Last week at the Boston University Center for Early Music’s concert, following excerpts from Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo, two 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.
“Major” and “minor” may be the most well-known and widely accepted conventions of music theory in the world. 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 is associated with happiness and joy, minor with sadness, frustration, anger and other unpleasant aspects of life.
Yet at the close of Zingarelli’s opera, Romeo dies in the arms of his one and only Juliet while she wails in agony over the loss of her beloved, and it all plays out in a major key, the same type of key heard when they met, confessed their love and did just about everything else. What’s up with that?
For starters, the whole major/minor, happy/sad analogy didn’t really catch on until the Romantic era. Some of the most tense, heartbreaking moments in eighteenth 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 the listener 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.
There are acres of pre-Romantic opera manuscripts with similar juxtapositions between an upbeat major key and downhearted sentiments and situations. Based on their conversation, it was evident that the two listeners behind me understood that better than most (this writer included). Yet Zingarelli’s choice of key still seemed out of place for them. After all, plenty of pre-Romantic composers knew how to work a minor mode in all the places that twenty-first century listeners might expect, such as Gluck and his funeral chorus for Eurydice in Orfeo ed Euridice:
Assuming that music, like medicine, science and law is a matter of progress, composers like Gluck must have been 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 [scroll ahead to 3:00 in the clip below]:
Obviously Gluck’s setting sounds much more like what sophisticated modern listeners expect death to sound like. That’s probably one of the reasons why Gluck’s Orfeo is regarded as a masterpiece while Bertoni’s setting makes it into the $2 bin of a used record store.
It’s easy to dismiss the juxtaposition 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 are these composers trying to accomplish?
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 naiveté 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 R-rated histrionics, Dido’s suicide is 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 guts out but peacefully, and modestly, reflecting on the loss of a friend (Orpheus will have plenty of scenes to wail over her later).
One of the most amazing aspects of archaic, obscure music is that it can still surprise living audiences. 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 works. Yet even if these composers didn’t have any of the above intentions, they’re gone. No one is rewriting their operas, so we’re left with them and all of their breaches of harmonic etiquette. They might offer some new experiences to open ears and minds. Besides, haven’t the dissonances of Don Giovanni and Tristan und Isolde been done to death?