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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000414.txt from 2003/06

From: "Lelia Loban" <>
Subj: [kl] Keys and their character
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 2003 13:52:11 -0400

Nancy Buckman wrote,
>Personal experience with Beethoven's and Chopin's
>music tells me that many of the pieces these two
>wrote were written because they laid under the fingers
>on the keyboard easily and just would be very difficult
>if placed elsewhere in the grand staff.

Yes. I'm no Beethoven, of course; I'm a novice composer, but
FWIW...although I do perceive minor keys as more somber than major keys,
beyond that, I base decisions about key signatures on physical practicality
more than anything else. I decide based on the range of the instrument
(including voice) vs. where I want the "high point" of the piece; on the
physical limitations to playing or singing a particular combination of
notes smoothly (if I want smoothness, then I don't ask a violinist to make
a radical change of position in the middle of a slurred phrase); and on the
tone I expect from that instrument in that part of its range. (Think of
how different the Brahms clarinet and piano sonatas would sound if he'd
written them up half an octave, into whistling teakettle range for the

Another factor with any early music that included keyboards was that until
the late Baroque period, most music was composed for mean-tone instruments.
Someone playing a bowed or hand-plucked stringed instrument, or most of the
mouth-blown pipe instruments, can bend the pitch of individual notes quite
a lot; but because a keyboard player can't spot-tune that way on the fly,
that instrument limits the key changes for the whole group. Even after
equal temperament caught on, composers still had to reckon with
stick-in-the-mud customers who kept their old instruments, tuned the
old-fashioned way.

That's why each F. Couperin's harpsichord suites is a collection of short
pieces all grouped around a single key signature, varied only by its
relative minor and their immediately adjacent key signatures within the
circle of fifths (C major and A minor in the same suite with G major and E
minor and F major and D minor, for instance). Varying the key by more than
that would have meant re-tuning the whole harpsichord--not something that
most musicians will do cheerfully in the middle of a practice session, let
alone during a recital! The result of failure to re-tune for different key
signatures can be heard today on a modern electronic keyboard such as my
Yamaha Clavinova, which is easy to re-program to pure mean-tone or several
other antique tuning systems. Tune it to pure mean-tone in C and then play
something in G. It sounds fine. Now play something in E major. Eek!
It's out of tune, with wolf tones, too. Chords jangle. Yet, within these
suites, despite the limited key signatures, Couperin achieved large
contrasts of mood.

Lelia Loban
Web site (original music scores as audio or print-out):

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