If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key
Imprisoned poet Christian Schubart describes the musical keys
Welcome to the twentieth issue of the Lists of Note newsletter. Each Sunday, a new (old) list.
In July of 1778, soon after being released from the dungeon of a mountaintop fortress in Asperg, German composer, poet and journalist Christian Schubart published this superb list in his own newspaper, the Vaterlandische Chronik. The list, which was written whilst locked up, poetically describes each of the musical keys and their characteristics. It was later republished, posthumously, in a collection of his music writing titled Ideen Zu Einer Ästhetik Der Tonkunst, and in 1983 was translated into English by musicologist Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries.
C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.
C minor: Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
Db major: A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying. Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
D major: The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
D minor: Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
D# minor: Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
Eb major: The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
E major: Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
F major: Complaisance and calm.
F minor: Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
F# major: Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
F# minor: A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
G major: Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love—in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
G minor: Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
Ab major: Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
Ab minor: Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the colour of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
A major: This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
A minor: Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
Bb major: Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope and aspiration for a better world.
Bb minor: A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
B major: Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colours. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
B minor: This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting one’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation.
Schubart had been imprisoned for ten years after publicly mocking the mistress of the Duke of Württemberg and their affair more generally. The Duke had many, many affairs.
Unrelated to this post (sorry) but very related to this blog: Have you ever read 'The Infinity of Lists' (2009) by Umberto Eco?