Archive for April, 2012

The F of Destiny

Washing up after a mammoth birthday lunch for my daughter today (27 family members), I streamed some Verdi from ClassicsOnline. Some Traviata – the Prelude to Act 1 shifted in F major. I am used to the missing the warmth of E major – well, the green and yellow melancholy smiling at grief which is my way of compensating for such minor losses does have a Traviata feel to it, so one is in tune with Verdi there. Later came the three loud Fs at the start of the overture to The Force of Destiny. Fs? They are Es. Hearing this and knowing that my brain has played a semitone trick made me realise that this tendency to shift goes back further than I have thought. When compiling the Keynotes programmes back in the late 90s and early 2000s, I had intended to include this overture in the F minor programme because those three chords to me had the finality of unassuaged destiny that F minor can convey to the listener. It was by chance that I checked this up in a score in the library and found I had been hearing it wrongly. The overture is in E minor. I put this down to the ‘slightly shop-soiled’ pitch (rather than ‘perfect pitch’ using a clothing metaphor) I knew to be my lot. But really I should have known that this was not how it used to be with single notes like that. My difficulty with pitch occurred between the semitones (e.g. Baroque music played in the older lower tuning), and in the midst of complex musical passages where I would lose my way during the modulations. But I was not aware of this shift of more clearly defined tones until after the second broadcast of the Keynotes programmes on FMR in 2009.

Oddly, a few minutes later I switched to a Dvorak compilation and the Slavonic Dance in E minor was.

I ought to rush around with a tuner to see why, but the washing up and a certain apathy mean that I have not yet taken a scientific approach to my perceptual waverings.

F minor

F minor

Part1 Cymbal crash and racing music Mahler 1st Symphony Finale

Part 2 Noisy clashing music from Vaughan Williams 4th symphony

Part 3 Beethoven Pastoral Symphony loudest bit of Storm

I imagine that after that introduction that one or two listeners have already switched off. Welcome to you and thanks for staying! When I was preparing this series of programmes, I planned to miss out the key for this programme, F minor. I knew I’d end the hour with a tension headache. But in the interests of artistic integrity, I overcame my feelings and here we are. F minor it is. F minor is a dysphoric key, a dysthymic key. Let me interpret for all non-psychiatrists. It don’t feel so good, all is wrong with the world and it can’t be put right; indeed F minor hasn’t the wit to do so. It complains and mopes. Every now and then there’s a little backbone and some beauty, it must be admitted. But never the strength of the other unhappy flat keys D minor and C minor, or the gentle accepting sadness of G minor or A minor. So we’re in for an unhappy time, but once again appeal to artistic integrity – yours, dear listener. Let’s start with an overture. Beethoven’s Egmont Overture in F minor, which, to keep us sane, ends with a triumphant piccolo-led F major.

Beethoven – Egmont Overture

From F minor to F major in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. If there’s an unhappy key, you can be sure that Tchaikovsky wrote in it – and he wallowed in F minor. Unassuaged Fate toys with this tortured soul in the first movement of his 4th Symphony. There are moments of respite but F minor dominates.

Tchaikovsky  – 4th Symphony 1st movement

Part of the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony in F minor. We’ll have another 4th Symphony later in the programme. Let’s have a little respite and peace. I’m going to play our Bach and Shostokovitch Preludes back to back as they are similar in feel. F minor producing parallel inspirations over the centuries.

Bach Prelude Book 2

Shostokovitch F minor Prelude Shostokovitch’s very similar Prelude in F minor on the piano. What next? Well, hold on a musical moment, here comes Franz Schubert, on his pogo stick.

Schubert – Moment Musicale

The F minor Moment Musicale by Schubert. Back now to the typical restlessness of F minor with the 1st movement of the Appassionata Sonata by Beethoven.

Beethoven -  Appassionata Sonata 1st movt

A  section of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata in F minor. That mood is also found in Chopin’s F minor Prelude. It’s an angry outburst. It sputters and hisses like a pot on the boil. Irritable, restless. F minor.

Chopin  – Prelude

F minor’s angry restlessness in  Chopin’s Prelude in the key. By one of those wonderful coincidences without which the world would be so much the poorer, our last 3 composers of the programme have names beginning with V – Vaughan Williams, Verdi and Vivaldi. But before we get there, I want to show you how Chopin, whose Prelude we’ve just heard, brought his lyricism to bear on F minor and pulled its sting, making the key sing. Here’s part of the his 2nd Piano Concerto in F minor.

Chopin – Piano Concerto 2, 1st movement

Quite a lot of restlessness nonetheless. I think that 1st movement of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto in F minor only sounds so nice because he makes a lot of use of the wonderful key of A flat major which, through also having 4 flats, is closely related to F minor. Now here’s a surprise. A light-hearted piece in F minor. Paul Dukas cast his Sorcerer’s Apprentice in F minor. A piece that is amusing for us as observers but pretty serious for the drowning trainee, one would think. Maybe Dukas sensed that. We pick it up where the broom starts to come to life..

