The major 6th versus the minor 6th: why intervals really matter

We don't often spend time discussing something quite as specific as an interval, but perhaps we should be doing more of that! After all, intervals are the building blocks of melody and so, practically by definition, they are as important to our understanding of a piece of music as the lyrics, the composer him/herself,  or any other musical identifier present in the piece. 

The piece that made me reflect on the importance of the interval, indeed of one half note, is "Les chemins d'amour" by one of my all-time favorite composers, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). I've known this piece for many years but haven't pulled it out in a while. As we will be presenting it in two of our upcoming music tastings, I have spent significant time with it over the last few weeks and am reminded not only of its singular melodic beauty but of the complexity and meaning of its melodic structure.

There are many intervals that feature prominently in this valse chantée ("sung waltz") but the dominant interval, at least in terms of the evocation of emotion in my opinion, is the sixth. The sixth – whether major or minor – appears often but never once repeated twice in a row. The one time you might think you are hearing two sixths in a row, Poulenc instead writes the interval as an augmented 5th. Why? In my opinion, it is because the minor and major 6th offer two completely opposing sides of the emotional spectrum: the minor gives the listener a sense of lamentation, reaching, and longing while the major 6th counters with a feeling of greater stability, hopefulness, and brightness. 

I am forever fascinated at how our music and wine pairings come together, and this is certainly no less the case than while I was writing the program notes for our February 14th event at D'Vine Wine Lounge in Downtown Los Angeles. We are pairing Poulenc's song – the only excerpt from the larger piece, Léocadia – with a 2011 Château Peyros Madiran from France (if you are wondering what a French Malbec tastes like, this is the glass for  you!). This big, full-bodied wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, full of structure and exhibiting notes of chocolate, mocha, and dark berries.

What is most remarkable is how this wine so perfectly works to describe and bring to life the interval we've just been discussing. The Tannat grape, as its name would suggest, is often very tannic, dark, and chewy, and can even be a bit hard or edgy. Here is our major 6th: a stable, strong, and commanding melodic presence. Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cabernet Franc) is used to soften and round the edges of the Tannat and to provide more complexity to the wine (our minor sixth). 

I think we could all stand to spend a bit more time thinking about what really draws us to a piece of music. Certainly the message in a song's lyrics are the most easily approachable element but our intervals and the melodic structure of the piece is something we can and should spend more time exploring, particularly with a glass of delicious red wine in hand!