Archive for December, 2011

E keys

E minor and E major

Four chords that start Mendelssohn’s A Midsummernight’s Dream Overture

Yes, tonight 2 keys share the spot light. One a minor, one a major. E minor, the key of folk song and guitars; and E major, a key the colour of liquid chocolate, a sharp key that thinks it’s a flat key.

E minor first then: a key for guitars and folksy types. Let us start in Spain. Granados, Albeniz, Tarrega and Turina all on the guitar.

Granados Andaluza

Albeniz Asturias

Tarrega Mazurka

Turina Fandanguillo

Staying Latin for the next item but this time interpreted by a couple of folksy North Americans

Simon and Garfunkel El Condor Paso, Scarborough Fair

A parkful of appreciation for Simon and Garfunkel. And here are 4 more guys performing in E minor. One can’t imagine this piece in any other key but E minor:

The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby

The Beatles and a string quartet playing Eleanor Rigby. And now some Bohemian folk songs as seen from North America: the E minor 3rd movement of one of the most famous E minor works, Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Dvorak 9th Symphony 3rd movement

A change of mood: Chopin’s Prelude in E minor. The right hand laments slowly over shifting harmonies in the left.

Chopin Prelude in E minor

Earlier we had S&G, Simon and Garfunkel; now we are going to have some G&S, Gilbert and Sullivan. I think Arthur Sullivan caught a whiff of the story-telling intrinsic to folk songs when he wrote denouement songs for contraltos in the Savoy operas. Dame Hannah explains the curse of the Murgatroyds in Ruddigore in E minor Little Buttercup tells all in HMS Pinafore. And even Anna Russell in her spoof of G&S has dandelion singing in E minor. Here’s ‘A many years ago when I was young and charming’ (weren’t we all?) from HMS Pinafore.

Sullivan – A many years ago

So now you know everything. Litttel Buttercup telling of her nursing troubles. Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s words. E minor evinced a manic playfulness in young Felix Mendelssohn. Here’s a piano piece: The Introduction and Allegro Capriccioso which starts in a thoughtful E major before the ebullience of his view of E minor escapes.

Mendelssohn Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

E minor according to Felix Mendelssohn. And if you want further evidence look no further than the Overture to A Midsummernight’s Dream that started this programme, and there’s a piano Scherzo in E minor as well.

Arguably his most satisfying symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 5th starts in a lugubrious E minor but ends in a triumphant E major. To move from the one key to the other, I shall juxtapose the introduction to the 1st movement with the last movement which starts with the same theme in E major, but then has to fight through E minor again to reach the major. Then we shall have truly arrived in E major territory.

Tchaikovsky 5th symphony 1st movement intro and 4th movement

So here we are unequivocally in E major. 4 sharps, but don’t be caught out. E major is a flat key in disguise. It has the rich fullness one associates with keys which boast multiple flats. The composer who taps this vein puts his tune right in the centre of the audible range of frequencies. Here is Chopin’s Prelude to illustrate E major’s sonority.

Chopin Prelude in E major

Mellow, mellow, mellow – you’ll agree? Bring on a French Horn and a sleeping draught:

Mendelssohn Nocturne from A Midsummernight’s Dream

A rich bed of music produced by a sleeping draught in the Nocturne from Mendelsshohn’s A Midsummernight’s Dream.

Beethoven in his 3rd Piano Concerto travels all the way from C minor to cast his slow movement in rich E major. Give me excess of it……..

Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto 2nd Movement

The rich E major of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s C minor 3rd Piano Concerto.With a sleeping draught and that rich food i feel quite sleepy. So before we nod off completely here’s Shostakovitch’s Fugue in E major. It runs around the floor like a little animal.

Shostakovitch Prelude in E major

Bach’s Prelude in E major is not exactly dignified either!

JS Bach Prelude in E major

Beofre we go to Brahms, here’s another piece that puts the tune right in the middle of the piano and that’s why it bacme so famous:

Chopin Etude in E

I’m ending with Brahms. He produces the most chocolaty of brown textures, the warmest of burgundy woollen jerseys in the central part of the slow movement of his 4th Symphony in E minor. One can almost feel the fuzzy E major warmth coming from the radiating strings.

