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From these simple starting points ('music matters' and 'what am I hearing?') Mellers proceeds to investigate connections and ideas with a breadth of knowledge that is startling.

There is however, one stumbling block to a wider appreciation of Mellers' contribution: his explanations require a basic understanding of music theory. At the simplest level this is knowing what an oboe sounds like and why it is associated with pastoral music. Further along it requires the reader to understand the cycle of fifths and key relationships such as the mediant and a knowledge of some of the structures of music, whether sonata-allegro or the raga.

This should not be a problem, but it is. Literate people should have a working knowledge of the parts of speech, the idea of rhyming in poetry, perhaps even an idea of the sonnet. But most people do not have the foggiest notion of the musical equivalents of these simple ideas. This, in spite of 'music education' so called.

There is also one interesting facet of Mellers' discussion of music and that is his frequent appeal to the emotional, even psychological and spiritual character of a tonality: F minor is lugubrious, D major ceremonial, or B flat major in Schubert heavenly. At one time such comments were the norm and Mellers is merely continuing a long-standing tradition.

Because, at one time, not that long ago, the character of the keys was not a pretense, it was a verifiable fact. Tuners prior to about 1850 did not aim for equal temperament at all and according to Owen Jorgensen's massive book Tuning, tuners could not have effectively achieved equal temperament until around 1900. Therefore, before that they tuned some kind of well-temperament where, by definition, the keys have slightly different characters based on the purity or impurity of the intervals. Now, Mellers was born in 1914. Tuners trained before 1900 or so were probably tuning well-temperament for many years past Mellers' birth.

As such, Mellers probably heard unequal temperaments in his youth and never overcame his faith that each tonality had a different character and that this character means something. Thus, in his detailed analysis of compositions, Mellers regularly derives philosophic meaning from such information.

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Copyright © 28 November 2002 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Alberta, Canada


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