Hello and Welcome! This is the first of series of programmes in which we will travel through the musical keys. You will recognise their names: C major, A minor, B flat major and so on. We will sample music that illustrates the character of particular keys. Yes, keys have character, often more than one, and different composers may have seen different features of the same key. Major keys tend to be happy, brighter; minor keys sadder, more brooding – but these are only general rules as we shall see. It’s not just character that makes a composer pick a particular key. It might be the range of a prominent or solo instrument, the type of voice he wishes to work with. Brass instruments are happier in flat keys; strings in sharp keys. Which key a piece of music is in can be read from the extreme left of the written music. Anyone who has tried to learn music knows that the more sharps or flats there are to the left, the more difficult the music is to read.


In this first programme we start with the key that has no sharps or flats on the left of the written music – C major. On the piano the C major scale played only on white notes so it’s often where you start when learning the instrument.

Here’s Claude Debussy illustrating some piano exercises in C major in his Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from the Children’s Corner Suite for piano.

Debussy: Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner Suite

Debussy reproducing the sound of C major piano exercises in Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner.

The budding C major pianist on his or her way to Parnassus is likely to meet this little melody early in his or her studies.  This piece – called Melody – is the first piece in Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young. It’s what you learn soon after that great moment when both hands are put on the keys at the same time:

Schumann: Melodie from Album for the Young

The fundamental simplicity of C major seems to have exerted its influence on composers. Haydn represented the beginning of all things with a solid C at the beginning of his oratorio, Creation. C And the first arrival of light on the scene of Creation blazes in a C major chord after some murky music in C minor and E flat major.

Haydn: ‘And there was Light’ from TheCreation

….. ‘in the beginning’ of Haydn’s Creation.

And here’s Richard Strauss at the beginning, right down on the lowest note of the double basses – the note being a fundamental C, of course. The dawn of humans was the way Stanley Kubrick saw this piece of music in his film 2001 A Space Odyssey

Strauss: Opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra

The opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.  Back to Haydn now and his creation, Creation. When they first appear, Adam and Eve sing in C major wearing little more than an oboe in their naked bliss.

Haydn: ‘Von deiner Gut’, o Herr und Gott’ from The Creation

Adam and Eve singing in C major.

A number of composers took up the challenge presented by the musical keys and wrote a series of pieces covering the full range – every major and every minor. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well Tempered Clavichord contains 48 Preludes and Fugues, 2 in each key. This set is known in the trade as the 48. The first 24 constituted the first attempt to cover all the keys in one work. Bach put together the other 24 later in his life. Here’s Prelude number 1 of the 48 – in C major. I’m sure you will recognise it – and might even hum some Gounod to it.

JS Bach: Prelude in C major

Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Prelude in C major.  Now for the Fugue in C major. At the risk of boring the more weathered listener, I’m going to give a short explanation of what a fugue is before we hear our first in this series of programmes. A composer writes a theme that is played completely alone, by itself. Here’s the theme. Bach F in C subject.  Listen again.  You get the feel of it? Well, once this theme is stated, it appears again and again in the texture of the music like a bouncing ball while other things go one around it – sometimes it’s under the music, sometimes on top, sometimes in the middle. If the composer is feeling really clever he may put the theme in upside down or stretch it out or play little bits of it and generally have fun – both musical and it must be said – at times, intellectual. The best composers always preserve the musicality of their music in these exercises. So here’s the daddy of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach and his C major theme again Bach F in C subject,  followed by what he does with it. Follow the bouncing ball…..

JS Bach: Fugue in C major

How did you enjoy that?

Frederick Chopin also wrote a Prelude in each key. His Prelude in C is a tribute to Bach’s, I think. It’s faster but each bar has just one chord, shifting the colours in the same way as Bach.