Brahms 4th Symphony 2nd movement

Mmmmmm…. I could do with a few more chords like that!

Final chords from Mendelssohn Nocturne

These two extra chords were from Mendelssohn, but what heard before that was the 2nd movement of Brahms’ 4th Symphony. Worth a second look definitely.

But now I am going to go out as I came in.

Midsummernight’s dream overture 1st chord

Good bye from E major

Midsummernight’s dream overture 2nd chord

Goodbye from E minor

Midsummernight’s dream overture 3rd chord

And good bye from me, Tony Westwood and Keynotes

Midsummernight’s dream overture final chord





Investing in the breast

This is good news. The Minister of Health in SA has started an important process to get South Africa breast feeding again, to save lives.

My colleague Mark Richards and I have published the following article in South Africa’s Sunday Independent newspaper on the subject (Dateline – 4th September 2011). It is not available online  so we are putting it here:

Investing in the breast

Tony Westwood and Mark Richards

Last week, the Minister of Health, the Honourable Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, hosted a widely representative consultative meeting on breastfeeding in South Africa. With his support, the meeting issued the Tshwane declaration of Support for Breast Feeding in South Africa. This declaration set out many reasons why breast feeding must be supported at a very fundamental level in this country, even in an era of HIV. These included its role in preventing infant deaths and promoting the health of children, and the new evidence that the risk of transmission of HIV through breastfeeding can now be brought down to very low levels through the use of anti-retroviral drugs.

We humbly submit that the drafters of the Tshwane declaration have missed an important perspective on the reasons that South Africa should rapidly bring breast feeding back into the mainstream: Breast feeding makes economic sense for the country.

While we do not suggest that the drafters of the declaration and the Minister do not know this, this fact deserves to be highlighted. We contend that, if our thinking is bound by warm notions of child survival and ‘bonding’ as ‘nice’ things that breastfeeding encourages, we need to think again. Breastfeeding is for ‘real men’, captains of industry, political leaders and economists, male and female. A re-branding of breastfeeding must take place if the declaration is to bring breastfeeding to the centre of the policy agenda in South Africa.

Here we set out the hard-headed and hard-nosed reasons why South Africa must take this opportunity to ‘Invest in the Breast’.

There is global consensus that, to get the best out of the breast, six months of exclusive breastfeeding is required: no water, no formula, no solids: just the goodness of breast milk. Benefits accrue the longer any breastfeeding is sustained beyond six months. With this approach, one gets optimal body growth (not too much and not too little, both of which are bad for the child’s health in later life as we will describe), optimal brain growth and function (breast-fed babies are brighter), and protection from many serious infections (such as diarrhoea).

What does not breastfeeding cost? How much would society gain if breastfeeding were the norm?

In an industrialised country, formula feeding costs about R25/day which would seem to be a small amount. However, formula milk costs don’t quite follow the Big Mac Index and, in poorer countries such as South Africa, the proportion of a family income spent on formula can be beyond a third of household income if appropriate volumes and concentrations are used. This does not include the cost of bottles, water, sterilising fluid and energy used in safe formula feeding. Safe formula feeding is simply beyond the means of a significant proportion of South African families.

The savings that breastfeeding brings mount up from the time the baby is born. They include health benefits not only to the baby during early life, but also to that baby as an adult and to the mother who did the breastfeeding. In addition, the economic benefits of being healthier accrue beyond the narrow world of health care.

Starting with the smallest babies, there is strong evidence that, for preterm babies, sickness and death is avoided by the use of breast milk. In particular, the risks of contracting necrotising enterocolitis, a potentially lethal and costly form of intestinal infection, are significantly reduced by using breast milk rather than preterm formula milks. With low birth weight rates reaching 20% in parts of South Africa, South Africa would do well to get breast milk, maternal or donated, to every tiny baby in its nurseries.

Diarrhoeal diseases lead the cause of childhood death statistics in all of South Africa’s provinces. They are also responsible for a large proportion of visits to doctors and admissions to hospital. Studies at the start of this Millennium have shown that about 40% of all infant deaths and health service costs caused by diarrhoea can be removed when exclusive breastfeeding is practised. In Botswana, that government’s well intentioned attempt to protect children from contracting HIV from breast milk by providing formula resulted in increased overall death rates in infants due to diarrhoea-related diseases. Some of South Africa’s dismal record on child mortality can be laid at the same door. We are thus afforded an opportunity for a rapid change of direction in our embarrassing infant mortality rate.

