Classical Music by Key – Introduction (and excuses in advance)
In classical music (and even popular music), the key of a piece is one of the most important choices a composer makes. Every key has its own characteristics that can make a symphony great, or boring. For example, Spinal Tap says that D minor is the saddest of keys, and some of the great works in that key seem to bear that out.
Below is a list of the greatest works sorted by key. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind when digesting its content. First, I am a string player by trade so most (nearly all) of the pieces on the list involve symphonic music and chamber music that includes strings. I have certainly left out some great solo piano works, or even some terrific band music by the likes of Percy Grainger et al.
Second, there is no operatic music on the list. I have chosen only “whole” works that are based in the given key. Operas are giant works that span the entire range of key signatures. I could have chosen individual arias from opera, or even one movement from any given symphony or string quartet (Haydn’s string quartet op 76 #5 slow movement in F-sharp major), but again, I decided to stay with one entire work at a time.
Lastly, I have left out a couple of keys that are simply not represented by any good classical music. It seems harsh, but there are simply no great works written in C# major or A-flat minor. And, in case you were wondering, I am aware that in almost every case on the list below, the piece ends in a different key than it begins. Such is life, and music.
Let’s Get Started – Sharp Keys
C major – Mozart Symphony #41 “Jupiter” Honorable mentions: Beethoven String Quartet Op. 59 #3, Shostakovich Symphony #7 “Leningrad”
G major – Brahms String Sextet 2; Honorable mentions: Ravel Piano Concerto, Mahler Symphony #4
D major – Beethoven Missa Solemnis; Honorable mentions: Prokofiev Symphony #1 “Classical,” Brahms Symphony #2
Here’s Some More
A major – Mozart Clarinet Quintet; Honorable mentions: Mendelssohn Symphony #4 “Italian,” Dvorak Piano Quintet Op 81
E major –Copland Symphony #3; Honorable mentions: Vivaldi Spring from the Four Seasons, Wagner Siegfried Idyll, Strauss Don Juan
B major – Brahms Piano Trio Op. 8; Honorable mention: Korngold Sinfonietta
F# major – Mahler: Symphony No. 10
Flat Keys – As Seen in String Players’ Nightmares
F major – Schubert Octet; Honorable mentions: Ravel String Quartet, Gershwin, An American in Paris
B-Flat major – Beethoven: String Quartet Op 130; Honorable mentions: Schubert Piano Trio #1, Bruckner Symphony #5
E-Flat major – Mendelssohn Octet: Honorable mentions: Beethoven Symphony #3 “Eroica,” Sibelius Symphony #5, Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
A-Flat major – Sibelius Finlandia; Honorable mentions: Brahms Waltz Op. 39 No. 15, Chopin Nouvelles études #2
D-Flat major – Janacek Sinfonietta
Minor Keys – how sad!
D minor – Beethoven Symphony #9 (duh); Honorable mentions: Mozart Requiem, Schubert: Death and the Maiden
G minor – Debussy String Quartet; Honorable mentions: Mozart Piano Quartet #1, Brahms Piano Quartet #1
C minor – Mahler Symphony #2 “Resurrection”; Honorable mentions: Beethoven Symphony #5, Brahms Symphony #1
F minor – Brahms Piano Quintet Op 34; Honorable mentions: Tchaikovsky Symphony #4, Mendelssohn: String Quartet, Op. 80
B-Flat minor – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1; Honorable mention: Walton Symphony #1
E minor – Brahms Symphony #4; Honorable mentions: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Shostakovich Symphony #10
B minor – Barber: string quartet, op. 11; Honorable mentions: Mendelssohn Overture “Fingal’s Cave,” Tchaikovsky Symphony #6
F# minor – Glazunov Symphony #2; Honorable mention: Shostakovich String Quartet #7
C# minor – Beethoven String Quartet Op. 131; Honorable mention: Mahler Symphony #5, Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata
Well, that’s it. What do you think? Should I get a checkup from the neck up? Am I crazy? Is classical music worse for me writing this? Or, do I speak the truth as you’ve never been told before? Let me know!