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Thread: Use of major & minor keys for symphonies throughout history...

  1. #1
    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Default Use of major & minor keys for symphonies throughout history...

    I am interested in a discussion related to the "statistics" I compiled below - comparing how many symphonies each major composer wrote in either a minor or major key. What do you think are the reasons for the changes suggested by the rough data in my list? What are your thoughts on why/how the earlier preference towards major keys shifted more towards that of the minor keys later? If anyone can add similar data of any more symphonic composers worth including/comparing this would also be interesting (esp. those before Haydn & after Shostakovich).

    Another issue which you may discuss, if you know these composers symphonies to a fair degree, is do you prefer their symphonies in one key more than the other? (minor versus major keys). Is your preference roughly equally "balanced" between the two, or more "tipped" towards one or the other? It would be interesting to get a discussion going about these things (I've stuck to the symphony genre as the symphonic repertoire is more widely known than the others). Of course, why we like a symphony doesn't always boil down to what key it is or isn't in, things are more often than not not this simple to define & our preferences can easily also change over time...

    Haydn - Total of 104 (numbered) symphonies
    In minor key: 7 (many/most composed during his "Sturm und Drang" (Storm & Stress) period)
    In major key: 97

    Mozart - Total of 41 (numbered) symphonies
    In minor key: 2
    In major key: 39

    Beethoven - Total of 9 (completed) symphonies
    In minor key: 2
    In major key: 7

    Schubert - Total of 9 completed (or substantially completed) symphonies
    In minor key: 2
    In major key: 7

    Mendelssohn - Total of 5 symphonies (not incl. string symphonies)
    In minor key: 2
    In major key: 3

    Schumann - Total of 4 symphonies
    In minor key: 1
    In major key: 3

    Brahms - Total of 4 symphonies
    In minor key: 2
    In major key: 2

    Bruckner - Total 9 (numbered) symphonies
    In minor key: 5 (other two unnumbered symphonies are also in minor keys)
    In major key: 4

    Tchaikovsky - Total 6 symphonies
    In minor key: 5
    In major key: 1

    Dvorak - Total of 9 symphonies
    In minor key: 4
    In major key: 5

    Mahler - Total of 10 symphonies (incl. substantially completed 10th symphony)
    In minor key: 5
    In major key: 5

    Sibelius - Total of 7 symphonies
    In minor key: 3
    In major key: 4

    Vaughan Williams - Total 9 symphonies
    In minor key: 4
    In major key: 1
    In no particular key: 4 (I looked on RVW society website & they listed these symphonies as without keys assigned - this must be correct?)

    Prokofiev - Total 7 symphonies
    In minor key: 4
    In major key: 3
    (additionally, Symphony-Concerto for cello & orch. is in minor key)

    Shostakovich - Total 15 symphonies
    In minor key: 9
    In major key: 5
    In no particular key: 1 ? (couldn't find any key for Symphony No. 14)
    Last edited by Sid James; Aug-01-2011 at 06:09.
    Contrasts and Connections in Music

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    To start, I think a possible reason for the shift from preference for using major to minor keys across this space of time could have to do with literary things & currents in the arts outside of music (history/cultural context as well). Eg. Mozart's earlier symphony in G minor (No. 25) & also a number of Haydn's minor key symphonies were composed around the time of the literary "Sturm und Drang" period (they actually predated it, as far as I understand, yet the overall artistic "zeitgeist" was probably there earlier?). The Romantic movement in terms of literature & art probably also contributed big time to what happened in music in the c19th. Goethe's Faust was a watershed in this regard. Then there were the late c19th "realists" like Dickens, Zola & Dostoyevsky who wrote about the "underbelly" of their societies in that time. These had little to do with (say) earlier things like the comedies of Voltaire & Moliere, to name two French guys of earlier times. Then there was the emergence of psychoanalysis, Freud & Jung, that definitely informed the works of guys like Mahler (& through him, Shostakovich). The symphony as biography was born.

    Of course, not everything is as simple & cliched as major keys are happy & minor keys are sad. Schubert's Symphony No. 4 "Tragic" is in a minor key, while Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 (also sometimes called "Tragic") is in a major key. & of course, keys are not always (or often?) fixed throughout a whole symphony, a convention in the "Classical Era" was to name the symphony for the key of the first movement. So many things like this can be quite rubbery, and related to the specific work & composer, etc. & also, my absolute favourite symphonies from Tchaikovsky (his 2nd) & Vaughan Williams (his 8th) are both in minor keys, & yet they speak of optimism to me (esp. their endings). So this type of thing can be based more on perception of the individual listener than the "cold hard facts" of what key a symphony (or part of it?) is in...
    Last edited by Sid James; Aug-01-2011 at 06:11.
    Contrasts and Connections in Music

    "When reason and instinct are reconciled, there will be no higher appeal" - Rameau.