A common consequence of diarrhoeal illness is malnutrition. Combine episodes of diarrhoea with the economic impossibility of sustaining safe formula feeding in much of South Africa and we have a recipe for death, disability, lengthy hospital stays and blighted opportunities. A large majority of these financial and human capital costs from malnutrition in South Africa are preventable with breastfeeding.

Early health service savings are also to be found in the prevention of respiratory infections, the commonest reason for attendance at health facilities in early childhood and a big user of health rands in this country. Ear infections, a very common childhood malady, are reduced by an impressive 50% by breastfeeding.

In the USA, the simple cost savings of these illnesses have been demonstrated to be about R2000-R3000 per child for the average family. Talk of freebies! Dr Motsoaledi’s cabinet colleagues for Planning and Finance should be rubbing their hands in glee.

And now we have something for the Ministers of Education: on balance, breast fed babies do better on developmental scores than those who are formula fed. In South Africa, where inadequate early brain growth associated with under-nutrition in poorer communities where formula feeding and its infectious consequences are common, there can be little doubt that more breastfeeding will improve school pass rates, making school graduates more employable. We hope the Minister of Labour is listening.

What about the breast fed baby as an adult? Studies looking at these issues from many perspectives show that breastfeeding, probably through optimising early growth, sets the scene for protection of the adult who was breast fed against obesity (22% reduction), diabetes (39% reduction), heart attacks (16% reduction), and some common cancers. The health rand and human savings from promoting breastfeeding for South Africa in its demographic transition are likely to be immense. Further savings are to be found in breastfeeding-related reductions in asthma, eczema and inflammatory bowel diseases.

It is not only the child whose health costs are reduced by breastfeeding. The mother (and therefore her family and society) stands to be saved from the consequences of anaemia from blood loss after birth, and an unwanted next pregnancy due to a delayed return to fertility. She will return to her pre-pregnancy weight sooner. Later in life, women who breast feed suffer fewer hip fractures from osteoporosis, and have less breast and ovarian cancer. To get a feel for the cost savings produced by breastfeeding, the average cost of breast cancer therapy is at least R50,000. How aware are we that there is a significant cost saving to be gained by increasing the frequency and duration of breastfeeding among South African women?

Investing in breastfeeding is also good for the planet. Formula milk means cows needing feeds, fertilisers, trucks and factories. It leaves millions of left over tins, methane and carbon dioxide, degraded land for pasture and deforestation for soya plantations. And consider the environmental cost of using firewood, hydrocarbons or electricity to sterilise water for the safe preparation of formula milk. We offer breastfeeding to the Minister for Environmental Affairs as another link in the chain of living gently in South Africa’s fragile ecosystems.

What are the costs of breastfeeding? It takes more time to formula feed so breastfeeding wins this efficiency argument. The nutritional cost to a breastfeeding mother is about 500 Calories a day. This is a peanut butter sandwich and a banana – well within the means of most South African families. Another cost on this side of the equation is loss of income for the mother. Wherever this cost has been calculated, the savings to the family in terms of visits to the doctor etc. that we have described outweigh it by a considerable margin.

The Minister of Finance may be concerned about loss of tax revenue from the formula manufacturers. He need not worry; the balance is still in breastfeeding’s favour. Data is hard to come by for South Africa, but in the USA the overall cost saving for ideal breastfeeding rates is estimated to be $13.1 billion. Tellingly, the global market value of the formula milk industry comes in below this at $7.9 billion.

There is a cost attached to promoting breastfeeding, but again, in health rand terms, it pales in the face of the costs of not promoting breastfeeding.

There are medical cases where formula feeding is required, as the Tshwane declaration sets out. A woman has a right to choose how to feed her child. But we believe that South Africans from grassroots to government must grasp the opportunity for a complete shift in thinking and actions afforded by the new impetus being led by Dr Motsoaledi and ‘Invest in the Breast’.

