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Blog » No minor keys?

8 Dec  

Have been listening to a lot of Prokofiev lately, especially the piano sonatas and realised that I knew very little about his life. So I’m enjoying the Life and Times book on him by Thomas Schipperges. He gives you a paragraph’s description of Social Realism, which at its initial launch in 1934 at the Soviet Writer’s Conference, laid down its crass ideas that pessimism was anti-social (goodbye Eastenders!) and that music should be hummable and in major keys.

The book adds that a similar dictum was laid down by Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), the Hollywood producer, who in the 1930s sent the following memo to resident composers: ‘from the above date forward, no music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord.’ This memo was still bolted to the wall 25 years later, when composers such as André Previn were there.

Thalberg died very young, having suffered from heart disease all his life, and that sharp sense of his own mortality may have affected his ability to cope with sad music! (I’m being kind, because personally I always think that people who don’t write music should leave the decisions up to those who do). Now I want to see Thalberg’s movies to see how many minor chords the composers managed to get past him! I am reminded of writing a piece for a male voice choir: I knew they were very limited in their abilities, so I decided to write a piece with no discords in it. I tried to make it sound strange and keep some tension going without introducing any dissonances. I found this so challenging and engrossing that I put No Discord Series No. 1 on the front page, thinking I would do more. The score was sent off and after a long pause came back: the choir was unable to perform the piece as there were ‘too many discords!’ Obviously, no-one had looked too closely at the title page, but it was more that (I felt)  the newness of the music had brought its own discord into their lives. I wonder how many minor chords MGM’s composers could get into their scores just by presenting them in a certain way. I’ve always found it moving that Mozart often writes his most painful music in major keys, as if the reminiscence of sweetness is unbearable. I wonder whether Irving would have heard that music as if in a minor key? Film music of that time sometimes does something similar – a particularly poignant scene is often accompanied by a saccharine tune like ‘Home Sweet Home’ which is somehow more tear-jerking than a sad melody.

Composers are often forced to reinvent their music to suit dictators and governments: they could leave as Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff did, and Prokofiev did leave for a while. But he came back to Russia, for subtle and complex reasons no-one has ever quite been able to fathom. Other composers manage to stay afloat and stay unique despite the politics – Thomas Tallis springs to mind. I wonder what I would do in such threatening circumstances?

Back in the 70’s, I was told that my music needed to be ‘forced into a modern idiom,’ even though I was writing far more difficult and dissonant music than I write now. I felt very threatened by the atmosphere of that music world, and totally outside it, but my life was not threatened and so I had an easy choice to keep doing my own thing, rather than toeing the party line. Now it is as if the coin as been flipped right over, for now we often read in what music commentary there is these days, that new music should try harder to be accessible, that composers have a duty to write music that people like. In other words, that is hummable and without any anti-social pessimism! This has been going on for some time, and back in the previous century I went to a debate – I remember Roger Scruton was speaking – about how new music should be nicer. He didn’t say that of course, but he wanted keys and melodies, and I presume that he is a much happier man now. It has been a peculiarly English revolution, bloodless in more ways than one. We love foreigners, so we have swopped Boulez for Eric Whitacre. Conformity is the name of the game, whether it is the enforced atonality of my student days, or the holy wallpaper or quasi pop of today, it is in its own way a kind of oppression – oppression that has to be resisted. My personal motto has always been that all anyone can ask of me is that I tell the truth as I see it.

As is well known, Stalin died one hour after Prokofiev, they even died of the same thing. Prokofiev’s death was barely mentioned in the newspapers and there were no flowers at his funeral, due to the total hysteria over Stalin’s death. However, ten years later, Prokofiev’s anniversary was front page news, while Stalin’s was only celebrated in Georgia.

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 Jim Aitchison commenting on No minor keys?:
08 December 2010 at 22:09

This is great Judith and touches on some of my recent struggles. I hate the oppressive dogmas that sometimes arise in music: the reasons for this are hardly ever musical in origin...

 Gary Carpenter commenting on No minor keys?:
09 December 2010 at 07:58

Interestingly, musicals very much favour major keys. For example, Oklahoma doesn't have a minor key song and although the Act 2 Quintet starts in the minor, West Side Story has only one unambiguously minor song (A Boy Like That) - and that has a major key release (I Have A Love).

 Elizabeth Winters commenting on No minor keys?:
11 December 2010 at 15:34

Major and minor keys are very interesting. I am constantly surprised by the number of my pupils who can't differentiate between major and minor if the context is different from what they expect. Their traditional associations of major with loud, fast and happy, and minor with the exact opposite are too strong. Give them a major or minor chord in isolation however, and they are fine!

I am constantly grateful that I am a composer writing today, and in the UK as you say, there may be pressure to conform but we are all going to remain alive if we choose not to...

 David Bruce commenting on No minor keys?:
11 December 2010 at 15:47

It reminds me of one of the first undergraduate interviews I attended. They played me what I now think was probably the start of the Lento from Stravinsky's Cinq Doigts which has the right hand in a major key and the left in a minor. They asked me if it was major or minor key. Having not previously come across anything that wasn't one or other and naively not suspecting any ruse I answered
'er.. major'
It felt very cruel at the time, like being given a multiple choice of A to E and the answer was actually F, but I certainly learnt from that point on to treat any such labels with caution!

 Misuc commenting on No minor keys?:
13 December 2010 at 11:12

When they talk about music and politics, it's curious what they leave out.

