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.

BachPrelude 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.