Westwood and Richards are Child Health Specialists in the Western Cape

E-motion and Brahms’ Waltz in G

It’s about emotion. don’t you think? The feelings engendered by my change in tonality sense suggest that what makes keys so special is the emotion they bring. This morning while I was doing early morning things such as watering the lawn and emptying the dishwasher, the Fine Music Radio announcer said that he would be playing the Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummernight’s Dream. This piece is one that for me epitomises what E major can bring. To me E major is the warmest of the keys – a radiant warmth, with a purring quality. I was all prepared to hear it in the disappointing facile key of F major, being the key one step above E major that my changing brain would bring it to me in. But, no, there was the all the warmth I remembered – I was hearing it in E major. I sat down and enjoyed the French horn solo and the ambient warmth Mendelssohn had written for me. Pleasure restored, joy experienced.

Why did I hear this in E major this time? I presume that the recording being played was marginally flat: the physics of this being that the frequency of the keynote was presumably below some tipping point in my central nervous system which determines whether I hear E or F major.

I recently had an experience where I tried to make use of this putative phenomenon. I am transferring the music on my gramophone records to digital format using a USB turntable and some software. I was putting together a Brahms CD and had a little extra space after transferring his 2nd Piano Concerto in B flat (or is it B?). A little piano music filler seemed appropriate – Julius Katchen playing Brahms’ Waltz in A flat, the most popular, was available on another record. A flat major is a serene, beautiful key, with a hint of strawberry mousse about it. Since I now hear this waltz in A major (my least favourite key) and not in A flat, I thought I’d change the pitch using the Audacity program. I slipped the frequency of the playback down until my brain said the music sounded in A flat, and saved. I burnt both the original and the lowered versions on to the CD.

When I played it back on the CD player later, I was surprised to hear my low frequency version in G major, the key below the A flat major I thought I’d engineered for myself. I seemed to have gone too far in lowering the pitch, yet when making the changes I was hearing the same digital sounds in A flat. Now it sounded very lifeless to me, deprived of its flow and colour low down in G major. Mr Katchen sounded as if he was playing it on the floor. So it is not only about physics and frequency and vibrations. Something else is happening. Could it be my mood (emotion again), or what I have recently listened to that may alter my vulnerable (nay wayward!) sense of pitch? I shall have to experiment some more.

A flat major

A flat major

Hello and welcome. You’re in for an expansive treat, a gentle treat, an unhurried treat today. Nothing frenetic, nothing tortured. No galloping major this. We are in thrall of A flat major.

Apart from our statutory Bach, Chopin and Shostokovitch, we have more Chopin, Elgar, Schubert and lots of Beethoven. Also Brahms, Mahler. I’ve got a little Liszt, as well.

When Beethoven writes a slow movement in A flat the world slows down; an unhurried lyricism takes over. The best examples are in his Piano Sonatas. Here’s a not so well known one – from his 5th piano sonata.

Beethoven – Op10 No 2 Sonata 2nd movement

Piano Sonata Op10 No 2 by Beethoven the 2nd movement, taking us into the unhurried and beautiful world of A flat major. I’m following that with another unhurried A flat major piece of beauty. A piece representing pure womanhood, a piece that doesn’t know whether it’s a chamber piece or an orchestral piece. Gretchen from A Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt. Gretchen’s perfection in A flat, as Franz Liszt, the Romantic, dwells on her for a long time.

Liszt – Gretchen

Gretchen by Franz Liszt from his Faust Symphony.

When Elgar gave Britain back the symphony he chose the key of A flat major. Neville Cardus, music critic and cricket critic (you try saying that!) described the first performance of Elgar’s 1st Symphony thus: I was present at the Halle Concert on December 3rd 1908 when Hans Richter conducted the 1st performance. I can see his huge bulk to this day as he stood, back to the eager audience; he lifted his arms slightly and obtained silence; then the broad tune, with the grave steady tread of the double basses underneath, came upon our ears. What a long first subject, we said – how original! Then the double bar pause, then the plunge into a remote key and forging energy; fountains of string tone, brass instruments in ricochet; no such virtuoso orchestration had been heard by us before in the music of an Englishman, or of any other composer. So Cardus, though with a North country accent. Now imagine yourself in the hushed Hall in Manchester and let this expansive work come as new upon your senses.

