“Canto is about family and love” writes American composer Adam Schoenberg, describing his 2014 composition commissioned by the Lexington (Kentucky) Philharmonic. The brief orchestral work was written after the birth of Schoenberg’s son, Luca. It opens with a sudden, colorful, mysterious cluster of sound, initiated by the strummed strings of the piano, which instantly thrusts us into its distinctly dreamy sound world. The tonal colors are soft and muted, but there’s a sense of underlying anticipatory tension in this opening chord. Soon, the comfort and security of G major pokes through the haze. The trumpet intones a plaintive chant which seems to emerge from an ancient, distant place, opening the door to other conversing voices.
Here is an excerpt from Schoenberg’s program notes:
Ever since Luca was born, I have been writing him lullabies. I play them while he sleeps, and often sing them to him before he goes to bed. In many ways, I envision this work as a dream within a dream. A lullaby that emerges from a chant. The music is the slowest music I have ever written, and it’s very atmospheric and textural. The piece opens in a harmonically ambiguous way before announcing the chant like feeling in G. As the piece unfolds, the music moves from one texture to another, while always stating the presence of G. The key of G has been historically referred to as the “People’s key,” as many of the greatest classical works, popular songs, even our star-spangled banner were originally conceived in G.
Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, a German poet and theologist wrote a book in 1806 called Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (The Ideas of Aesthetics and Music), and within this book he discusses affective characteristics of each key. This is what he says about the key of G:
“Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,–in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.”
At moments, the spirit of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question seems to hover over this music. We hear a series of conversations taking place over the eternal serenity of the strings. (What do you think the oboe is saying here?) This music also sounds distinctly American, with echoes of Aaron Copland. (Listen to the woodwinds in this passage). Most importantly, for all of its hazy mystery, this is music which embraces the grandeur and sensuality of tonality.
Here is the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s October, 2015 performance at Los Angeles’ Colburn School: