Warning: This post contains wacky technical lingo.
E-flat major, C minor, E-flat major: the opening chords of Mozart's Magic Flute. I mention them briefly in my review of Julie Taymor's new production, appearing in the New Yorker next week. There is so much more to be said about just these three chords (five, if you count the brief upbeats to the second and the third). They seem simple in construction, yet they create an aura of power and mystery. The first is the purest chord there is, rising up from a core E-flat in the bass. It's Pythagoras' chord of nature, the lowest tones of the harmonic series sounding together. The C minor is the relative minor of E-flat: two of the tones, E-flat and G, are the same in both chords. It's the natural harmony tilted downward, turned toward the darkness. Finally, E-flat again, but it sounds more sober and resigned, as if the darkness of C minor has been subsumed into the light. It is "first inversion," meaning that there is a G instead of an E-flat in the bass. The bass notes — E-flat, C, G — together spell out C minor, again bringing out the shadows of the scene. Yet the top notes — E-flat, G, B-flat — anchor the sequence melodically on the major triad. All told, it's as if Mozart has written the emotional stages of an entire life in three bars: hope, pain, wisdom.