Elgar – 1st Symphony 1st movement

There was definitely something heroic there, and there is a heroic side to A flat major. Here we can her it expressed in Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major.

Chopin Polonaise in A flat

Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major. And here’s a little piece that’s known by its key – Waltz in A flat.

Brahms Waltz in A flat

Brahms’ Waltz in A flat. Let’s have another Beethoven slow movement. This one’s from the 1st Piano Concerto. Again no hurry in A flat major;  the piano and the clarinet have all the time in the world.

Beethoven – 1st Piano Concerto 2nd movement

The wonderful slow movement of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. Another composer enjoyed the interplay of clarinet and piano in A flat – Robert Schumann, in the middle of the 1st movement of his A Minor Piano Concerto. Who says keys don’t influence composers?

Schumann – Piano Concerto 1st movement (A flat major section) (Start 4’30”)

The A flat major section of the 1st movement of Schumann’s A minor Piano Concerto.  Let’s get into some preludes and Fugues in A flat major. JS Bach’s Prelude in A flat is an unhurried exploration of the key.

Bach – Prelude in A flat

Chopin’s Prelude in A flat is a song.

Chopin Prelude in A flat

Let’s here Shostokovitch’s Fugue. The A flat major fugue has a very long subject. Here it is.

013 Shos F in A flat subject

And here is its working out a la Shostokovitch.

Shostokovitch A flat major Fugue (start 1’46”)

Shostokovitch’s light hearted Fugue in A flat major.  I think we’d better move away from keyboards. A flat major’s sweetness is sometimes used as a kind of palate-cleanser in symphonies in minor keys. Brahms does it in his C minor 1st Symphony in the 3rd movement. And in Mahler’s C minor Resurrection Symphony, after 25 minutes of C minor he gives us this little tune in A flat major.

Mahler – Resurrection Symphony 2nd movement

A sweet little Austrian dance by Mahler in the 2nd movement of his 2nd Symphony.  I’m going to squeeze another piece of piano music A flat major before we have our final piece, one of the most beautiful pieces ever written in the key. The piano piece is an impromptu by Schubert. It’s a piece my mother played, imprinting its sounds on my young brain. This is not my mother:

Schubert Impromptu in A flat

As promised I end with a treat: the exquisite 2nd movement of Richard Strauss’s 2nd Horn Concerto. Your soul will be calmed by this music thanks to Richard Strauss’ understanding of A flat major.

R Strauss – 2nd Horn Concerto 2nd movement

Ending our programme in unsurpassed beauty in A flat major. And with that it’s goodbye from me and from A flat major and from Keynotes.

D flat major and C sharp minor

In this programme we explore two keys that are intimately related. C# minor and D flat major. C# minor is an interesting key. It is not a common choice in keys, yet there’s a high chance that, if you choose it, your piece will become famous. We’ll meet some of the most celebrated pieces ever in this programme. C# minor is also interesting because composers find it difficult not to slip into D flat major, our other key in this programme, for a little sip of nectar. D flat major is a very special key. Some of the most beautiful creations in music are in D flat – it is almost a chocolate box key. A beauty too easily assimilable. We’ll listen to some examples later, but we start with C# minor. Rachmaninov’s most famous work, and the piece he came to hate, is in C# minor. The prelude -  So let’s hear those 3 portentous notes as they introduce Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor.

Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor

An excellent example of how you can become famous on the back of C sharp minor – Rachmaninov’s prelude in the key. And while we’re in C# minor unalloyed by D flat, here’s Mahler. In the 1st movement of his 5th Symphony the trumpet sets the scene for an angst-ridden few minutes.

Mahler 5th Symphony 1st movement

The echo of the fanfare that opened the 1st movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  And we’re not finished with the angst of C sharp minor yet.

Here’s a very famous piece in that key: Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. And it’s a very neat example of a composer finessing into D flat major from C# minor. That happens when the “I’m always chasing rainbows” theme appears. It’s like the eye of the storm in this piece. And here’s a surprise: the second note of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor seems to have migrated to the first note of this piece!