The amazing phenomenon that was Prokofiev left the Soviet Union at a time of a degree of freedom,innovation and experimentation in life and art that had never been seen anywhere in the world. [In music: the first systematic 'atonality' experiments in 12-tone and electronic music etc.].

But this was also a time of unparalleled brutality. All the nations that had been slaughtering one another's populations for four years, came together to destroy the revolution that had opted out of the world war and thus brought it to an end by opting out. Their conspiracy with the old oppressors brought about a

 Misuc commenting on No minor keys?:
13 December 2010 at 13:55


Apologies. My comment shot off before its time.

..horrendous civil war, cruelty, misery and mass starvation to a half-civilised country already devastated by centuries of neglect, corruption and exploitation, decades of counter-revolution and four years of world war. This caused the raw workers' government to turn to militarisation and antidemocratic measures for the very survival and it was this that led to the rise of Stalinism.

As someone who was not particularly political, Prokofiev chose this time to do as Rachmaninov and Stravinsky had done and seek fame and fortune in the West. It did not take him long to discover the lack of artistic freedom and integrity, the lack of performance opportunities and the lack of any sense of meaning to his art and life as a glamour-pianist for capitalists.

By this time Stalins's police state was in the process of making itself apparently impregnable with its policy of show-trials, ethnic cleansing etc. and was able to offer composers a bourgeois life-style, performances and commissions that they could hardly hope for elsewhere, as well as the sense that their music was performing a public service.

It was Napoloeon who said that artists were cheap to buy . They cost no more than a bit of flattery. Prokofiev was not the first to write odes to his boss. Bach had written cantatas for his boss to appear in front of his subjects dressed up as a God etc. etc.

Shostakovich was a more vocal and conscious spokesman for the regime, publicly denouncing his colleagues Hindemith, Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky as bourgeois degenerates at international conferences

Strauss was not loathe to accept the position of Head of the Music Ministry for the Hitler government and wrote a special military march for the infamous exhibition of degenerate art, celebrating the murder and exile of his rivals

Stravinsky, for his part, whose hostility to the Russian revolution made him a fanatical admirer of Mussolini, boasted to the Nazis of his antisemitism and pro-fascist credentials and could not understand why they branded him as Jewish and degenerate.

Music and politics really work on different levels at one and the same time in one and the same person. Each person has many different roles, both in his imagination and in real life. In any one person at any one time motives are mixed. Debate on these issues has to be honest and grown-up

 Misuc commenting on No minor keys?:
13 December 2010 at 14:07

What am I, for example, but an assemblage of pre-existing ideas and aspirations? Why, for another example, does Judith, write simpler music than she used to? Because she wants to? Yes. But why does she want to now? She will not go to prison or to her death for writing differently, of course. But neither did they under Stalin [not for that]. They just didn't get commissions - or they lost their generous government grants. But that happens here and now too.

Making enemies of the wrong people, speaking up at the wrong place and time can lose you your career in the UK. If you aren't convinced I will send you documentation.

 judithbingham commenting on No minor keys?:
13 December 2010 at 14:37

Thank you Misuc for this extremely interesting post - you should do the blog not me! If only there wasn't so much mythology about composers! All this stuff is brushed over (unless you are Wagner, who seems to take the rap for everyone else)and yet, for me, having a deeper knowledge of a composer only enhances my appreciation of the music. Little attempt is made to get to know about living composers - certainly compared to novelists or artists - and this starts of the whole process of mythologising.Many great composers want to be on the outside and the inside at the same time - they want to be left to their own devices artistically, but their neuroses want them to be fawned over by the establishment as well. If someone in power seems to like what you're doing,it's very hard to take an ethical or moral stance, when your ego is just dying for as much appreciation as it can get. And on a lesser scale, so many composers know what it feels like to smile sweetly and say 'thank you' to someone they absolutely despise.

 MartinY commenting on No minor keys?:
18 December 2010 at 16:16

Prokofiev, there was a comment of his on the radio the other day about America. He could not understand why whatever he wrote and how good it was all the American orchestras wanted to play was the 19th century classics......

Keys - my first thought was that someone had once said that baroque music uses minor keys more than classical music and I thought it was true and the reason was that the minor key in an age of figured bass gave a greater variety of harmony. I then realised that in the absence of reading any proper research, this idea was in all probability nonsense or even that the statistics could be swung in any direction according to the composers selected. Minor key music can spend a lot of time in the relative major, and also in sonata form what sort of 3rds does the dominant use. In a major key there is the 3rds in the relative minor or the relative minors of the related keys etc. ad nauseum so you can get to major / minors all over the place just using the cycle of fifths in a textbook manner. People argue all the time about which chords should be major in baroque music. It is a pity lute tab died out as that presents chords without any ambiguity!

There is a lot of possible research connected with the use of keys by past composers but thankfully I will not be doing it. If there is really good article on this subject I would read it.

 MartinY commenting on No minor keys?:
18 December 2010 at 16:27

I forgot to say years ago a Radio 3 commentator said that Frank Bridge 'uglified' his music to make it modern. I can't remember any more but I remember thinking he might not have been the only composer to do this. I also, agreeing with the contemporary music thought police, thought a few composers ought to have 'uglified' their music a bit more to make it better, so it is a very subjective thing.

As in the Elizabethan idea of fashionable melancholy sometimes one really enjoys playing a whole session of 'miserable' music.

 judithbingham commenting on No minor keys?:
18 December 2010 at 17:29

On trips to Austria and Switzerland I've noticed that virtually all of their folk music is in major keys - presumably major intervals carry better in the open air. But an evening of folk music makes you long for a minor key.

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