C minor and E major
In his masterly companion to the Bach cello suites, Steven Isserlis mentions composers’ attraction to the sombre key of C minor.
Besides the final movements of Bach’s own Passions, he cites Mozart’s Mass and piano concerto K491, and I think also of the slow movements of the E flat concertos K 271 and K482, as well as the Wind Serenade and the Andante of the Sinfonia concertante (above); and Schubert’s Quartettsatz. Steven goes on to list Brahms 1, and Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.
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By contrast, composers have been inspired by the incandescent splendour of E major (the basic key of the north Chinese ritual shengguan ensemble!—e.g. here, §2), as in
- Rossini’s William Tell overture
- the slow movement of Brahms 4
- the hushed last verse of the finale of Mahler 4
and (a rare appearance for Wagner on this blog) the Siegfried idyll, conducted here by Celibidache:
Messiaen goes even further in his devotion to the sensuality of F sharp major, such as in Turangalîla—the intimate sixth movement and the cosmic finale—and the Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. But perhaps that’s another story.
DO click on the links to listen in awe to all of them!