Chopin: Prelude in C major

Chopin’s Prelude in C, the first of his 24 Preludes. In the 20th century when the range of musical expression was much wider than it was for Bach, Dimitri Shostokovitch had some fun tying himself down to writing short pieces in a single key. Like Bach he produced a Prelude and Fugue in each key. Here is the Prelude in C major by Shostokovitch.

Shostakovitch: Prelude in C major

Shostokovitch’s Prelude in C, the first of his 24 essays in all the keys. Here is the slow theme from hi s Fugue in C. Shos F in C subject This C major fugue contains not a single sharp or flat, not a single black note. What control for someone like Shostokovitch!

Shostakovitch: Fugue in C major (The Fugue starts 2’38” into this performance)

Shostokovitch ‘s Fugue in C major

The basic nature – (if one may use that term after hearing Adam and Eve)  – the basic nature of C major also brings some big statements from composers. Here’s Chopin’s first Etude for piano. It strides over the landscape like the immortal El-dils from CS Lewis’ Voyage to Venus.

Chopin: Etude in C major

Jupiter, the God and the planet, brings a larger than life C major, too. Holst first – Jupiter from the Planets – and note the middle section with the well-known tune in the grandest of all the keys, E flat major. More of that key in a later programme.

Holst: Jupiter from The Planets

Jupiter in C major – composer Gustav Holst.

Although he didn’t attach the name to it, Mozart’s final symphony, known as the Jupiter – in C major – has all the attributes of that Olympian. The first movement is solidly Jovian:

Mozart: Jupiter Symphony 1st movement

The Jupiter Symphony by Mozart otherwise known as number 41. And Brahms in his 4th symphony makes an Olympian statement in the Scherzo. One can hear the Jovian laughter through this C major  – rich certainly, but not really funny somehow – but that’s Brahms.

Brahms: 4th Symphony 3rd movement

Olympian Laughter as it has been described – the 3rd movt of Brahms’ 4th Symphony.

Now a little surprise. The fundamental simplicity of C major expressed in the tune and variations in the slow movement of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. Another Big Bang from Haydn, perhaps?

Haydn: 2nd movement of Surprise Symphony

The second movement of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. C major in all its simplicity.

And now – Allegro ordinario: “an ordinary quick speed” – that is Gustav Mahler’s take on C major. He writes a massive Rondo in C at the end of his very varied 7th symphony. He does this in part, I think,  to get repeated high fanfares at the top of the range of a group of trumpets in C. Listen out for them. Now, clear the decks, here comes a fanfare on the kettle drums:

Mahler: Finale 7th Symphony opening

The sound of the Finale of Mahler’s 7th Symphony.

Have you noticed how little tenderness there has been in this programme? It is difficult to squeeze the softer and more sophisticated emotions out of C major. Felix Mendelssohn managed it though, in the 2nd movement of his violin concerto. Quite a feat – especially on the violin whose sweetness is better suited to more complex keys as we shall see in future programmes.

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto 2nd movement

The tender C major 2nd movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Now to end here is the piece which holds the record for the most C major chords in a single symphonic movement. I remember when my music appreciation was dawning in my teen years hearing this played and wishing it would never end. The way Beethoven writes it, my wish was nearly granted! The famous last movement of the 5th symphony. The darkness of C minor is gone: the glory of C major has triumphed.

Beethoven: Finale from 5th Symphony

I hope enjoyed meeting the first of our Keys – C major and will join me when we explore another key in Keynotes. Good bye



Learning the Piano

Clementi                                  Sonatina in C

Mozart                                     Variations on Ah vous dirai-je, maman.

Dohnanyi                                Variations on a Nursery Theme (Beware – begins in a grappling C minor)


Wagner                                    Overture from  Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
(Fundamentalists when it came to German songs!)

Beethoven                               Symphony No 1 1st movement (His first Symphony) and
last movement (Beethoven plays with C major scale)

Large statements

Schubert                                  Symphony No 9 (The Great)

Schubert                                  The Wanderer Fantasy

Tchaikovsky                           Serenade for Strings 1st movt