Major Melodies in Minor Keys
By Robert Walton
Sitting at the piano doodling away like Jimmy Durante, searching for songs in the minor, I soon learned they don’t come easily. After all, most popular ditties are in major keys, which are far more common and freer. Unexpectedly the first minor that came to mind was Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A minor for piano, better known as Fur Elise. It seemed harder and harder for another one to come up but I persisted.
Then suddenly Gershwin’s Summertime from “Porgy and Bess” filled the void. Now I was getting somewhere but I had to work at it. Another song from two top American writers Rodgers and Hart was My Funny Valentine. Although officially in a major key it’s considered by many musicians as being in C minor, the relative minor of E Flat. The sound is so minorish that E Flat doesn’t stand a chance.
Why then are minor keys so rare? Perhaps it’s because their form is so rigid that songwriters are limited to the miserable melodies that traditionally inhabit them. Jewish tunes like Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, My Yiddishe Momme, Hava Nagila and Nature Boy (based on the Yiddish song Be Calm my Heart) are very much on the agenda, qualifying as part of the general Arabian sound and beyond. The well known Shadow of your Smile begins in the minor but some of the other full minors include Minnie the Moocher, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Volga Boat Song, All My Love, Angel Eyes, Anniversary Song, Autumn in New York, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, Big Noise from Winnetka, Come Back to Sorrento (starts in the minor), El Choclo, 42nd Street, Greensleeves, and I’m a Fool to Want You. Just some of the miracles cooked up by folk songs and by man himself.
Of course minor keys are found in many cultures and are not necessarily slow. Fast rhythmical pieces are just as valid in a city or backwater. eg Tzena Tzena Tzena.
What other tunes can we think of? Berlin’s How Deep is the Ocean starts out in the minor but ends in the major. Other pure ones are I Will Wait For You, Istanbul, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Autumn Leaves and Take Five.
I was wondering how I would finish this little minor manifest when again Beethoven grabbed some of the limelight, this time with a movement from a piano sonata - the 3rd from his Pathetique. Very minory. It’s one I have played since childhood and deserves pride of place in this little study of the sad keys.
However there’s always one you don’t expect. It comes from the dashboard of my new car. They pop up everywhere!
Bob, the area of Brighton Beach in New York I have lived my entire life, has become over the years a Russian enclave.
During the summer months those who in a manner of speaking can play an instrument get together and play their favorite melodies. Almost all of it is in a minor key. It gets really depressing to listen to, and more than once I've been tempted to walk up to one of them and to beg them to play anything at all in a major key.
Many Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and especially Rachmaninov had a predilection for writing a good bulk of their work in a minor key. I can take it a lot better here because their overall range is far greater. But one can immediately detect a difference between their use of minor keys and that of (for example) Schumann in the cathedral movement of his Rhenish Symphony. Not the same feeling at all. Then you have a Russian composer such as Glazunov, resolutely west European in his manner, who sticks primarily with major keys.
Have you ever noticed how many songs and other odds and ends that begin in a minor key, end up in the relative major, as though that were really the true tonic? There are examples of it in the classics as well.
Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.