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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Major Minor? Mine her, Major!

Terry Teachout has a tantalizing post in which he tosses out this quote:

I seem to be really drawn to minor keys. Some people would say, well, they're melancholy or they're dark, but I don't think so. I think they're richer and I get a sense when I listen to a minor key that the composer has somehow worked harder at it.

...and then dares us to identify the speaker. Luckily, he provides a link so we don't have to go a-Googling.

I'll spoil the surprise: the quote is from Condi Rice, as part of this interview she gave a while ago. It's mostly about music.

I confess that I never really think about specific musical keys, and whether or not I have an affinity for major or minor. It would be all too easy for me to rattle off a list of minor-key works whose emotional content moves me to delirium (my oft-mentioned Rachmaninov Symphony #2 in E-minor, frex), but then I'd have to balance those out with a major key work that also moves me to delirium (Beethoven's Seventh, frex). I just can't seem to reconcile myself to the idea that a work's musical effect on me is a function more of the mathematical relationships of the tonalities within the work than the composer's musical thoughts and emotions themselves. When I listen to that wondrous Mozart D-minor Piano Concerto, it's not D-minor that's moving me, it's Mozart. He just happens to be moving me in D-minor.

(I know that I'm not saying anything that's specifically contra anything that Dr. Rice says, so don't flood me with corrections!)

I note with interest some things about Dr. Rice's tastes in music. She's into Russian Modernists (Prokofiev, Shostakovich) but not so much the Russian Romantics (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov); I'm kind of reversed on that, but even there, not really. I adore Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, I don't really know a whole lot about Prokofiev (he's kind of eternally on my list of composers to delve into more), and while Tchaikovsky wrote some things that I can't live without (the ballets, the Violin Concerto, the Fifth Symphony), there are other things of his that I can just as soon live without (the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, the 1812 Overture). No mention, oddly enough, of Stravinsky is made. Dr. Rice talks a lot about her affinity for Brahms, whom I adore, and also Schumann (another guy I need to explore) and Schubert (about whom, I'm sorry to say, I know almost nothing except for the last two Symphonies).

This utterance of Dr. Rice's, however, really rankled:

I don't particularly like programmatic music and Liszt, of course, as the father of that School, has never been particularly interesting to me.

GAHHH! Of course, she meant to say "Berlioz" there, not "Liszt". The symphonic tone poem may owe more to Liszt as a form than to Berlioz, but Berlioz was the real pioneer of programmatic music in the Romantic era. Let there be the gnashing of teeth!

I also found it interesting that, given Dr. Rice's main focus on piano music, Chopin is barely mentioned in the interview at all. Ditto American composers like Copland, Gershwin, Ives and so on. But then, it was a radio interview, and Dr. Rice did have some other pressing matters at the time, so I'll cut the slack there. I've never made any secret that I don't hold Dr. Rice's political accomplishments in much regard -- I'd certainly never vote for her for President -- but if the position of NEA Chair were elevated to cabinet level and she was nominated for the post, I'd be fine with that.

The interviewer, by the way, is Gilbert Kaplan, a man who first came to the attention of the classical music world when he fell madly in love with Mahler's Second Symphony (the Resurrection). As the tale is related in this article comparing recordings of the Resurrection:

But while most of us manage to live with our fantasies, Kaplan turned his into an obsession, dedicating himself to intensive research into the symphony's background, sources and history. He acquired Mahler's autograph score, published scholarly essays, restored Mahler's composing cottage, established the first Mahler museum, created a Foundation, lectured extensively and emerged as the world's foremost authority on the Resurrection. But even that was not enough – at the age of 40, he learned to read music, took conducting lessons and toured the world to lead the Resurrection. In 1987, Kaplan produced a recording. Reportedly, it's become the best-selling Mahler record of all time.

Quite a way to spend one's retirement, eh?

(Lynn Sislo also concurred with Dr. Rice's take on minor keys.)

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