Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel called it “the saddest of all keys.” “I don’t know why,” he said, “but it makes people weep instantly.” He is, of course, talking about the key of D minor.
He is also talking about his trilogy “Lick My Love Pump.”
Certainly it’s been believed for a long time that keys have distinct personalities. This video talks about where that idea comes from, and gets into one fascinating rabbithold–temperament. (Listen to the wolf howl when he plays the F# major chord).
‘But for me, there is something about D minor, and it’s not actually melancholy–at least to my ears. It’s dramatic, moody, and emotional, and two of my absolute most favourite symphonies in the world (Beethoven’s Ninth and Shostakovich’s Fifth) are both in D minor. Or at least they start that way–both end in D major (the Shostakovich only getting there in the last couple of minutes, while the Beethoven has the majority of that glorious final movement in that incredibly bright, glittery key. And the third movement of the Shostakovich is actually in F sharp minor, but I digress) But other pieces also demonstrate the drama of D minor: Mozart’s Requiem. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Orff’s O Fortuna. And, of course, Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565.
Oh, and let’s not forget this:
“Sweet Dreams” has one of those bass lines that imbeds itself in your soul and will not ever, ever let go. It’s been there in mine since 1983, and occasionally gets reactivated (like the chicken pox virus turning into shingles, but entirely more pleasant) to the point of obsession. Which means, when it happens, suddenly I start thinking in D minor, and have a sudden urge to hear other things in D minor. Which is a very long explanation as to why, suddenly, Friday evening, I knew I had to attend a concert.
Virtually, of course. There’s a new group called Dreamstage putting together livestreamed concerts–and by livestreamed, I don’t mean playing a pre-recorded concert at a set time, which the majority of classical concerts I’ve been able to see online have been, but actually broadcasting a live performance. This one was their “opening night”, and featured pianist Helene Grimaud and cellist Jan Vogler playing works by Schumann, Brahms, and Shostakovich. Of course, I was there for the Shostakovich, his op. 40 Cello Sonata in D minor, but I’ll also gladly listen to Schumann any day.
But a little about the Shostakovich. It was written in 1934. Shostakovich mavens know this period as his own “before times.” There is a certain brio and playfulness, in contrast with dramatic, atmospheric moodiness in his work before 1936, when he first ran afoul of Stalin’s musical tastes. It’s all over his Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, op. 35. But this piece is no lightweight. It wants you to think it is, initially, and then suddenly you realize you’re not on the bus you thought you were, so you get off and try to find another route to where you’re going and eventually end up somewhere rather different.
Scholars like to point to the fact that “Shostakovich’s personal life was in turmoil” during this period. He’d divorced his wife, Nina, earlier in 1934, and was involved in a relationship with another woman named Elena, but clearly his relationship with Nina had a strong pull, because he remarried her later that year once he learned she was pregnant–and they stayed married for the rest of her life, albeit in a marriage that continued to be open for both of them. Make of it what you will.
This is another of those pieces that becomes something entirely different when performed live, when you can watch the expressions of the performers, especially the cellist. The first movement starts with a fairly ambiguous theme, what one writer calls “intellectually rigorous”, before a second, more lyrical theme. This expressive second theme to me sounds a lot like a popular tune you might hear in a cafe, especially in the portions where the piano plays over the pizzicato cello. So far, not dissimilar to the two pieces Grimaud and Vogler played before–clearly in the Romantic tradition, including the basic structure of the movement. But it starts to veer inwards, ending slowly, the cello over piano notes in the low, deep register. At this point the second movement jumped in and suddenly we were in a completely different world. This movement was a scherzo, an early example of one of Shostakovich’s antic scherzos, and it was full of touches no Romantic composer would have ever thrown in–vestiges, perhaps, of Shostakovich’s modernist period. This is where seeing Vogler actually play was so effective–particularly in a section with glissando harmonics, which was then heard on the piano in chromatic replies. This was a very percussive movement as well, with vigorous hammered sections on the piano paralleled in pizzicato on the cello.
The third movement is a Largo. It started muted in the cello, with ample use of silence as musical white space, before a fairly lyrical theme began over a regular, stepping pulse on the piano. But every time it threatened to descend into schmaltz, an odd harmony or strange turn would send things in a new direction. There was a sense of aimlessness in the cello, particularly expressed in a five note long up and down figure, repeated high and then low, almost like shaking the head. Then, the piano entered in a high register with the main theme, almost a ray of light over the gloomy, wandering cello part, before it, too, descended into the deepening twilight. A chord sounded, then another “wrong-sounding” chord, and that same feeling of shaking the head “no, that’s not it at all.” That five-note line in the cello, trailing off over fading chords…
And then, another completely different movement, recalling the feel of the Concerto for Piano and Trumpet with a dance-like theme. Here, the piano took the lead again, with the cello responding; later, the parts were reversed. There’s some more jazzy cello pizzicato, and an insane chromatic piano cascading over cello chords and choppy, short phrases, and then the cello gets the insanely fast notes, and they presage to me the coming fugato of the 4th symphony. The piece ends in a return to the dance-like theme, traded between piano and cello, before ending in a flourish.
One thing I noted during the performance was the contrast of physicality and expressiveness between the two performers. Cellists, of course, have a larger palette of techniques at their disposal, and Shostakovich pretty much throws them all in there. And Vogler was a very expressive player. Grimaud, on the other hand, was a more restrained, which set up an interesting dynamic between the relative detachment of the pianist and the passion of the cellist. Listening to a recording of Shostakovich playing this work as the pianist made me realize that this interplay was almost certainly intentional. Shostakovich wrote this work to play with a cellist friend of his, on the cellist’s request, and so he was writing “his style” of piano music, playing off against the very different capabilities of the cello. He’s often praised for his ability to orchestrate, to play to the strengths of each instrument, and it’s on display here.
Several writers mentioned that this piece marked a move towards “simple, clear, expressive” music. In fact, I honestly don’t think this was a new trend at all. Shostakovich, throughout his early career wrote both challenging “modernist” pieces as well as works for film and dance. In fact, this work comes just after the period in which he wrote music for three ballets and several films. But that modernist streak is in there, too–it’s not just simple dance-y tunes and jazzy pizzicato; the effects of this piece are more pronounced because it refuses to be just one thing. This is going to eventually be a Shostakovich trademark.
Did actually seeing this performed live (as opposed to pre-recorded) make a difference? Absolutely it did. For one thing, Vogler introduced both the second and third piece, as well as the encore, and there was just enough roughness around the edges to replicate that “live” feel in a way that was hard to put a finger on. The sound quality was spectacular; but one of the cameras kept occasionally freezing–just enough to remind the viewer that this was running “without a net”, as it were.
I did a little followup on DreamStage, and as it turns out, Jan Vogler is one of the founders and the artistic director. Apparently it’s been designed to get most the proceeds of the concerts directly to the performers, and there are plans to expand well beyond the classical concerts in the initial offering to a wide variety of genres. I’d certainly attend another one.
And I’ve added another work as an essential to my catalogue of works I love in D minor–another work that’s full of drama and unexpected twists and turns, with the added memory of the visual look and feel of what a performance looks like in real time.