E flat major

Tonight one of the most easily characterisable keys, E flat major. E flat is a key for heroes (dead or alive or heroes to be); it is the key of the river Rhine; of large edifices.  But if these imposing emanations of Nature and the human spirit are the Ego (capital E as in Emperor) of E flat major, there is an alter ego – no, really and anti-ego with a small ‘e’. A skittish, playfulness like a kitten with a cotton reel. So in order to prevent listener indigestion, I shall intersperse mouthfuls of main course with light-as-air meringues.

For starters – actually there are no starters, straight into main course. To start with, let’s say – Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. This piece has both sorts of E flat major in it: the imposing chords of the Masons which we heard at the beginning of the programme, and the skittish Birdman. Papageno.

Mozart – Magic Flute Overture

That piece started with an imposing E flat major chord. The resonances of a loud chord in E flat are used for the imposing start to a piece of music by many composers. Here are some examples. Can you name the composers of these E flat major chords?

005 E flat chords

How did you do with those chords? You should have got the first one – that was The Magic Flute overture again. The we had the first two chords from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony; then the beginning of the Rhenish Symphony by Schumann. Mozart’s 39th Symphony – the very beginning; then it was the start of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto – I’m sure you heard the piano in that one; a massive chord from 4 brass bands in Berlioz’ Requiem. Sheakily coming in were Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge over Troubled Water – I wonder if you would have got that just with the first chord – it’s so characteristic, isn’t it? Then it was the Grand March from Aida; the beginning of Mahler’s 8trh Symphony; and the Great Gate of Kiev by Mussorgsky.We’ll hear more from some of those works later – but here’s another starter.

“The scene begins in the River Rhine – IN IT”! The River Rhine flows in E flat. Ask Wagner. Ask Schumann. Wagner begins his Ring Cycle in the depths of the river – in E flat and for the first few minutes all we hear is the chord of E flat – till the 3 Rhinemaidens start carolling. Here we go……

Wagner – Introduction to Das Rheingold

Singing in the Rhine. Carolling Rhinemaidens conducted by Karajan. That was the beginning of Das Rhinegold by Richard Wagner.  Well, while Wagner starts in the murky Freudian depths of the unconscious Rhine, Robert Schumann shows us its grand, broad nature as it rolls through a proud German nation: the beginning of his Rhenish Symphony, Number 3.

Schumann – Rhenish Symphony 1st movement

The 1st movement of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. We’ll leave the Rhine now to flow away on its own.

I wonder who started this business of E flat major being the heroic key, the imposing imperial key? I suspect it may have been Mozart as we heard in the Magic Flute Overture. Here’s further evidence that it was Mozart. The stately begninning of the 39th Symphony in E flat. Did this not perhaps call the world’s attention to E flat? See what you think.

Mozart Symphony no 39 1st movt

The 1st movement of Mozart’s 39th Symphony.

As we heard in the Magic Flute Overture and in that symphony, Mozart can be credited with giving E flat its noble character, but it was Beethoven who set the mould for all time. The Eroica Symphony, of course. The heroic human spirit; a symphony half as long again as any that had gone before. Heroic proportions, epic. And starting with 2 E flat major chords as we heard earlier.

Eroica chords

I would like to shared the whole of the 1st movement of the Eroica Symphony with you but there just isn’t time. So we’re going to listen to the last bit, the Coda, as it’s known in the trade. Here the heroic theme receives its full magnificent treatment.

Beethoven – Eroica Symphony  1st movement.

After Beethoven, as I said, it was hard to write music about heroes without invoking E flat. Witness Richard Strauss in A Hero’s Life. (His own, by the way). I won’t subject you to the whole work. Apart from the fact that I haven’t got time, I find it an irritating work. But it does have a grand opening in E flat.

R Strauss – Ein Heldenleben – opening (start 20 second in)

Yes, well I think he’s made his point. That was ‘our hero’, Richard Strauss clothing him self in E flat major in Ein Heldenleben.stra.

Elgar put his heroic hunter Nimrod in E flat, too.

Elgar – Nimrod

Nimrod, the heroic E flat major variation from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar. George Hurst was conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

And Verdi to prove my point about heroics. The Grand March from Aida. I think I can rest my case.

Verdi – Aida – Grand March

The noble glories of Egypt.

Even Arthur Sullivan caught the E flat bug. The majestic peers pass by in E flat in Iolanthe. “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes”. Heroes indeed!

Sullivan – Loudly let the trumpets bray, Iolanthe

Sullivan’s music for the Entrance of the Peers from Iolanthe. Music too good for its subject perhaps, but leading nicely into the less serious side of E flat major.

Here is Saint Saens in skittish mood in his second piano concerto.

Saint Saens – 2nd Piano Concerto 2nd movement

Definitely a kitten on the keys there: the 2nd movement of Saint Saens’ second Piano Concerto. I hope you enjoyed the very skittish side of E flat major.

Chopin uses E flat as a gossamer-light web spread over the piano in his Prelude.

Chopin – Prelude in E flat

Where shall we go now? Let us visit Kiev through its massive gates. The first of our imposing edifices. Composed by Mussorgsky, arranged, not by Ravel, but by Leo Funtec.

Mussorgsky –  Great Gates Of Kiev

The Great Gate oF Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And now the stone walls of the Tower of London. Here to tell us about them (in E flat , of course) is Dame Carruthers.

Sullivan – When our gallant Norman foes

Dame Carruthers in Gibert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard.  I’m leaving the biggest musical edifices in E flat major till last. Let’s go in the meantime to our Bach fugue. The fugue has a bold subject that would sound good and heroic if played on a trombone.

Bach  F in E flat – Book 2

I think you deserve something skittish now and here’s some Mozart – very frothy. The final movement of his Piano Concerto number 22.

Mozart Piano Concerto no 22 3rd movement

Quite the most delightful piece of E flat whimsy that movement: the 3rd movement of Mozart’s 22nd Piano Concerto.

Staying with the piano, we’ve had our Chopin Prelude and our Bach Fugue – now time for some Shostokovitch. His prelude in E flat contains both the skittish and the solemn, but he skittish gets more and more sinister as the short piece goes on.

Shostokovitch -  Prelude in E flat

Shostokovitch’s prelude in E flat major.

Now we’re going to go really big:

When Hector Berlioz exploited the possibilities of E flat major, he didn’t stop with orchestral forces. He added 4 brass bands, dozens of kettle drums and a huge chorus. The sound is awesome (I use the term literally, not in the teenage American way.) This is the Dies Irae from Berlioz’ titanic Requiem.

Berlioz – Requiem

You’d think that anything after that would be an anticlimax.  That was the Dies Irae from Berlioz’ Requiem. There’s someone who can out do that.

I end the programme with some Mahler. This is the concluding Gloria section from his Symphony of a Thousand, the number 8. It can only be done in E flat as Mahler understood – his biggest choral movements are in E flat. It all ends with ‘ the sound of a great Amen’, rolling on bar after bar – one of the greatest in all music.

Mahler – 8th Symphony. End of 1st movement (Start 20 minutes 32 seconds in)

I really don’t know how to put you down gently after that.  Mahler’s 8th Symphony is like that. I suppose I’ll have leave you sitting there transfixed as I bid you farewell from Keynotes and E flat major, hoping that you will join me the next time we explore the world of the musical keys. Goodbye.