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I remember reading on the record jacket of a recording by Mstislav Rostropovich of the Bach Cello suites, a description that Rostropovich gave to each of the musical keys. I remember it being something like, "D major is optimistic and carefree, E-flat major is majestic and ceremonial, D minor is apprehensive but somehow optimistic", etc. However, hard as I tried with Google, I could not find any web page (book, article, interview, CD blurb etc) that has Rostropovich (or anyone else) on record making such a description. It could be that he was in fact describing each of the cello suites in these terms, as opposed to more generally the key that each suite happens to be written in.

Rather than this question be taken as a debate on the question itself, what I am really after is a source/reference: is there any citable intuition - expressed by someone somewhere at some point - about musical keys having intrinsic "feelings" to them?

Obviously, the common practice of transposition from one key to another suggests many people dont think there is any particular mood that one given key confers; that transposing is simply done for convenience, e.g. to fit the range of a certain voice/instrument.

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    Being key deaf, I find it surprising whenever different peers describe how certain keys convey a particular mood. I'm kind of jealous that they can feel that sort of thing! – Alex Lopez Apr 30 '20 at 15:34
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Yes there is, though it's old. Check out this link: https://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html. It contains a translation of Christian Schubart's "Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806)".

When this was written, meantone tuning was standard. This meant that, in any key, the fifth was tuned flat so that the third was midway between the first and the fifth. As such, every key had to be tuned slightly differently, giving them unique characteristics.

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  • That addresses exactly the points I had in mind, thanks! That this would all come down to tuning, seems fairly obvious in hindsight :) – z8080 May 1 '20 at 11:20
  • It would still be nice to be able to locate Rostropovich's descriptions, in case he was not simply quoting Schubart's. Assuming modern tuning for the cello, it's more likely he was, in fact, referring to the unique characters of the suites rather than of their keys. – z8080 May 1 '20 at 11:45

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