“What do Signatures Signify? The Curious Case of 17th-Century English Key”
presentation by Dr. Megan Kaes Long, Oberlin College and Conservatory
Room 130, 80 Queen's Park
Free and open to the public. Presentation will be followed by a casual reception.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century English composers used only a handful of keys: they combined five keynotes (G, A, C, D, and F) with the three signatures documented in English solmization theory (§, b, and bb). By the end of the century English theorists described eighteen keys—all of the modern major and minor keys with up to four signature accidentals. But the route from eight to eighteen keys was not straightforward. Histories of key on the Continent trace how theories of mode and church key develop into modern keys through some combination of transformation (F-Lydian à F major) and transposition (F major à Bb major). But in England no modal or ecclesiastical foundation underlies seventeenth-century pitch structure. Consequently, English theorists and composers developed a new language for key unfettered by the complexities of an inherited theoretical tradition. This new language calls into question the extent to which transformation and transposition account for the formation of new keys in practice.
This paper traces the emergence of new keys in three stages. At the beginning of the century English musicians used adjacent keys (i.e. §-D and b-D), which can be interpreted in two ways: a signature-agnostic view suggests that musicians understood these as two versions of one key, while a signature-dependent view indicates that they were distinct keys. In the tumultuous middle decades of the century, composers and theorists created new keys in ad hoc and asymmetrical ways. Composers explored new flat keys through the process of signature creep, while theorists devised new sharp keys when they identified the parallel key relationship. In neither case did new keys develop through transposition. Finally, theoretical interventions at the end of the century “fixed” keys into our modern system, but obscured the varied pitch structure that still animated musical practice. The messy, flexible circumstances in which keys arose complicate several assumptions about modern key—this evidence challenges notions of transpositional equivalence, reveals that different kinds of keys may be built on different conceptual foundations, and suggests that the theory of key does not adequately describe the diversity of musical practice.