"Une lune rose et grise"

One of my several jobs is accompanying singers. (Composer? “Job” implies money to me.) I’ve been at it on and off since high school; I like singers (I even married one in one of my smarter moments), I like the repertoire, I like the fact that, in performance, the audience is paying more attention to the soprano’s dress than to anything I do. But one of the things I’ve never gotten quite used to is the multiplicity of keys.

In song repertoire, singers never let their particular voice type dictate their choice of material. Most pre-WWII vocal works are published in two keys, high and low. In the old days, pianists would also be expected to transpose at sight up or down a step or two to accommodate particularly fussy divas. By the time I got into the business, that sort of thing was frowned upon—I’ve only ever had to do it a handful of times. But now, thanks to notation software and online services like Schubertline, it’s making a comeback. Which is how, last week, I was introduced to the dubious pleasure of playing Fauré’s “Mandoline” in F major.

“Mandoline” is a Verlaine setting in which the singer views a party from some distance; wry comments about the attendees are followed by a rhapsodic description of their elegance as they seem to dissolve in the moonlit air. Debussy set it as well, and he changes the musical material with the mood of the poem, but Fauré seems to do very little musically—a quiet, jaunty figure in the piano conjures the title instrument, and a returning rising scale between stanzas directs our view from detail to detail. A contrasting section introduces some whirling arpeggios to illustrate the turn of the dance; and that’s about it. But Fauré chooses just the right key: the mandolin starts to play in G major, bright enough for wit, but not so bright that it’s catty. And at the first scene change, the rising scale is suddenly in F#, all the black keys coming into play—a sudden bit of legerdemain that perfectly captures the swoon of disorientation in the dim light, not to mention the whole affair’s hushed choreography as perceived from without.

G major, though, is considered the “low” or “medium” key—the “high” key is A-flat. Now the whole piece sounds deep and subdued, like old wood paneling. The contrast of moods is diminished, the shift of focus now in a comparatively prosaic G. But the A-flat version is still better than F. Fauré took great care to make his accompaniments pianistically elegant; even the most technically demanding of his piano parts lend themselves to the illusion of suave effortlessness. A-flat sits on the black keys enough to allow you the flatten out the fingers and glide, but the F major transposition is impossibly clunky. Chords that are tossed off in G now require odd shifts of the wrist, and the thumb keeps landing just a little too hard. The whole thing sounds deliberate and turgid.

Which, of course, it shouldn’t, since we live in an equal-tempered world, and all those keys are supposed to sound the same, right? But they don’t, because each key still retains its own place in the sonic spectrum, and its own physicality, be it of the hand or of the voice. (If you think a half-step difference between a “low” key and a “high” key is trivial, you haven’t hung around singers very much.) On the keyboard, keys in which the root is a black key are always going to sound different from their white-key counterparts because of the way they fit under the fingers.

Some pieces don’t transpose for obvious reasons. (I once encountered some Duparc songs in the low key; they were so far down on the keyboard I couldn’t tell what I was playing half the time.) And sometimes you trade one evil for another: a few years back, I played the Schumann op. 24 Liederkreis in a transposition for “low voice,” and I was so horrified to find that the Peters edition didn’t maintain Schumann’s key relationships that I ended up writing out half the cycle myself. In retrospect, I wonder if the editor wasn’t sacrificing that aspect of the piece in order to choose keys that more closely matched the color of the originals. (On the other hand, the old Peters edition left out the last song of op. 24, which I can only attribute to insanity. Particularly if you know the penultimate song.)

Composers are more sensitive to this sort of thing now. The only major post-WWII composer I can think of who published most songs in high and low keys was Barber. I think the same concerns hold for atonal music as well—certainly Ligeti got a lot of mileage out of the white-key/black-key dichotomy of the keyboard, and for an older example, compare numbers 4 and 5 of the Schoenberg Sechs kleine Klavierstücke. But now that transposition is available at the click of a mouse, I fear an entire generation of singers is going to assume the license to try out different keys until they find the one that’s the most comfortable. And ultimately, it’s not about which key is the most comfortable; it’s about which key sounds right.

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