Friday, September 22, 2023

Changes both major and minor

 Recently, the following image made its way around on social media:

Schubert's Erlkönig is one of the most iconic works in the classical canon, helped a good bit by the fact that it shows up in many anthologies for music history/appreciation classes. Although Schubert is rightly celebrated for his hundreds of songs, it's a little unusual that this is often the standard-bearer since he didn't really write anything else quite like it, but it packs an incredible dramatic punch. The mercilessly cruel piano part might seem to be a disadvantage for getting the song performed, but the notoriety it adds has only helped to amplify the legend. (I once expressed this in J. Peterman form.) 

As it happens, I spent extra time with this song while leading a piano seminar at a chamber music camp this past summer. I wanted to expose the pianists - some of whom were playing pretty advanced stuff by Liszt, Chopin, etc. - to the crazy technical challenge this "accompaniment" represents. My idea was that, because its relentless repetition is what makes it so difficult, I'd have pianists trade off playing the repeating octaves/chords bar by bar, so it was also meant to be a sightreading challenge. In my "arrangement" for four pianists and two pianos, two students traded triplets while one played the left hand part and another played the vocal melody up an octave or two. This allowed for different levels of skill among those sightreading as well. I won't say we ever made great music out of it, but it was fun and right in my wheelhouse.

Speaking of my wheelhouse, I knew almost as soon as I read the posting above that I'd need to create a version of this song in G Major. To be clear, though Erlkönig is published in a variety of keys, they are all obviously minor keys, so the request for a major key is worth a chuckle, especially considering how that might alter its tragic ending. My best guess is that the requester wanted a version in E Minor, and asked for G Major because that has the same key signature, but what if someone really wants this music in a major key?

Well, it turns out to be less straightforward than one might imagine. There's a kind of casual way in which many think of major and minor as opposites. They are indeed used in opposition to each other often, but without going into detail, it's just not a pure binary distinction - especially if the music modulates, which Schubert's does often in this case. It's one thing to turn a simple melody like that of "Happy Birthday" into a satisfying minor key version which can seem like a kind of opposite, but once there are modulations, lots of things get murky. 

There is actually an entire cottage industry of well-known pop tunes in which major/minor has been reversed, such as here and here (more here), but modulation is generally not a big issue in such contexts. Once I started tweaking Schubert, I knew I was going to have to make some tricky decisions, but what fun! Schubert is particularly known for loving to switch back and forth between major and minor, sometimes turning on a dime, so he is an interesting subject for this experiment. My basic concept was to switch the primary minor sections to major while also converting the contrasting major-key sections (when the evil Elf King is sweet-talking his prey) into minor keys. There are some odd gear shifts that Schubert would certainly have never used, and a few chords (especially m.47 and m.49) that he simply would never have imagined, but part of the fun is to be surprised by these funhouse reflections.

I've long been intrigued by the idea of creating something out of the negative space defined by an existing work, and I hope to return to the idea if I find time this fall. In the meantime, enjoy the upbeat, frolicsome soundworld that exists somewhere on the periphery of Schubert's haunted house.

Just remembered this song also come up in this blog post.

UPDATE: New version with English lyrics now available!

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