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Here's a list of my favourites from each of these guys, from symhonies I've heard by them. I've only got time now to list my big favourites -

    Haydn - Sym. 49 (minor) & then the London Symphonies (all major) & also Sym. 88 (major)
    Mozart - Syms. 25, 40 (the only two in minor), then Sym. 41 (major) - I haven't heard that much of his, so this is not very accurate in terms of that.
    Beethoven - Sym. 3 (major), but no strong preferences after that, like them pretty much eqaully
    Mendelssohn - His last three, Sym. 3 (minor), Syms. 4 & 5 (major)
    Schumann - Very strong preference for Sym. 4 (minor), other 3 are equal after that
    Brahms - Syms. 1 & 4 (both minor)
    Bruckner - Syms. 6 & 7 (both major)
    Tchaikovsky - Sym. 2 (minor) - but it sounds "happy" to me!
    Dvorak - Sym. 8 (major)
    Mahler - Sym. 4 (major), then Syms. 1 (major), 5 (minor), 10 (major)
    Sibelius - Sym. 4 (minor), but rarely listen to, don't own it on disc, very depressing for me, but still his best imo; No strong preferences for the rest, which I'm not a huge fan of, Syms. 1 (minor) & 2 (major) stand out though.
    Prokofiev - Sym. 5 a clear favourite (major), then Syms. 1 (major) & 3 (minor)
    Vaughan Williams - Syms. 8 & 4 stand out strongly (both in minor), then Syms. 2 & 7 (no key?)
    Shostakovich - Syms. 5 & 10 (both in minor) are my favourites so far, but haven't heard about half of his within recent memory, but these two always stood out, esp. in terms of live performances, etc.

    So I think roughly my preferences are equally balanced, but I'll have to get back later to analyse my "tally" more in-depth...
    Contrasts and Connections in Music

    "When reason and instinct are reconciled, there will be no higher appeal" - Rameau.

    Avatar image: The Laundress by Honoré Daumier, 1860's.

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    Senior Member violadude's Avatar
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    One thing I've noticed about key signatures throughout history is the Major/minor key signature became less and less relevant as time went on in determining what kind of piece you're going to be listening to. For example, if you see a Haydn symphony in C major you can pretty much determine that it is going to be a generally happy/exuberant/positive emotion kind of piece. If you see a Shostakovich symphony in C major, so what? Even if a piece by Shostakovich is in C major you're still not quite sure what you're in for.

    D Major is a good example too. D Major in the classical period was pretty much the "super happy" key because Trumpets and Timpani were usually added to an orchestra for D Major. However, later in time, you get Mahler's 9th symphony and Bartok's 6th string quartet being described as in D Major and those are two of the most tragic pieces I know. So, in short, it's much easier to predict the mood of the piece from looking at the key signature earlier in time than it got later in time.
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    Senior Member Kopachris's Avatar
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    It's more about how progressions from one key to another go within the piece for me, though, incidentally, most of my favorites are in minor keys.

    As for "affective key characteristics," the idea that certain keys should convey certain emotions, I think that it's more likely that certain keys are better suited to conveying certain emotions than other keys.
    Sid James likes this.
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    violadude has a point. Even when tonality was still clear like in the Romantic era, it was not absolute. Like in Brahms third, in the very first motif he plays with the melody through the parallel keys of F, which gives and an unstable feeling to it, and making the tonality less clear.

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    Senior Member Rasa's Avatar
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    I think a more interesting statistic was the distance between the keys of the movements of symphonies, and keys used within those movements.

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Thank you, Mr Sid James for compiling these interesting statistics. (I'm on the run at the moment, so I'll be a bit brief). The use of minor keys during the Classical period was a relatively brief and certantly not a continuous phenomenon. Scholars are still a bit frustrated as to what caused a spike of its use during the mid to late Classical periods. Example, say Mozart's symphony #40 of 1788 (a special year for us Aussies) and piano concerto #20 in D minor (1785), plus Don Giovanni (1787) cannot be conclusively shown why or what the precise aesthetic reasons where for the Sturm und Drang, which wasn't limited to just music, but to literature as well. This died out by the turn of the 19th century.

    By the time the Romantic period was in full swing, the number of minor key symphonies was positively correlated with how many symphonies the composers wrote.
    Sid James and tdc like this.

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