Friday, 11 September 2015

The Devil’s Interval

I’ve been scratching around for something to blog about, anything really, just to keep my hand and brain and vocabulary and syntax in – but there’s so much  stuff going on that precludes anything other than an emotional response, which is something I’m possibly too good at experiencing but not at all good at expressing.  So instead I switched on the telly, and found the Penultimate Night of the Proms, dedicated to the musicals of Leonard Bernstein.

To be honest, I’m not that familiar with most of his stuff, and nothing I heard over the two-plus hours did much to persuade me to explore further – with, of course, one shining exception.  Which, of course, I don’t need to explore further, because every last note of it has been etched into my being ever since 1956.

It is the greatest musical there will ever be.  And for me, somehow, it bridges the two dominant aspects of my psyche: the emotion and the logic.  (The child and the parent, in psychoanalytical terms.)  I know exactly how it moves me, and I know exactly why.  Let me peek into the second of these.

It’s very simple, actually.  The whole thing is built around a musical trope called the Tritone.  Technically, it’s a flattened fifth.  If the fifth note of the C major scale is G (which it is), flatten it and you get G flat (or an augmented fourth, F sharp, depending on the way your instrument is tempered… sorry, maybe a bit too technical there).  To hear this, you only need to listen to the first three notes of ‘West Side Story’ – “Da-daaah DA!”  That third note is the tritone.  Then listen to any of the ballet sequences – there it is again, all over the place.  And ‘Maria’: what’s the second note of that tune, exactly?

It was called The Devil’s Interval in medieval times, largely because – well, it is, isn’t it?  You can learn much more about the psychology and physiology of this here, if you really want to.

So there you have it.  ‘West Side Story’ bit me, chewed me up and spat me out when I first heard it, and still does.  But more importantly, it taught me that music, as all art, doesn’t drop from heaven or rise from hell – it’s made by human beings, who can use their feelings and their rationality to mould heaven and hell’s best efforts into forms of beauty neither of those imposters can imagine.




  1. I only read this just now, so it's coincidence that I've been writing that I haven't listened to (or played) enough music recently.

    I'm also still pondering your conversation with your friend on Facebook about the point at which a musical becomes an opera. Or an operetta, I suppose. There are operas without recitative, I'm not sure where the crossover happens. Could the amount of dance involved be a part of it?

  2. As Humpty Dumpty almost said (and my friend Mark shared with me 50+ years ago): "Words mean what I want them to mean."

    And of course, this post wasn't really about music at all...