Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 11.djvu/723

This page has been validated.

In the English translation of Bombet's "Life of Haydn" a list of the keys is given with their acknowledged characteristics appended. Thus: "D-flat major. Awfully dark. In this remote key Haydn and Beethoven have written their sublimest thoughts. They never enter it but for tragic purposes." Again "A-flat major. The most lovely of the tribe. Unassuming, gentle, soft, delicate, and tender, having none of the pertness of A in sharps. Every author has been sensible of the charm of this key, and has reserved it for the expression of his most refined sentiments." And so on. Now, it was never supposed that the peculiarities of the keys could be confused with the peculiarities of the old modes, such as Dorian, Phrygian, etc., which led Dryden to say, "Softly sweet in Lydian measure;" for all these modes were designedly, mathematically, and markedly, dissimilar. But it was generally supposed that the "unequal temperament," which favored some keys at the expense of others, led to the various, otherwise unaccountable, characteristics. These, however, have remained, singularly enough, with the "equal temperament," by which system all the keys are equal—i.e., the ratios of their intervals are precisely similar.

This peculiarity of the key is not to be confounded with other, accountable differences: such as induce composers to write in flat keys for military bands to attain the greatest brilliancy, and in sharp keys for orchestras for the same end. In these cases the greater number of open notes (more naturally and simply formed tones), and other such known facts, lead to a clear understanding on this point. But in the piano-forte no such considerations can be made to account for the subtile phenomenon. It was once supposed that the absolute pitch employed was the cause of the difference; but since the time of Haydn the pitch in all countries has risen to such an extent that the scale of A-flat characterized above has become virtually the scale of A-natural, with which it was there compared; but no corresponding variation of opinion respecting it has been recorded. Ladies still commonly express a decided preference for flat keys, and probably for this reason fashionable drawing-room music is generally cast in four or five flats—although these keys may be also chosen partly because, according to the conformation of the hand and the disposition of the ivory keys, the chords with flats are more easily and readily controlled, especially when distributed in the arpeggio style, and have to be played with great speed, freedom, and facility. But the various attempts made to account satisfactorily for key-character on the piano-forte have hitherto only demonstrated that reason and understanding are incapable of fathoming and explaining the matter.

The piano-forte of the present day is, as we have seen, the result of many contributions. Posterity alone can pronounce judgment upon it, and show in what it is deficient; for who shall say what the "piano-