C minor

Hello and welcome. The key for this programme is clearly the one Beethoven wrote his 5th in. It’s C minor. C minor is a very grave key – one almost might say ‘the grave’. If you want to make a weighty statement about the problems of life you write in C minor. It could be said that C minor is German. It is Nietzsche; it is Schopenhauer. It is dialectic. It is Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

Beethoven – 5th Symphony 1st movement

Yes, the serious, questing side to Beethoven epitomises C minor. That was (as if it needed announcement ) the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.   Here’s more Beethoven: 2 sonata movements. The first movement of the Pathetique piano sonata starts with a heavy C minor chord. It says, ‘Listen to me! I have something important and serious to say.’

Beethoven –  Pathetique Sonata 1st movement

The next first movement is from Beethoven’s last piano sonata. It, too, starts with the human intellect stating that there’s a problem. And the rest of the movement wrestles with it.

Beethoven -  Opus 111 1st movement

The restless dialectic of C minor. That was the first movement of the last piano sonata that Beethoven ever wrote, Opus 111. Superstitious cricketers might have something to say about that opus number.  I think we’ll move away from the very weighty dialectic to another pianist who made C minor his own. Sergei Rachmaninov. He appropriated the key pretty effectively with  his second Piano Concerto; the first movement leaving us in no doubt that he understood C minor’s character – although he sidles in with chords of F minor to trick the unwary.

Rachmaninov – 2nd Piano Concerto 1st movement

That was part of the 1st movement of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Let’s move away from big works for the moment and go to our Bach Prelude and Fugue for this programme.  I’ve chosen the pair from Book 1. The Prelude in C minor is a 2-part invention, in other words 2 voices share and alternate the musical ideas.

JS Bach – Prelude in C minor Bk 2

And the Fugue has a very brief morose subject.

Bach – Fugue in C minor subject

“I’m not happy”, it states, but the 4 voices in the Fugue never tell us why.

JS Bach – Fugue in C minor Bk 2

Chopin’s C minor Prelude is one of the most famous in the set of 24. It picks up on the idea from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata we heard earlier: start by plonking down a heavy chord of C minor. “I have something of importance to say”.

Chopin – Prelude in C minor

Fading away into wistfulness, Chopin’s P in C minor. You’ll be pleased to know that there is a lighter side to C minor. – and I’m going to show you some in Mahler of all the composers. In his Resurrection Symphony whose serious discourse is largely in C minor, he uses the key to great effect in describing St Anthony’s sermon to the gaping fishes in the 3rd movement. C minor has its ironic side.

Mahler – 2nd Symphony 3rd movement

The first section of the 3rd movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.  Moving from irony to another smaller work in C minor. Here is the C minor Song without Words by Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn – Song without Words in C minor

When Mozart comes across C minor, it induces in him a tendency to write tunes that turn in on themselves, complex (for Mozart) statements. Here’s an example in the 1st movement of the 24th Piano Concerto.

Mozart – 24th Piano Concerto 1st movement

The working out of the complex tunes that C minor induces in Mozart.  And if you want another example of this effect of C minor try Mozart’s Quintet for winds and piano. There’s an amusing passage in EM Forster’s novel Howard’s End in which the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is described. Have you ever thought of it in these terms? ‘The music started with a goblin working over the universe from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures. It was that that made them so terrible to Helen.  They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. Helen could not contradict them because, once at all events, she had felt the same. And had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness. Panic and emptiness. The goblins were right.’

Beethoven – 5th Symphony 3rd movement

The 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Did the imagery from EM Forster help? We return now to weighty matters – funerals. The slow movement of Elgar’s 2nd Symphony – his tribute to a king. C minor an appropriate key, but also taking advantage of the key’s close connection to E flat major, the heroic key. Both keys have 3 flats.

Elgar – 2nd Symphony 2nd movement

Heroes and funerals in Elgar’s 2nd Symphony slow movement. We’ll be having a hero and a funeral to end the programme. But let’s have something upbeat now;  something noisy, something to wake us up, something fiery, something angry, something C minor, something Chopin.

Chopin –  Revolutionary Etude

Chopin’s so called Revolutionary Etude; really a study for the left hand. Two deaths to end the programme with: one anticipated by a minor composer and one imagined by a major composer. Our minor composer is Arthur Sullivan who, I have no doubt, was influenced by our major composer, Beethoven, when he wrote the March to the Scaffold in his Yeomen of the Guard.

Sullivan – March to the Scaffold, Yeomen of the Guard

The Prisoner Comes in C minor from the Yeomen of the Guard by Arthur Sullivan. In fact , he didn’t come – he’d escaped. We end with our major composer, Beethoven, writing the funeral march to end all funeral marches (but actually spawning many other C minor funeral marches – think of Siegfried‘s, for example). Beethoven, C minor – the same thing. Here’s our last hero, our last funeral. The 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. I regret that I cannot play the whole piece but I’m sure you’ll get the flavour of it from this last section.

Beethoven – 3rd Symphony 2nd movement

Gentle listener, you are probably the first person who has ever sat through 1 hour of continuous C minor. I wonder how you feel? Well, chin up! We’ll have a major key next time. We ended with the Funeral March for a Hero 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, known as the Eroica. Goodbye from me, and goodbye from C minor and goodbye from Keynotes.