Chopin Fantasie Impromptu

Chopin in C sharp minor though it’s the D flat major bit that really put that piece, the Fantasie Impromptu, on the map.  The piano is having quite an outing today and we’ll hear lots when we get to D flat major – the key being a source of much inspiration for composers for the piano. But let’s stick with C sharp minor a wee bit longer for one of the most famous pieces in all music. I’m not even going to say what it is but I’m going to play the 1st and 2nd movement of this particular work. The 2nd movement is in D flat major and the first is in C sharp minor.

C sharp minor ‘mystery piece’.

Well, they don’t come more famous than that, do they? Good old Beethoven for choosing C sharp minor – he knew he was on to something. That was the Moonlight Sonata, so called, otherwise known as Sonata quasi Fantasia. Now let’s shift back to Chopin. His 2 preludes for the piano in the two keys of this programme. The C# minor Prelude stays in its key but, inverting the usual pattern, the D flat Prelude – the famous Raindrop Prelude – goes into C# minor for its drumming middle section before the calm of D flat major returns. The intimacy of the 2 keys demonstrated once more.

Chopin Preludes in C# minor and D flat major

And now we’re going to spend a long time in D flat major exploring its merits – and great merits they are. The Romantic composers loved them. So, here’s a medley of lyrical pieces. Let’s forget that the 20th century and recorded music turned them into chocolate box pieces. Let’s reclaim them as masterpieces of music by great artists. I’ve thrown some 20th century composers masquerading as Romantics into the medley. I’ll ‘Liszt’ all the pieces – and Liszt is a clue -  at the end of this section. Relax and enjoy.

Liszt Consolation

Grieg Piano Concerto 2nd movement,

Debussy Claire de Lune

Khachaturian Spartacus Adagio

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto 2nd movement

Liszt Un Sospiro

Shostokovitch Gadfly

Rachmaninov 18th variation from Paganini Variations

And there’s plenty more where those came from: try Chopin’s Berceuse for starters. And D flat major is the reason you love them all, as do most people who hear those pieces, but I wonder if your appetite sickened hearing them without a break like that? Now here’s an interesting facet of D flat major. If you are a parent in a Verdi opera and need to plead for or with  your offspring, you do it in D flat major. Rigoletto does it, as does Germond in La Traviata. .

Verdi – La Traviata

A man who knows how to be persuasive – he just chooses D flat major. Alfredo’s father in la Traviata by Verdi singing Di Provenza il Mar. Time has caught up with us. There hasn’t been time for the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony which also juxtaposes the 2 keys we’ve been enjoying. I haven’t had time to show you how Prokofiev destroyed D flat major for ever with his 1st Piano Concerto. There hasn’t been time for any Fugues – how indulgent I’ve been! No, let’s have a bit of Shostokovitch’s Fugue in D flat major. You’d never guess it was in same key as the rich feast we had earlier!

Shostokovitch Fugue in D flat excerpt

A sample of Shostokovitch’s neutering of D flat major in his Fugue.

I’m going to play a real piece of chocolate box music to end with. This is Cecile Chaminade’s Autumn. It’s in D flat major as any chocolate box piece should be, although the agitated middle section is in that dyspeptic key, F minor.

Chaminade Autumn

Chaminade’s Autumn ends our excursion into D flat major.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of 2 twinned keys, C sharp minor and D flat major,  and will join me next time we take a look at another key in Keynotes. Goodbye.

A minor

A minor

Hello and welcome. It’s a minor key this time. Yes, it’s A minor key, A minor. Like C major there are no sharps or flats in A minor. This baldness seems to have inspired a depressive emptiness in at least 2 composers as we’ll hear later, but really, though a minor, there’s not a lot or worry or sadness in this key. And as you (would have) heard at the beginning there, A minor is Grieg’s key so let’s continue the marvellous Piano Concerto that Liszt approving sight- read, according to popular rumour.

Grieg – Piano Concerto 1st movement

The first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. In case you were having doubts as to Grieg’s affinity with this key, here are two A minor ladies to prove it: Anitra and Solvieg.

