Last week at the Boston University Center for Early Music’s concert, following excerpts from Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo, two rather knowledgeable patrons were discussing the “unusual” key of E-flat (major) for the opera’s climactic finale. Zingarelli’s use of major keys throughout his work, regardless of situation or sentiment, also struck them as odd. At the close of Zingarelli’s opera, Romeo dies in the arms of his one and only Juliet while she wails in agony of the loss of her beloved, and it all plays out in a bright major key, the same type of key heard when they met, confessed their love and did everything else. So, how should modern listeners resolve this incongruity between text and music, since the differences between major and minor modes may be the most universally felt affect in musical communication?
Without any mention of whole steps and half steps, or parallel versus relative, listeners hear the difference between major and minor every time the radio plays a song telling them to just dance, or some chords in a movie introducing them to the villain. Major keys are associated with happiness and joy, minor keys with sadness, frustration, anger and other unpleasant aspects of life.
But it wasn’t until the Romantic era that the major/minor, happy/sad correlation really solidified. Some of the most tense, heartbreaking moments in 18th-century opera are set to a major key. Take Dido’s suicide and Carthage’s oath of vengeance at the end of Piccinni’s Didon. If listeners didn’t know better, they might think this was a moment of calm followed by celebration. The music doesn’t tell the whole story. It needs context to do that. Listening to the music in a vacuum, a part from its setting, would have been as strange to Piccinni and his audience as watching a Shakespearian play on mute.
Many pre-Romantic operas juxtapose an upbeat major key with downhearted sentiments and situations. Yet some pre-Romantic composers knew how to work a minor key in all the places that 21st-century listeners might expect, such as Gluck and his funeral chorus for Eurydice in Orfeo ed Euridice. If we assume that music, like medicine, science and law has progressed, it seems like Gluck was on to something. He was a reformer after all, hell-bent on trimming musical excesses and capturing naturalness and realism. By comparison, Bertoni’s setting of the same text, from the same opera, might seem strange. Its major key imparts a pastoral feel. Once again, without the context, it just sounds like shepherds and nymphs singing, and not even singing with any dissonances or suspensions to grab hold of!
Obviously Gluck’s setting sounds much more like the way sophisticated modern listeners expect death to sound, and it’s probably one of the reasons why Gluck’s Orefo is regarded as a masterpiece while Bertoni’s is barely known. It’s easy to dismiss the supposed gap between words and music as either insensitivity to the drama or ignorance of more sophisticated harmonic practices (and many academics do). Yet if the subject of which key is the right key to die in sprang up between these two audience members, then it must have crossed the minds of these composers. So the question isn’t what’s the right key, or why didn’t Bertoni, Zingarelli or Piccinni provide what we expect, but what is the composer trying to do with that key?
Stepping into a world where harmonic practice was not as cut and dried (let’s say “advanced” for the sake of those academics), and assuming intent on the part of the composer, Zingarelli’s bright key imparts a sense of naïveté and pity to Romeo and Juliet’s finale. It’s not the seasoned despair of two adults, but the heartbreak and horror of two children who still don’t fully grasp what’s going on. In that sense, it might be the most “realistic” musical setting possible.
Instead of histrionics, Dido’s suicide portrays a moment of resignation, showing a queen at peace with her choice, followed by subjects expressing confidence that the score will be settled. Similarly Bertoni’s shepherds and nymphs aren’t pouring their sentiments out, but rather they are peacefully, and modestly, reflecting on the loss of a friend (Orpheus will have plenty of scenes to bemoan her death later).
One of the most amazing aspects of archaic, obscure music is that it can still surprise the living. It bends expectations of what music is supposed to do with the same power and often much more subtlety than the most cutting-edge avant-garde. Even if these composers didn’t have any of the above intentions, they’re gone. No one’s rewriting these operas, so we’re left with them and all of their breaches of harmonic etiquette. To open ears and minds they might offer some new experiences.