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    In Praise of Concert B Flat

    Could concert B flat be the key to the universe? In September 2003, astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an orbiting telescope, found what they characterised as sound waves emanating from a supermassive black hole. The “sound” that they discovered - really the waves passing through gas near the black hole - translated to the note B flat, 57 octaves below middle C.

    "Could concert B flat be the key to the universe? In September 2003, astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an orbiting telescope, found what they characterised as sound waves emanating from a supermassive black hole. The “sound” that they discovered - really the waves passing through gas near the black hole - translated to the note B flat, 57 octaves below middle C.

    Male alligators also respond to the note. During World War II, the New York Philharmonic was visiting the American Museum of Natural History. During rehearsal, somebody played a note that upset a resident alligator, causing the animal to roar. A series of quick experiments involving the strings, percussion and brass eventually revealed that the offending note was the B flat positioned one octave below middle C. Experiments conducted at a Florida zoo in 2007 confirmed the phenomenon. 

    In countries like the United States, where electricity is supplied to the national grid at 60 Hz, electric motors hum, whir or buzz at the B flat located two octaves below middle C. Important events in our social lives are also regulated by the tone. The bugle call that announces the opening of horse races is in the key of B flat. So are the standard arrangements of many national anthems, including the Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise.

    Keys, like scales, are taught to aspiring musicians almost as if they were mathematical symbols – devoid of any emotion apart from the effort required to memorise them. But are they really like that? We have all heard – and generally agree – that music written in major keys is happy and bright, while music minor keys is generally regarded as sombre or sad.

    Historically, specific keys have also been identified with specific moods. B flat major appears to be the key of choice for fanfares and military marches. In the same way, F major is associated with pastoral and often sentimental music, while D major tends to be the preferred key for bright and royal music, particularly when played by the strings. Well known compositions in concert B flat include the march of the soldiers in Gounod's Faust, the march of the children in Carmen, and the trumpet call in Beethoven's Fidelio announcing the arrival of the governor.

    It is important here to stress that what I am talking about is B flat major, not B flat minor. Indeed, the latter key appears as the poor cousin in classical music. It is difficult to find many symphonic works written in the key. Tchaikovsky's famous piano concerto No. 1 is nominally in B flat minor, but after a few bars he quickly switches to a theme in D-flat major. Chopin wrote some piano works in B-flat minor, but they were not very uplifting. The slow movement of his sonata in B-flat minor - the so-called Funeral March - is particularly depressing.

    Concert B flat is the home key of trumpets, trombones, tenor saxophones and most clarinets. This is the reason wind bands choose to tune to this tone rather than the concert A preferred by symphony orchestras. For brass bands, which deliberately exclude strings and woodwinds, the argument for using B flat as the tuning note is even stronger.

    B flat is the note that binds us together, both as musicians and as citizens of the universe. Still not convinced? Check out that black hole. You will find it in the Perseus cluster of galaxies some 250 million light years away.

    Latest Focus

    A Dream Fulfilled

    A poor but talented Indonesian E-flat tuba player who wants to study music in Singapore's prestigious Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), is very close to realising his dream.

    An impossible dream?

    When Joe Darion wrote the lyrics to the famous melody written by Mitch Leigh for the 1965 hit musical Man of La Mancha, I don't suppose he spent much time thinking about the ambitions of E flat tuba players.

    Are musicians more moody and prone to suicide than other people?

     

    Many people believe that musicians are more moody and prone to suicide than other professionals, and that - as a result - a greater percentage of them end their lives in mental institutions or are fated to live emotionally tempestuous lives. Musicians are also commonly suspected of being over sensitive to criticism, having delusions of grandeur and other neurotic traits.

    The statistics fail to bear this out, although it is possible to find enough examples to make the case in front of those unfamiliar with Western musical history. Like actors, politicians and others obliged to face the public on a regular basis, musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. However, such problems do not constitute evidence of neuroticism.

     Musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. 

    Beethoven was known for his moodiness, but this was probably closely related to his growing frustration as he began to go deaf. Among the famous composers, only Schumann and MacDowell ended  up in mental institutions. Musicians probably have no more suicidal impulses than the rest of the population. But should a prominent musician decide to take his life, it is likely to get a good deal of publicity.

    Perhaps the most morbid suicide was planned by the pianist Alexander Kelberine, who arranged his last concert programme to consist only of works dealing with death. He then went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Schumann jumped into the Rhine, only to be rescued by a fisherman. Rezso Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, a work that was once banned in Europe because it triggered a wave of suicides by young people on Sundays. Seress himself committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The vast majority of musicians, however, die of causes that reflect the state of medical knowledge in the particular historical period in which they live.

    Some musicians certainly had sad lives. Mozart, perhaps the greatest of the composers in the Classical Period of music, died a pauper. The pianist Chopin, a Polish nationalist and tormented lover, was terrified of large audiences. He died of tuberculosis when he was 39. Bizet, a French composer who died when he was 36, was beset by crises of self-confidence and emotional upheaval. Unlike Chopin, his works only achieved widespread recognition after his death.

     Wagner had the emotional maturity of a spoilt child. 

    George Gershwin only had a short life, but it was a good one. He died of a brain tumor when he was 39 after a rags to riches story that made him one of the most well known composers of popular music in  the United States.

    Others lived long and had much success, despite treating others abominably, including many of their friends. Wagner considered himself a genius as a playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as a composer, and was not shy about letting others know it! Although not particularly handsome, his personal magnetism was such that he had numerous affairs, usually with married women, despite the fact that he was married himself. His biographers describe him as having the emotional maturity of a spoilt child, complete with tantrums if he could not get his way. He died at the age of 70, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his time.

    The pianist Franz Liszt's dashing good looks enabled him to have numerous affairs with many woman. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75. Contrast this with the fate of Schubert, who was short, fat, bespectacled and naturally shy. He died of syphilis at the age of 31 after his friends encouraged him to visit a brothel. Those who knew him well described him as having a warm and friendly nature. Somehow, it doesn't sound fair.

     The life of J.S. Bach must have been very boring. 

    The majority of musicians now and in the past lead fairly quiet lives. Edward Elgar, a largely self-taught musician, rose from humble origins to become the first English composer in 200 years to gain international acclaim. He had a stable marriage, and was regarded by many as a typical English gentleman. He died at the age of 77. Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, also had a good life despite being out of step with his country's politics and music. He died at the age of 70.

    The life of J.S. Bach must have been the most boring of all. He spent almost his entire life in the same small region of Germany where he was born. And nobody took much notice of him either. It was not until about 80 years after his death that his works attracted the attention they deserved.

     

    Concert Nerves

    In his book Random Reflections, the late English classical composer and pedagogue William Lovelock recalls an occasion where he was called upon to examine music candidates at a school.

    Hitting the Right Notes

    FOR a country of 240 million people, Indonesia’s Western music scene is surprisingly low key. There are only two well-established symphony orchestras, well-designed auditoriums are rare, and few Western-trained musicians can find enough work to make a decent living.

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