From Major to Minor

I was looking around for something to post next week in honour of our graduation ceremony (which is coming up on Tuesday) and came across this, which brought back a flood of memories. It’s the wonderful Annie Lennox singing the classic Cole Porter song Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye as performed as part of the AIDS fund-raiser Red Hot and Blue way back in 1990. Was it really that long ago?

Cole Porter has to be  one of the cleverest songwriters of all time.  His ability to produce tune after lovely tune was matched by his supreme skill in crafting the lyrics, often managing to produce rhymes in the middle of lines as well as at the end. He often used this superb craftsmanship to comic effect, but produced his share of beautiful ballads too, though none more beautiful than this. I’ve always loved the Ella Fitzgerald version of this song so much that I didn’t believe anyone could outdo it, but this track (and the video) moved me to tears when I first saw it, and it’s never lost its impact on me, especially when heard with the poignant video. The  little  boy shown in the home movies is a young  Derek Jarman, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994.

This song exemplifies Cole Porter’s art as both  composer and wordsmith. The trademark clever rhymes are there, but in this case there’s a wonderful juxtaposition of  the words “how strange the change from major to minor” and an interesting chord progression, which is a minor scale variation of the plagal cadence (sometimes called the “Amen cadence”, because it’s how the word A-men is often sung in hymns). The plagal cadence involves a IV-I step back to the tonic chord (I), via a major 4th (IV) but in Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, the progression goes via   IV-iv-I with the interpolation of a minor 4th chord (iv), which in the original key of E♭is an A♭m chord. It’s a lovely touch, no less lovely for being so clever.

This progression – or a variation of it involving a dominant 7th chord (i.e. IV-iv-♭VII-I) –  can be found in many jazz standards, as  a kind of “bluesy” alternative to the more usual V-I “authentic” cadence, and many pop songs use it too, including several by The Beatles.  However, I doubt if even Cole Porter could have come up with a rhyme for “dominant seventh”!

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