Keys and their characteristics 1

Anyone who is intensively involved with performing music from before the 1800’s at one point runs into the issue of key characteristics.
What is their significance? How do we deal with them?

When I look around, I see roughly two directions: those who believe in it through thick and thin, but don’t really figure it out, and those who shrug their shoulders.

I myself think that in both cases a misunderstanding is at risk, a common misunderstanding, incidentally. The solution lies in the concept of meaning / association.

We cannot refrain from assigning all kinds of properties and meanings to anything and everything that they do not always have: (images of) animals, flowers, trees, stones, colors, numbers, planets and stars, tools, gestures , uniforms, flags etc.
Meaning is a human activity. Although. Think of the dogs of Pavlov.

In many cases, meaning is so self-evident and inextricably interwoven with our daily lives, that we will have difficulty in realizing and (in some cases) accepting that meaning is always relational, meaning is not intrinsic to things themselves. We give meaning, even if not consciously or as an individual. Usually it is about traditions. The origin of traditions can rarely be traced. By keeping ourselves to certain traditions, we nurture those traditions and therefore we maintain them, they remain valid for us.

So when an author – for example Johann Mattheson – assigns a certain characteristic quality to a key, we would do well to formulate it differently. E-minor or f-minor is not sad by itself, but e-minor or f-minor is used by the composer for mourning and sad pieces of music. C major is not joyful by itself, but traditionally the composer prefers to use the key of C major for a joyous play.

This way we avoid a lot of problems, such as limiting the key characteristics to keyboard music by linking them to temperament (meantone, Rameau, Werckmeister etc.), the coupling to an absolute pitch which was unknown before the 1800’s, the contradiction that arises when we play suites, in which each dance also has its own character and the problem that different authors from different time periods indicate different characteristics for the same key.

In other words, the character of a piece of music is not alone determined by the choice of the key. The character of a piece of music is determined by the interplay of all kinds of other devices: the general range (high, low, middle), the nature and direction of movement of the intervals, rhythmic figures, harmonies, the density or openness of the texture, the tempo of the harmonic changes (harmonic rhythm), etc.

See for instance: Judy Tarling. The Weapons of Rhetoric. A guide for musicians and audiences. Corda Music 2004. ISBN 0-95-282203-2

Johann Mattheson and the musical instruments

In Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchester. Hamburg 1713. Pars Tertia, Caput Secundum Johann Mattheson discusses the properties and effects of the different keys. In the following chapter he discusses some instruments: Pars Tertia, Caput Tertium. Von den Musicalischen Instrumenten.
And he also continues there on the same foot. He is talking about “Die prächtigst-thönende Posaune, die lieblich-pompeusen Waldhörner, der gleichsam redende Hautbois, die modeste Flöte, die heroischen Paucken, die schmeichlenden Lauten, die verliebte Viola d’Amore, die füllende Viola, die säuselnde Viola di Gamba”.
[“The most magnificent-sounding trombone, the sweet-and-pompous French horns, the chatting hobo, the modest flute, the heroic timpani, the flattering lutes, the amorous viola d’ Amore, the sonorous viola, the murmuring viola di Gamba”.]

Christoffel-van-Sichem: Homo-bulla

The paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries are also teeming with references: roses, bunches of grapes, feathers and plumes, mirrors, skulls, letters, maps, loyal dogs, horny monkeys, men smoking a pipe, children blowing bubbles and the still familiar chubby child with bow and arrow (Est-ce Mars le grand Dieu des alarmes ….).

Especially in the Low Countries, Germany and France there were also booklets with pictures (woodcuts, engravings), with accompanying explanation (spell or text), the so-called emblemata booklets.

Interesting sites in this regard: