Whatever happened to good old C major, anyway?

In the comments for my previous blog post on the Real Top 20 C Major Symphonies of All Time“, I assembled a list of the greatest “C minor symphonies that end in C major.” The first four pieces I thought of were


Beethoven 5

Brahms 1

Bruckner 8


Shostakovich 8

When I saw the two great Beethoven and Brahms works alongside the Shostakovich, I was hugely struck by the contrast in affect.

For Beethoven and Brahms, the move from C minor to C major was probably the ultimate musical embodiment of affirmation, of triumph. C major to them was the key of Earthly celebration, defined by the rumbustious trumpet-and-drums music Mozart and Haydn loved to write. The move from tragic C minor to the joyful purity of C major symbolized the most unambiguous possible resolution to struggle and uncertainty.

This paradigm is not unique to these two works. Mendelssohn and Schubert both wrote extraordinary C minor symphonies early in their careers which end joyfully in C major (albeit without the element of weight and drama present in Beethoven 5 and Brahms 1).  Bruckner used the transformation from C minor to C major as the lynchpin of no less than three of his symphonies, including the epic Eighth, a work which seems to take this kind of affirmative journey from darkness to light about as far as it can possibly go.

Mahler seemed to sense that after Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, a new solution to the “problem” of C minor had to be found. Perhaps for him, the darkness of C minor was so powerful (it’s hard to think of a darker, bleaker movement than the opening funeral march of the Resurrection) that his C minor symphony (the 2nd) needed to travel further- not just to C major, but to E-flat major. (Interestingly, the only minor key Mahler seemed to think could be answered with its parallel major was D minor- both his First and Third symphonies make much of the movement from D minor to D major. Other minor keys always seem to need more solving, usually a shift not only of mode but of tonic- such as the move from C-sharp minor in the Fifth Symphony to its concluding D major). Mahler was a modern enough man to see that C major was far to simplistic a solution to the problems of a C minor world. He believed there was a more nuanced answer to be found- that we could escape and transcend suffering and despair, but that the solution would always be complex and messy- the solution to C minor might be E-flat, or the solution to C-sharp minor might be D major. Life doesn’t neatly tie up all loose ends like a Victorian novel.

If Brahms 1 and Beethoven 5 are as certain in their affirmation of triumph over adversity as their troubled creators could make them, Shostakovich 8 makes a quite shocking contrast, in which Shostakovich re-imagines this most historically unambiguous move from C minor to C major as the lynchpin of a work that is anything but triumphant and life affirming. Although it ends with a long stretch of C major, it is a deeply troubling and troubled work. If Mahler came to see that C major wasn’t quite an adequate solution to C minor, Shostakovich sometimes seems to hint at something far darker- that C major may actually be, if not the opposite of heavenly resolution of life’s C minor problems, at least a kind of musical Purgatory. A static world without hope, where battles have stalled but no peace has been made nor victory won. It’s as if Shostakovich tells us “be careful what you wish for- a simple solution to a complex problem is no solution at all. Ask for C major, and you may be trapped there forever.” The last five minutes of Shostakovich 8 are an unsettling mixture of cold, aimless wanderings and moments of heart-wrenching lyrical vulnerability. By the end of the piece you don’t know if that 2 minute long C major chord in the violins is the happiest or the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. Which is more troubling- the C minor ending of the Fourth or the C major ending of the Eighth? It’s the Eighth that makes me cry every time.

How the sheen of innocence has fallen from what was once the most pristine of keys.

Whatever happened to C major? How could it come to express such existential  twilight and despair?

I think the process began with Schubert. To me, the C major of the Cello Quintet exists in a different spiritual realm than the pomp and earthiness of Mozart’s version of the key (or Beethoven’s). To me, the C major of the Cello Quintet is very much of the next world- the sound of the next chapter of existence beyond this life, but the next world as imagined by someone who was, at best, an agnostic. No easy certainties are to found in late Schubert. Brahms, ever conservative, needed C major to be the same point of reference it was in Beethoven 5 and Mozart’s Jupiter. He needed it to be a solid rock, from which he could build. Schumann, the radical, unearthed new complexities and ambiguities for C major in his Second Symphony. Where Beethoven used C major to celebrate the end of struggle, Schumann uses it to embody struggle, writing of the first movement of his C major 2nd Symphony that “I sketched it at a time when I was ailing, and I may well state that it was, as it were, the power of resistance of spirit that has influenced my work, and by which I have tried to prevail against my physical condition”.

If Schubert’s use of C major opens a fearful window into the next dimension, Sibelius’s take on the key seems even more complex. His Third Symphony seems to be a relatively innocent work- at least it begins and ends innocently enough. However, the Finale is strangely ambivalent. It starts with seeming naivety, but quickly dissolves into some of the strangest and most harmonically wayward music he ever wrote, and the triumphalism of the very end seems designed to ring just a little hollow. It’s as if he is saying “things may be absolutely terrible, but if we celebrate long enough and loudly enough, we may get to the end in one piece.” Heard in context, the triumphant C major ending almost sounds like a critique of triumphant C major endings.