Grieg –  Anitra’s Dance, Solveig’s Song

Anitra’s Dance and Solveig’s Song by Grieg. Both in A minor, both from Peer Gynt. I mentioned that A minor has no sharps or flats. I think Chopin took advantage of this in his A minor Prelude. The piece is almost atonal and dissonant. Listen.

Chopin – Prelude in A minor

Very odd! I think we’d better give Chopin a chance to redeem himself. Here are a couple of very tuneful Mazurkas in A minor. Chopin wrote more Mazurkas in A minor than in any other key.

Chopin – 3 A minor Mazurkas

3 A minor Chopin Mazurkas in sequence.

It’s time now to breathe deeply and prepare for a cold shower. Here comes Jean Sibelius. He goes very bald in his A minor 4th Symphony. Emptiness in music, one might call it.

Sibelius – 4th Symphony 1st movement

Let’s get lighter again. Here’s a very famous A minor piece: Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca.

Mozart – Ronde alla Turca

A special quality of A minor is plaintiveness. A gentle sadness. Here is the slow movement of Bizet’s Symphony in C, and what better instrument than the oboe to lament gently.

Bizet – Symphony in C 2nd movement

The oboe leading in that the second movt of Bizet’s Symphony. In similar vein, Rodrigo and the guitar. The Fantasia para uno Gentilhombre. With music like this one is reminded of Shakespeare’s characterising “parting” as “sweet sorrow”. It’s almost addictive.

Rodrigo – Fantasia para uno Gentilhombre (Slow movement)

Sweet sorrow. That was Rodrigo: his Fantasia. Did you notice the oboe? It was used by Rodrigo to produce a kind of antique sense, and this also happens in Elgar’s Symphonic Study, Falstaff. Oboe and tabor in A minor.

Elgar – Falstaff (excerpt)

A quiet A minor interlude in Falstaff by Elgar. A minor may be sweet sorrow for many, but for Mahler A minor was THE tragic key. I’m going to play the last part of his 6th Symphony. If you have tears to shed, prepare to play your trombone. It doesn’t get more self-indulgently miserable than this.

Mahler – 6th Symphony Last section of 4th movement

Well, what to do after that? We’d better go small and inconsequential. But first let me tell what that was. That was the end of Mahler’s 6th Symphony. Almost sounded like the end of Mahler! A very well known A minor piece is Fur Elise by Beethoven and a very well known film theme is that from Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet by Nino Rota. I haven’t got time to play them individually so I’m going to play them simultaneously.

Beethoven/Rota – Fur Juliet

Perhaps we should call that piece, played there by Tom Read, The Theme from Romeo and Elise. That was Rota’s Romeo and Juliet theme in the style of Fur Elise by Beethoven. To the cello now: If you were a 19th century composer and you wanted to write a cello concerto in a minor key and your name wasn’t Antonin Dvorak, you would write it in A minor. It’s a good key to exploit the instrument’s inherent Melancholia. I’ve chose Schumann ahead of Saint-Saens or Brahms. Here’s part of the 1st movement of his Cello Concerto.

Schumann – Cello Concerto 1

The cello and A minor in the 1st  movement of Schumann’s Cello Concerto. A quick change of mood to Prokofiev’s 3rd piano Sonata in A minor. A minor as a percussive key.

Prokofiev – 3rd Piano Sonata

We’ll stay with A minor, Russia and the piano. Now moving from Bavaria to Russia, here is the toccata-like prelude from Shostokovitch’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor.

Shostokovitch – Prelude in A minor

Shostokovitch’s Prelude in A minor. And now the Fugue who’s theme is definitely a bouncing ball.

Shostokovitch –  Fugue in A minor theme

And here’s Keith Jarred to play with it.

Shostokovitch – Fugue in A minor

Shostokovitch’s Fugue in A minor. We end with Beethoven. A very special piece that begins gruffly and becomes more and more lyrical. A wonderful exploration of A minor beginning and ending with identical chords in the home key but wandering through C major and A major on the way. The 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Magic.

Beethoven – 7th Symphony 2nd movement

We ended our exploration of A minor with that questioning chord at the end of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony 2nd movement. And whether it was a cold shower or sweet sorrow, I hope you’ve enjoyed this hour with A minor and Keynotes and me. Till next time, goodbye.                                                           


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