The Tragedy of The Major Scale

How great music defies expectations

The major and minor scale are the two most important scales in the history of Western music.

They are related to each other by some fairly simple adjustments. The third, the sixth and the seventh note of the major scale are flattened by a half step to obtain the respective minor scale.

But with these slight changes comes a new soundscape, a new sense of balance, a new palette of expression.

The major scale is usually considered to be happy, light, humorous, joyful, while the minor scale is associated with dark, brooding, melancholic, dramatic music.

But while these stereotypes have their justification (and in popular music are milked without end) in great music, as in all great art, it’s not always as easy as that. Expectations are there to be played with, and the hallmark of the genius is that it takes untrodden paths, discovers new ways of saying things that are difficult to say, that maybe no has said before.

I think in no musician did the play between major and minor, with their respective shades and colors, with the dialectic between light and dark ever find such wonderful, heartwrenching use as in Franz Schubert’s music.

Depicting emotions

There is no such thing as happy music.
Franz Schubert

Maybe the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina also apply when it comes to music: while happy music is all pretty much alike, every unhappy music is unhappy in its own way.

Franz Schubert is now universally held as one of the giants of Western music. But much of this acclaim only found him after his premature death at the age of 31, and Schubert lived a life filled with its fair share of hardship, disappointment, and loneliness. Despite his troubles, he managed to compose truly astounding amounts of music. He was primarily known as a songwriter during his lifetime, and his over 600 songs are among the best the genre has to offer, but he also achieved greatness in his chamber music (see the Death and the Maiden Quartet, the Trout, the Trio Op.100, the late String Quintet in C), in his symphonies (the Unfinished, the Great in C) or in his 21 piano sonatas.

Schubert adored Beethoven (whom I wrote about here), and Beethoven was his greatest idol, but Schubert was still a very different composer from Beethoven. His music is more intimate, gentler, despite its heavy outbursts and moments of intensity (in his documentary about Schubert, Andras Schiff says that Schubert’s Doppelgänger contains more drama than the entirety of Richard Wagner’s operas).

Sometimes, especially in its most gentle moments, Schubert’s can be incredibly moving.

In many of them, the major scale plays a key role, because in them Schubert defies expectations, having the “happy” major scale display utmost melancholy, sadness, and longing.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples (some music theory background might be helpful, but not necessary to get a sense of what I’m talking about).

Gute Nacht from Die Winterreise

Gute Nacht is the first song of Schumann’s famous cycle “Die Winterreise”, consisting of 24 songs. It depicts a man journeying lonely through a snowy winter landscape after having to leave his lover behind.

At 4:00 minutes in the example linked above, the music goes to major. The protagonist remembers wishing farewell to his sleeping lover. After marking the fence to show her that he thought of her when he left, the music turns minor again, setting the mood for the future to come.

In a similar fashion, in Der Lindenbaum, the protagonist passes a tree in front of the city gates for the last time. His memory is disturbed by the cold wind blowing in his face, but while he moves farther and farther away from his old home, in his thoughts he returns back to the tree.

The music goes back to E major (more on why this key is important for Schubert later). “You would find peace here”, he sings, and it sounds like a wish for salvation, for death. In both these instances, the major episodes depict the memory of a world that is gone and cannot be. Surrounded by dark and hopeless music, the soft and light major scale sound all the more bitter-sweet.

It is somewhat ironic that the Lindenbaum has become a classic German folk song. Only the first verse is usually sung, making it sound like a simple, happy major tune about attachment to home. Omitting the stormy middle section and the return, the real meaning of the song is completely transformed. Context really counts in music: through context the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

The Sonata in B flat Major

Schubert wrote this sonata shortly before his death, and there has been much speculation as to what degree Schubert knew he was going to die soon. Nevertheless, it is clear that his terrible health condition did not leave much doubt that he wasn’t going to last much longer, and a sense of his impending death pervades the incredible output of his last 18 months, which have been called “the most productive 18 months in the history of Western music”.

There are many reasons to love Schubert’s last piano sonata, but there is one special, magical modulation that is celebrated by some as the most beautiful, meaningful (words can not reach here) modulation in the history of music, and I’m honestly also hard-pressed to find a more beautiful one.

The second movement of the sonata stands in C sharp Minor, which is a highly isolated key, considering its distance to B flat Major.

At 6:20 minutes in the Brendel version I linked (but please listen to the whole movement for context), the music moves into a half-cadence in forte on G sharp 7, the dominant of C sharp minor. But instead of continuing as expected, which could, for example, be a dramatic outbreak in C sharp, it shifts into a soft C major passage (at 6:28), lasting for only 5 bars.

Again it’s silly to think of this from the perspective of a sad/happy dichotomy.

The music does not turn happy all of a sudden.

Expectations are built. A narrative is spun. From the calm, pensive, desperate beginning, Schubert moves into the middle section in A major in which the music breaks free, in which the spirit soars and sings…only to be brought back to the sorrowful mood of the beginning.

So consequently, when C sharp minor asserts itself, building to a breaking point, we have formed an idea of what is to come.

Thus, when the music shifts to a pianissimo C major (which is functionally very hard to justify), we are taken by almost by shock. But it works, because the shock is not arbitrarily placed. It is earned, and it means something: a moment of resigned acceptance, of longing, of an acceptance that comes suddenly, giving in after a long struggle (I don’t want to over-psychologize this music, but for me, it almost feels like a premonition to the associative suddenness of a Joycian perfumes of embraces all him assailed).

It sometimes wonder why this music touches so many people so deeply, why it is so timeless.

Maybe because Schubert depicts intimate internal processes that we know deep down but cannot put into words. Maybe because it mimics the moment we discover a sense of longing and acceptance in ourselves, unasked for, like the pang of a lover gone, of a young life (dearly loved, despite all hardship) that is about to end.

The String Quintet in C Major

It is the entrance to heaven. Death, resigned and happy.
Artur Rubinstein

The second movement of Schubert’s late String Quintet (here at minute 14:38) is among his most famous works and has found its use in several films.

It stands in E major, one of the keys traditionally most associated with light and brilliance. For Schubert, it represented love and the divine, and in this context also transcendence towards death (note that the Lindenbaum is also in E major, and Des Baches Wiegenlied, the final lament/lullaby of Die schöne Müllerin, is also in E major ).

Rubinstein loved it more than anything in the world and had it played at his funeral. For him, it marked the entrance to heaven, the transcendence of the soul over its earthly existence.

Again, there is something profoundly ambivalent about this music. It is neither happy nor sad. Maybe the Kantian notion of pleasure and displeasure being superimposed above each other when faced with the sublime, with something much greater than oneself, is a useful perspective: Schubert transports the experience of facing his own death into a sublime work of art.

Music is the universal language, and I think great music is universally relevant because it manages to capture something human far beyond words. A genius like that of Schubert can use the familiar vocabulary of the major and minor scale to discover something new in music and help us discover something about ourselves.

This, to my mind, makes it music infinitely worth exploring.

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