Dukas – Sorcerer’s Apprentice

We started Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice where the broom came to life and ended where the broom had been split in two and was about to come to life in multiple forms. And now

Fiddler excerpt

It’s a


For Jewish songs in musicals to be in F minor. I suspect it’s a combination of the pentatonic scale


that underpins the folk music of European Jewry and the vocal range of the average cantor. Whatever it is, here are two examples from the musicals: The Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof and Fagin Reviewing the Situation in Oliver!. Fagin also ‘Pick’s a pocket or two’ in F minor. It’s


After all….

Sabbath Prayer

Reviewing the Situation

I fiddled with Fagin a bit at the end there to emphasise my point. We heard Fagin thinking it out again from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof. For those who only know the Vaughan-Williams of the Greensleeves and Tallis Fantasia or The Lark Ascending, this next piece will come as something of a shock. This is his 4th Symphony. The conductor Edgar Cree claimed to have heard the composer imply that this music is atonal. I don’t think it is. It’s merely an expression of toothache, perfectly described by dissonances galore and F minor. We’ll hear part of the 1st movement.

Vaughan-Williams 4th Symphony 1st movement.

The 1st movement of Vaughan Williams’ F minor 4th Symphony. That was our first F minor V. Here’s the second – Verdi. Who’s the nastiest character in all Verdi Opera and all Shakespeare? Iago, of course, from Otello or Othello, and what’s his key as he praises his cruel God? – F minor.

Verdi – Otello

Iago’s Credo – I believe, in F minor from Otello by Verdi. If that was a cold, callous and cruel person, we move now on to something perhaps less unkind. Winter and our 3rd V: Vivaldi. A different kind of F minor restlessness with a rub of the hands and a stamp of the feet but at least in familiar territory, that of the Seasons.

Vivaldi – Winter 1st movement

The 1st movement of Winter in F minor by Vivaldi, the Seasons.  I implied earlier that we’d end the programme with the 3 Vs. But I can’t really leave you with either toothache, cruelty or cold fingers, so I’m going to end with some T. T for Tavener. John Tavener’s Song for Athene uses F minor and a deep F in the basses that goes on all the way through the piece. I suspect the cantors are back with F being the lowest note that most basses can get a real resonance from. For me the F minor expresses a person in the spiritual wilderness and then the music changes into F major and suddenly it’s heavenly. A reminder perhaps that in our F minor times, F major is not impossibly far away.

Tavener Song for Athene

John Tavener’s Song for Athene. And with that we seem to have said goodbye to F minor, so it just remains for me to say Goodbye from Keynotes and me. Goodbye.


Corals still lie in B minor

The sounds of the low female singing voice are in the air at the moment. Kathleen Ferriera turns 100 this year (or would have done if she had not died half a century ago) and her voice is being heard on FMR. Travelling to work today I switched on the radio. We were being treated to Janet Baker’s rendition of Elgar’s Sea Pictures. I came in at song number two. ‘Where Corals Lie’ was to come. This is a favourite B minor song of mine, and I featured it in the Keynotes B minor programme for this reason. The opening bare fifths in the strings, the mezzo voice and moderate speed are perfect for B minor, the colour beautifully evinced by Elgar (or the reverse, Elgar chose the key because of its hue). What a relief to me when it came to the song to find it that I could appreciate Baker, Barbarolli and B minor as pleasurably as usual. One side of me asked ‘why has it not shifted?’, but the other said ‘enjoy it!’ and I did and entered the hospital with jaunty step.

B minor

B minor

[Short B minor motivs as introduction – Elgar Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, Schubert Unfinished Symphony 1st movement, Liszt Piano Sonata]

Ah, yes. Good evening. There’s a very special sense to tonight’s key of B minor. Did you feel it in the introduction? B minor is a reflective key. It has a mature view of the world and, without losing hope, knows that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s in late middle age, seated in a chair on the verandah with a glass of red wine. A grandchild is dandled absent-mindedly on the knee while past success and failures are mused upon.

Who better to express this than the prematurely aged Johannes Brahms. His Clarinet Quintet. The intimacy of a string quartet, the mellowness of the clarinet – and B minor. The first movement.

Brahms Clarinet Quintet 1st movement

It is characteristic of a good B minor piece that there is a short phrase or motiv stated right at the start. We heard some of them in the introduction to this programme. Schubert’s 8th Symphony – the Unfinished – does it in the cellos and basses.

Schubert Unfinished Symphony 1st movement

Elgar’s Violin Concerto also starts with a defining motiv. Its energy rises and then falls back. The time for triumphs is past. No Pomp and Circumstance here.

Elgar Violin Concerto 1st movement

I’d better play something more upbeat before we all nod off to sleep on our verandahs. Here are Brunnhilde and her sisters riding the skies in their helicopters. But I have a bit of a surprise for you. You had no idea that the Valkyries were closet troglodytes, did you? Fasten your seatbelts. We’ll be coming down in Scotland

Wagner Ride of the Valkyries – these two pieces are spliced where Wagner has oscillating F sharp to G motes in the strings and so does Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture

Bit of bumpy ride but we got there. Note that the Hebrides Overture which is where we ended also has a motiv.