But it is in his Seventh Symphony that Sibelius’s vision of C major is most troubling and haunting. I once explained his use of C major in this piece to a student when he wondered why I found the piece so tragic when C major was, after all, such a sunny key? I argued it is “still a key of light, of sunshine, but the whole symphony is the last 20 minutes of twilight at the Arctic Circle before the endless night of winter sets in. When that last C major chord finally resolves it is like looking into the sun, as it boils in the horizon, never to return.” In Sibelius 7, C major is light, and light is music, and the piece is kind of a farewell to music, at least to the symphony- the sun was very literally setting on his symphonic career.  If Beethoven 5 and Brahms 1 use the key of C major to portray the ultimate in certainty, Sibelius uses the same key to evoke the ultimate mix of joy and despair.

And what of Mahler? Two of his symphonies end in C major. Is his C major the same worldly celebration as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, or something more complex and ambivalent, as in the work of Schubert and Sibelius?

The Finale of his Seventh is very much C major trumpet and drums music- obviously harking back to the symbolism of the key as understood by Mozart in the Jupiter and Wagner in Die Meistersinger (which he quotes).  In its hyper-complex virtuoso writing and dense counterpoint, it could almost be a parody of those two works. Wagner used C major to symbolize communal celebration- I think Mahler does the same thing in the 7th, but his community is more realistic. The Finale of Mahler 7 is no perfect, noble German town grounded in tradition and led by wise elders, but a village party full of real, noisy, smelly complicated people.  It’s not so much that he doesn’t believe in the joyful, Mozartian side of C major, it’s that he wants to show the complexities, and flaws of a C major world. It’s C major without the Disney treatment. C major with ugly people, with dog crap on the streets, with farts and out of tune village bands, seedy street vendors and bullying cops. It’s like musical Mardi Gras- a great time is had by all, but you wouldn’t want to come back the next morning to clean up the vomit.

Mahler’s other great C major Finale is Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde. In this great movement, Mahler makes explicit what Schubert implies- that you’re never going to have the pure radiance of C major transcendence in a C minor world. Real C major, real freedom from suffering comes not from victory in earthly struggle, but in acceptance that life is struggle, acceptance of the finality of life, and the embrace of need to discover what, if anything, comes next. I’m sure that Shostakovich had the ending of Das Lied in mind when he wrote the final pages of his Eighth Symphony. Was he daring to hope for Mahlerian transcendence? And is the end of the work a fulfilment of that hope, or does the beautiful image of  C major simply die away when he can no longer sustain its dying light? Does it meld into eternity, or simply die away into silence. A pessimist might point out that the last word in the score is morendo.

As another great 20th. C. composer once said- there is still a lot of great music to be written in C major.

And so there is.

But what will C major mean 100 years after Shostakovich 8?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

11 comments on “Whatever happened to good old C major, anyway?”

  1. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt

    What you haven’t taken into consideration here, is that the Cmajor and CMinor we hear is not the same CMajor or CMinor that either Beethoven or Schumann heard in their time. The utilitarian use of equal temperament did not stabilize in full until around 1917. Before that time, although there was a move to ET, ET and the interpretation of ET was not ubiquitous everywhere and there was still some creativity involved between tuners, musicians, and soloists. There was considerable hubbub about the loss of key character and some movement to retain it by the end of the 19th century. As we go back further and further in time, there was a distinctive coloration between keys due to tuning practices and differences between tuners. And Beethoven especially, because he went deaf at a particularly young age, had a distinctive memory for the key character of those early tunings. Mozart, also, had specific tunings he worked with as was notated by at least one student that were not the ET we use today.

    Outside of registrar considerations, there is absolutely no character differences between keys or within keys with ET. Its bland and its out of tune. If you want the true weight of dominant and tonic, you need some of these wonderful older tunings.

    For an interesting book on the subject, please read:

    How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)
    by Dr. Ross W. Duffin



  2. Kenneth Woods

    @Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt

    Welcome back! Thanks for the comment.

    The Duffin is a great book- I’ve written about it, and about the general issue before. Of course, orchestras don’t play in equal temperament, but our own wacky set of compromises. Violins mostly play pythagorean or expressive tuning, brass sections always play in just tuning or the chords sounds horrible, and woodwinds just get sharper and sharper.

    But the symbolism of keys has very little to do with acoustics (which is not to say that the symbolism wouldn’t be heightened by using appropriate tunings)- it’s evolves through the ongoing engagement of composers with those keys. Brahms 1 very clearly references and comments on Beethoven 5, Schumann 2 speaks of Mozart 41. Within a given composers own work, each key tends to have its own affect- hence the ending of Mahler 2 in E-flat is very much in the same sound world as his Eighth Symphony, his only other E-flat major work.

