Fine Music Radio welcomes you to Keynotes!

Chopin Prelude in A 1st 2 bars

A wander through the musical keys

Chopin Prelude in A 2nd 2 bars

And here is your guide, Tony Westwood

Chopin Prelude in A 3rd 2 bars


Hello and welcome; today we meet A major. I must start with a warning: Do not trust A major. A major has a smile but it is vacuous. A major has bright eyes, but there is nothing behind them. A major is shallow; it is really difficult to have a meaningful relationship with A major.

Witness the experience of Felix Mendelssohn. He had great trouble getting his Italian Symphony to work. He sweated blood over it. The reason is surely that he chose A major. You cannot squeeze Italian vigour out of her – all you will evince from is her empty smile.

Let’s listen to the 1st movement of this symphony – known in our household as “The Mermaid’s Lagoon” from a chapter heading in a recording of Peter Pan in which this music is used as the background. You’ll hear the rhythm in the woodwinds – “The Mermaid’s Lagoon”!

Mendelssohn – Italian Symphony 1st movement

Young Felix Mendelssohn also put his Song without Words called ‘Spring Song’ into A major. “Song without feeling’ rather:

Mendelssohn – Spring Song.

I think Robert Schumann understood A major. He cast a fair proportion of his Album for the Young in the key. “Album for those who have not yet achieved full maturity’ – very apposite for A major. Here’s a sequence of the A major miniatures from the Album:

Schumann – Album for the Young excerpts.

Serge Prokofiev also understood that A major is all surface, but he did not take it lying down. In his 6th Piano Sonata he pulls and pushes her around, threatening to turn her into A minor unless she capitulates and shows some spunk, which he eventually does. Arm wrestling with A major:

Prokofiev – 6th Piano Sonata 1st movement

If we want to get to the reason for A major’s shallow artifice, we must turn to Chopin’s little 16 bar Prelude in A that started the programme. Watch the corner of her mouth on each of the sets of 3 repeated chords. Yes, it is a little self-satisfied. A major is revealed as a narcissist! A study in self-absorption, Chopin’s Prelude in A major:

Chopin – Prelude in A

Debussy and Nijinski had cottoned on to A major’s self-absorption. The self-contemplation of the Faun one dreamy afternoon.

Debussy – L’apres midi d’un faun

In truth that piece is in E major but the flute oscillates across A as if it knows that that is key the Faun was really dreaming about itself in.

What is it with the flute and A major as in that piece? Was Mozart right to question the instrument’s commitment to good music? Here are Debussy’s Shepherd, played all alone and in A major. Loneliness – or complete self containment?

Debussy – The Little Shepherd (Children’s Corner Suite)

Another wind instrument now. Mozart’s two major works for the clarinet are written in A – because they’re easier to play on the A clarinet. As someone brought up arrangements of these works for the more common on B flat clarinet, these works have never sounded quite right to me. But that’s no reason to deny them to you. Here is the last movement of the Clarinet Quintet – a set of variations on a bouncy theme.

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet 4

Mozartian grace conquers A major. Here for me is the apogee of Mozartian grace in A major: the 1st movement of the 23rd Piano Concerto. Not how the 2nd chord completely expels A major’s incipient solipsism and provides warmth and vulnerability at one stroke – and insight I learnt many years ago from the writer and broadcaster, Anthony Hopkins.

Mozart – 23rd Piano Concerto 1st movement

How does Shostakovich cope with A major in his P & F? In the Prelude he stays in the key longer than I’d have expected before succumbing to his tendency to escape. The fugue reveals that he understands A major’s emptiness. The theme is simply made up of the broken chord of A – and it’s an Allegretto, that most nondescript of speeds. Hardly worth the fuss for the composer, one suspects.

Shostakovich – Prelude & Fugue in A major

Oh brooding spirit of Beethoven, what do you make of A major? Away with Fauns! Away with pipes and flutes! Away with nymphs dancing delicately in the pale moonlight! Let’s dance!!

Beethoven – 7th Symphony 4th movement

And now I’m going to unravel my own arguments about poor A major. One of the happiest pieces I know is in A; a piece that I recommend for dispelling the blues, the greys, the dumps. The “Alla Marcia” from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, the brightest spot in this composer’s output. So I leave you with a light heart, I hope, after nearly an hour of ambiguous A major.

Sibelius – Alla Marcia from Karelia Suite