Anyway, it’s time to brush ourselves down, straighten out the tie and get serious again. Shostokovitch P&F in B minor. The Prelude imitates the clipped rhythms of some Baroque dances. The Fugue is more relaxed.

Shostokovitch P&F in B minor

Staying in Russia but moving to Tchaikovsky who couldn’t resist a minor key. His last utterance, the 6th Symphony, is in B minor; the key chosen perhaps, not on its own merits, but because he could exploit the lowest notes of the bassoons in the opening and in the last movements. Also when the 1st movement gets going, he uses the strained upper register of the violas to set forth the main theme and its associated defeated anxiety – pure psychiatry. Here are those 2 movements.

Tchaikovsky – 6th Symphony 1,4

After that all that’s needed is a glass of contaminated water to round off the evening. Let’s save ourselves from the abyss with some lively Chopin. His 3rd Piano Sonata is in B minor. The final movement is a hell-for-leather dance;

Chopin – 3rd Piano Sonata 4

Now that’s what I call piano music! I think we should stick with Chopin. Here’s his Prelude in B minor. A melancholy tune for the left hand and halting sighs in the right.

Chopin – Prelude in B minor

Earlier we visited the seashore of Western Scotland. Now we’re going to the land where coral’s lie. B minor suits this particular strand (excuse the pun) in Elgar’s character and singing his song is Dame Janet Baker whose voice just oozes B minor.

Elgar – Where Corals Lie

We move to inland water and call Tchaikovsky in again. Swan Lake – the best known bit – is in  B minor. It soundssweet enough with the oboe ( I wonder, in parenthesis, if he had Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in mind when he constructed this – listen and wonder with me) – sweet enough, but tragedy waits. In performance the lighting of the opening always gives this aspect away – green, yellows, brown. Dirty colours. No limpid lake this. Not in B minor.

Tchaikovsky – Opening of Swan Lake.

I haven’t forgotten our boost of Bach. The B minor Ps and Fs are the last in each set of 24. We’ll hear the pair from Book 2 – chosen because they’re quite upbeat and we need that. The fugue is a tuneful dance – no academics here.

Bach – P & F in B minor Book2

Bach and B minor – Is there a connection? No, I don’t think so. What? Pardon? The B minor Mass, you say? Never heard of it! Anyway Masses are too weighty for me, so I’m afraid I’m bypassing it. All complaints to the management.

I remain on the light side. Here are 3 characters from Gilbert and Sullivan contemplating decapitation. One of the cleverer songs, both in lyrics and music – from The Mikado

G&S – I am so Proud, The Mikado

The bassoons are back baring their bottom Bs. Why else did Grieg choose tonight’s key for his Hall of the Mountain King? Another cave, by the way.

Grieg – In the Hall of the Mountain King (Peer Gynt)

Earlier I cravenly sidestepped Bach’s B minor Mass – a pinnacle of Baroque art. To make amends I end this programme with a pinnacle of Romantic art – specifically the art of the Piano Sonata. Liszt’s monumental essay in this form is in B minor – and it begins, as we might expect, with a motiv – a descending scale – thereby claiming to be the last word on the key. And tonight it is. The pianist has to be Jorges Bolet. See you next week.

Liszt – Piano Sonata

Does it really matter?

“Does it really matter that I cannot hear things in the original key most of the time?” I asked myself as I listened to FMR  in the car this afternoon. A Scarlatti piano sonata was getting its virtuosic treatment – apparently in E flat major.  I suspected that it would turn out to be D major  and indeed it was when back-announced. No matter – just as exciting. But then it was followed by Beethoven’s piano sonata in F sharp major. Now, I thought, this will be the test of this briefly encountered equanimity. F sharp major is an unusual key to write in; Beethoven will have thought this choice of key through. This is a two movement sonata. Beethoven’s other two movement sonatas are in the light bright key of G major and are really sonatinas. They are given to young pianists to play when they meet Beethoven’s great set of 32 piano sonatas. (The only other 2 movement sonata is the mighty Opus 111 which would Godzilla-like crush the G major ones into the ground if they ever encountered one another). So the F sharp major sonata is deeper than the other 2 short sonatas by virtue of its key. It is also greater than they are in its thematic material and how Beethoven uses it. So when, as I slowed down passing the Cape Town Convention Centre to the traffic lights at the bottom of the freeway, this sonata began its slow introductory chordal melody in diminished form in G major, I knew that it DID matter that I cannot hear things in the original key. This was watered down Beethoven. I turned it off.


Sitting at the piano and grounding the Beethoven F sharp major sonata in its key by feeling it under my fingers, I realised I’d made two errors in this post. Beethoven’s duo of small sonatas are not in the same key: the first is in G minor, but I think of it as in G major because of its light-spirited Rondo second movement. There is one other two movement piano sonata among Beethoven’s oeuvre – in F major. I have never had much sympathy with this one. It feels rather journeyman composer-like and the octaves in the first movement take us nowhere. Probably the fault of the key, too. Mental blank led to forgetfulness.

Return top