“My Homeland” OR “Twinkle, Twinkle in Minor”

June 18, 2016 at 10:00 am

There are certain melodic ideas that come up over and over again throughout the history of music.  My choir members know I am famous for finding the first four notes of “How Dry I Am” in practically every piece ever written. There’s a reason for this – the shape of this phrase is beauty itself. A leap of a fourth, going from a weak beat to a stronger beat, gives the impression of suddenly turning one’s head to pay attention. Then, a simple three-note rising scale continues to lift the head – making us feel taller, alert, and engaged with the world. A bit of a stretch? Perhaps. But I believe there is something deep here that evokes a universal (or at least nearly universal) response in every human.

Another universally loved musical gesture is the melodic shape found in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Here, the melody rises a fifth (creating tension), then gentle falls back down to the starting note by gradually descending. The effect? We start from a place of bored contentment. Then, we ascend to a high note – there is tension and excitement in our lives! What will happen? Well, one note at a time, we relax until we have returned to our starting place. However – we are no longer bored, because we have just had a thrilling journey! A bit of a stretch? Perhaps. But maybe this overly-simple example can give us an idea of what makes great pieces of music, well, great.

Here is a movement from “My Homeland” by Bedřich Smetana, a gorgeous musical painting of a Czech river, Vltava. You can hear the little rushing brooks, eventually flowing into a wide expanse of water. The melody, though, is the same as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, only beginning in a minor key, and triumphantly ending in major.