Hello and Welcome. The key for this programme is F major. F major is the simplest of the keys. It’s unselfconscious, innocent and undemanding. It does not worry about its place in the world. It is like a quiet, gently pretty younger sister in an 19th century novel, sitting in a corner, contentedly doing her tatting or some such needlework. Do not expect complex musical statements or thought-provoking originality from F major.

To illustrate F major’s temperament, let’s take a little Bagatelle by Beethoven that most aspirant pianists will have had to learn quite early on in their studies. It contains a simple tune that Beethoven gently bends around but never twists into a complex shape.

Beethoven Bagatelle in F

And while the piano is open, let’s enjoy another simple F major piece that young pianists are likely to meet: JS Bach’s 2-part invention in F.

Bach2 part Invention in F

Narry a hint of gravitas so far, you’ll agree. Well, let’s put F major’s character to the test by wheeling in Johannes Brahms. Brahms finds it difficult not to sound a note of gravitas, but in his 3rd symphony, when he wanted to express how carefree he was feeling, how light were his spirits, he turned to F major. This is Free and Frolicsome, Brahms style.

Brahms 3rd Symphony 1st movement

Not entirely unscathed is F major, I fear, but we shouldn’t have trusted Brahms – he writes the last movement of that “Free and Frolicsome” symphony in a minor key! But to restore the key’s reputation I wish to point out how it tamed the bombast and philosophic churnings of the great Gustav Mahler. When he met F major in his airy Austrian composer’s retreat, he succumbed to her quiet, uncomplicated charms by paring down his vast orchestral cravings to a piece of night music, almost chamber music-like in scale with mandolin and gentle guitar. The 4th movement of his 7th Symphony.

Mahler 4th movt 7th Symphony

The perfumes of the night in the 4th movement of Mahler’s 7th Symphony. And now we can be wafted off into dreamland with Traumerei by Robert Schumann – a very small F major piece compared with the Mahler, but there are connections in the shaping of certain phrases and in the harmonies.

Schumann Traumerei

Traumerei or Dreaming from Scenes from Childhood by Robert Schumann. Mr Schumann, please will you stay. We’d like to hear how that younger sister we heard of earlier is depicted in you Piano Concerto, in the 2nd movement, the Intermezzo. Don’t look at me – look at the 1st movement, look at the 3rd movement. I’m just in between, just in between, just in between.

Schumann Piano Concerto 2

We’ll stop that before it gets into the big stuff. That was the Intermezzo from Schumann’s Piano Concerto .

Now back to the solo keyboard again for our Preludes and Fugues. Chopin’s Prelude first. The F major prelude, though not easy to play, is constructed very simply. In the upper voice is a repeated rippling phrase; and in the lower voice there is a short repeated melodic phrase.

Chopin Prelude in F

43 seconds of F major , ending with a little question mark. In Shostokovitch’s Prelude in F, the younger sister we talked about earlier stands up. She’s worthy of second look, quite statuesque.

Shostokovitch Prelude in F

In Shostokovitch’s Fugue in F major a simple theme is treated very classically. This is Shostokovitch controlling himself under the influence of F major.

Shostokovitch Fugue in F (starts at 3’48”)

I think we’ve had enough of Preludes and Fugues. Let’s get into some slushy stuff. Here’s one of those pieces that’s known by the key it’s written in. Melody in F by Anton Rubenstein

Rubenstein – Melody in F

A beautifully schmaltzy version of Melody in F by Rubenstein. And now another take on F major’s simplicity – clod hopping lack of sophistication. Ask Beethoven. Why did he choose F major for the Pastoral Symphony? Just listen to the 3rd movement. Peasants’ merry making. [Pause] You don’t believe me, do you? I call my first witness. Robert Schumann, what do you say, Robert?

Schumann The Merry Peasant

That was Schumann’s clodhopping Merry Peasant. Will my second witness  to this aspect of F major’s character please step forward? Engelbert Humperdinck. No, Not that one! The Hansel and Gretel one. Here’s simple song sung by Gretel. Very rural, very simple, even to the point of having birds singing!

Humperdinck – Gretel’s song

That rustic song sung by Gretel in Hansel and Gretel by Humperdinck was in F major. Now do you believe me about this aspect of F major’s character? Let’s listen to Peasants Merrymaking by Beethoven and jum p from there to the last movement in which we meet the merry peasants recently refreshed by water from a storm singing a tune based on the basic chord of F major. F major, or course.

Beethoven Pastoral Symphony 3,5 movements

Movements 3 and 5 of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, number 6.  And as the ignorant peasants went back to their back-breaking work, we heard a French Horn in the back ground. Perhaps it was a hunt? The French Horn is very at home in F major. When Richard Strauss, whose father was a horn player, wished to demonstrate and use the horn’s agility as a representation of the practical joker of German legend, Till Eulenspiegel, he wrote in F and gave the French Horn a very prominent part.

R Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And we’re not finished with horns. Here comes another hunt though these horns are played on the violin!

Vivaldi Autumn 1st movement

That was the 3rd movement of Autumn from the Seasons by Vivaldi. The violins giving a good representation of a hunt and horns. Horns again and a rural setting, but now we shift from the French Horn to the English Horn or cor anglais. Both instruments are tuned in F. I don’t know if Hector Berlioz had this in mind when he gave the cor anglais a prominent part in the rural 3rd movement of his Symphonie Fantastique – maybe it was the peasant again – but it is in F major and we’re going to listen to it now.

Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique 3rd movement

After that, I think we need to give that young sister a second look. What sad motifs is she weaving into her handwork? She is clearly more melancholic than our first judgement suggested.

Perhaps we should marry her off. And so, as we come to the end of the programme, we have to choose between making her A Merry Wives of Windsor – or A Bartered Bride. A wife or Bride? Both are in F major. I think I’ll take the bride because she has the better joke – one of Frank Muir’s bon mots. He suggested that there was one thing he could say about Bedrich Smetana, the composer: he always knew which side his Bride was Bartered on!

Smetana – Bartered Bride Overture.

Bedrich Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture . And with that we’ve reached the end of our exploration of F major. I hope you’ll join me next time when we explore another key in Keynotes. Good bye.


Simplicity and Innocence

Chopin                                                     Ballade in F major (Contrasting restless D minor section in the middle)

Mahler                                                      Adagietto from 5th Symphony (another example of the taming of his vast orchestral cravings)

Mozart                                                      Minuet in F (one of the first pieces he wrote)

Clodhopping simplicity