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