Top Ear

An Excursion to… E minor

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Leonard Ip writes

I suppose we all have, more or less, some points of weakness. Now though it isn’t my intention to talk about any personal issues. I am at it again: this moment of weakness when music embraces your consciousness entirely, relentlessly, overwhelmingly. I was rather (pleasantly) startled when a reviewer on Amazon said, reviewing Gould’s second volume of Bach partitas, that the E minor partita evokes the same E minor in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Chopin’s First Concerto and his 14th Waltz. Well well well! After all there are people who thinks tonality does leaves indelible stamps on pieces! I wouldn’t hesitate to add to that list Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (first movement mainly), Mozart’s 21st Violin Sonata, Chopin’s Etude Op. 25/5, Brahms’s First Cello Sonata, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Godowsky’s Piano Sonata, Kreisler’s Pugnani-style Praeludium… the list goes on and on.

Let me just generalize what E minor itself evokes in these pieces: it is a deep, long-lasting taste of poignancy and wistfulness. Indeed, it sometimes feels so close and private than it becomes suffocating – but the intimacy of that sensation is something that cannot be found in other keys. F minor may be a tad too grand or violent, and E flat minor is… well, a bit flat and monotonous. And what else gives you such intimate feelings? I agree that perhaps Brahms’s symphony and that Kreisler little piece are decidedly grandiose statements, but after they end they resound with such intensity of sentiments that can only be experienced in solitude.

A friend hit the mark when she mentioned “solitude” in our discussion. A state of being intensely alone. Certainly, solitude cannot be equated to loneliness, forlorn-ness or desolation – solitude can be blissful, enlightening, and brightly-lit. The major-key cello suites by Bach (especially the first and the sixth) certainly suggest a brighter vision but feel no less solitary than their minor-key counterpart. But as for circumstances in question – the particular sort of E minor – solitary desolation often is part of the conjuration. I am very much tempted to take Bach’s D minor chaconne (not the transcriptions) as an example – indeed, the intense pain it brings is very close to what I have been trying to articulate – but the key of D, in the end, gives a more transparent and sharp-edged feeling. The D minor sections are more ruthless, and the D major central section is warmer. The opaque and thick quality of E minor just isn’t the same thing.

Now, practicing the toccata from Bach’s sixth keyboard partita (BWV 830), I suddenly realize how Bach makes E minor ring out in every register of the keyboard. The arpeggio flourish that appears throughout the outer sections are unmistakably transparent and alto, and septuplet figures would infuse the light touching with deep, intimate pathos. The falling second is a simpler and purer version of the sighing figure from the first movement of Schubert’s E minor sonata (D. 566) – all is perfectly voiced. When the septuplets reappear based on E minor (bar 99-100) and leads to the reappearance of the E minor arpeggio (which opens the movement), Bach transposed the first group (bar 4 // bar 99) down to the low register, transforming the two bars into a rising sequence that encompasses the entire range of the keyboard. It may well be a rise from darkness to light, but the solitary grief persists – here, a poet sits alone in a room, with sunlight shining through his lone window and fading away in one day’s time.

I suppose we all have, more or less, special affection for something. To share is to enrich.


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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