My fellow NYU adjunct Rebecca Feynberg recently hipped me to Vasily Kalinnikov.
If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly lovely and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E-flat, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:
||: Am | D7 | Fm | C :||
I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because I first heard it in his classic tune “I’d Have To Be Crazy” (written not by Willie, but by Steven Fromholz.) I had the pleasure of performing this many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for Milo.
The version of the progression in “I’d Have To Be Crazy” uses a different harmonic rhythm, and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.
|| C | % | % | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||
At the top of the tune and in various other spots, he also uses this variant:
|| C | % | G7 | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||
The descending feeling you get from D7 to F minor to C is related to the “Beatles cadence,” technically a combination major/minor plagal cadence. You can hear it at around 1:00 in “If I Fell,” in the bridge.
This tune is in D, but I’m once again putting it into C for discussion purposes. In the line “but I couldn’t stand the pain,” the word “pain” lands on F, the major IV chord. In the next line, “and I would be sad,” the word “I” lands on F minor, the minor iv chord. Here’s the whole bridge:
|| C7 | % | F | Fm | % | C | G7 ||
The Beatles cadence is effective, but it’s tamer and less chromatic than the Kalinnikov/Willie Nelson chords. Why is the Kalinnikov/Willie Nelson turnaround so sad? And why is it so much more hip than the Beatles cadence? I think it’s because of the way it defies your expectations.
Here’s how D7 is supposed to work in the key of C: it temporarily puts you in the key of G. The most conventional (boring) chord to follow D7 is G7, followed by C. The scale implied by D7 is D Mixolydian. This is just an alternative spelling for C Lydian, the brightest of all the diatonic modes. The conventional move of cycling from D7 to G7 to C just transforms C lydian back to plain-vanilla C major. All is sweetness and light.
This is not what happens in the Kalinnikov/Willie Nelson progression. Instead of trotting obediently around the circle of fifths like you expect, the D7 unexpectedly resolves to F minor instead. This surprising chord implies F Dorian, alternatively known as C natural minor. Instead of moving from the brightest scale to the second brightest, you have just moved to a decidedly dark place. Even the voice leading is depressing: the F-sharp and A in the D7 chord slump dejectedly down to F and A-flat in the F minor chord. (The Beatles cadence is weaker because it doesn’t have the lift up to F-sharp before the descent into minor land.) Sadness is that much sadder if you’re expecting happiness.