “Jupiter” must have been felt as today’s B major to Mozart. Given that, there seems to be no way that the characteristics we feel today and Mozart’s feelings back then upon listening to a C major piece can be the same.

It was a long preamble, but Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, one of the greatest E minor symphonies in the late 19th century, will be played by Incheon Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jung Chi-yong at the Incheon Culture & Arts Center this Friday. German cellist Martin Löhr will perform with the orchestra for Elgar’s cello concerto, which is also, E minor. In the auditorium, you would definitely be surprised at how the two pieces with the same key feel completely different.



gustav@donga.com