    It’s important to point this out, because a whole lot of listeners, who don’t have perfect pitch (I’ve never needed it) think they’re locked out of this discussion because they can’t tell the difference in the sound of C major and D major. They don’t need to, and as you point out, with different A’s and different temperaments, there’s no such thing as one true sound of C major. What they can begin to recognize is the sound of C major music- the style or mood of music in C major that each composer associates with that key. Mozart only writes A major music in A major. Once you know the style, you can recognize the key. Beethoven’s take on A major is different, but it’s engaged with Mozart’s- the A major Beethoven Cello Sonata or the opus 101 Piano Sonata owe a huge debt to pieces like Mozart’s K 488 Piano concerto.

    Good to have you back!

  3. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt

    Your argument about composers bias to keys, is certainly important and interesting. But I still am left with a feeling of emptiness at the actual meaning – not of your argument but the meaning of the symbolism itself.

    I still would rather hear a drop from D minor to Bb major in Beethoven in a tuning he preferred wouldn’t you? Or can you imagine how Op 131 would sound if it was in *gasp c minor? Is it because we find it interesting because of all the # notes which most people don’t use on the piano and are still in tune?

    And why is it most people sing happy birthday in the same key even though they don’t have absolute pitch?

    And why do I hear G major as “Brown”; A minor as “Red”; and C major as “Yellow”? Is it because I had a toy xylophone when I was younger with different colored keys? Seriously. Symbolic? I dunno.

    And why do I dream in Just Intonation? Even my piano in my dreams are tuned in harmonics – impossible.

    These and other mysteries of the musical universe keeps me pondering from afar.

  4. Foster Beyers

    Beautiful comments regarding Sibelius 7! I love the arctic circle analogy. I always saw that piece as a farewell to youth, or in the case of Sibelius, a farewell to his creative powers. Of course it is easy to say this in light of the fact that we know it is his last completed symphony. I am quite sure that he didn’t think it would be however he did include a lengthy section in the middle which is arguablya tribute to Johan Strauss and by association, his youth studying in Vienna. The last resolution at the end is a hard-won battle to squeeze out the last of his creative energy.

  5. Evan Tucker

    This is a wonderful, wonderful post. Of course, like any great post it causes more thoughts, and it makes me wonder if you have any particular thoughts on where a couple other pieces would fit into it. Which then started making me think obsessively about a list all the other important C-majors in the repertoire: so far, not counting concertos, I’ve come up with Bizet, Shostakovich 7, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Stravinsky Symphonies in C and of Psalms, the two Schubert C-Majors, Riley’s In C, Shaker Loops, Appalachian Spring, Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Poem of Ecstasy, Bolero, Varese Ameriques, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the Rite of Spring (at least the opening), and of course endless Haydn and Mozart symphonies. Then I thought, one could design a great concert series, audience friendly but intellectually challenging, around the entire concept of C-Major and how it develops for the orchestra over time. Perhaps you’ve thought of this, or perhaps it’s unlikely that anybody would have the time or money to put anything like this together, or perhaps the idea’s just dumb. But if there’s any chance you’d be interested, the idea’s gratis :).

  6. Peter

    Yes, a fascinating discussion. We tend to think of C major as heaven on earth – the idealised society, the happy resolution, something that gives us cause for a celebration – like a wedding, a coronation, a military victory perhaps. It is the unequivocal “yes” to life and “yes” to human experience. It is confidence in the future. As Adorno went on to preach, in a world without hope can there be music in C major that does not sound like an evocation of the glib, one-sided optimism of the Nazis? I am no fan of Adorno, however, as his analysis is simplistic. Yours Ken gets it right, because you show that C major is only as naive or glib as composer makes it. The Schubert Quintet envisions an idealised world of beauty and free flowing feeling, but its pathos comes from the constant underlyng sense that trouble is just around the corner. The Mahler seems to suggest that C major is no longer of this world. This world is written in A minor or C minor with just odd moments of major key which are as fleeting as life itself.

    Mahler 7, which you describe so graphically, has this messy quality, but the character of its finale is humorous. C major is laughter, an ability to look at all of life and see the big joke, its ironies, its unpredictability, its raw inclusiveness. When the theme from the first movement comes back, it spoils the party or tries to, and Mahler makes no real effort to resolve the unresolvable, but gives a shrug and says, “what the hell!”. he pokes fun at the very idea of symphonic resolution. Now it is daytime and my schedule is full of activity, noise and people. They are driving me crazy, but I love it anyway. Mahler’s C major is not a triumph, but an acceptance or the inner triumph of acceptance – and perhaps that opens the way to Das Lied’s transcendent ending. C major is the passing moment of light, for as time passes, night music return and that is a dualism which can never be overcome. It is how life is – just so!

    Great post Ken….people can throw away Adorno now and composers can write in C amjor again without conscience. Just it will be their own C major, not the Nazis’ C major or anyone else’s for that matter.

  7. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt

    The reactions have been funny in a way because the musical criticism is always wrapped in personal cognitive projections of subjectiveness on what the music is saying about the composers life or “triumph” or “idealistic views of beauty” etc. If you come to art from the perspective that it is “expressionistic” or even “abstract expressionistic”, you will always repeat yourself.

    If I were to expand on my own cognitive projections, I would see CMaj as a burden, a heavy weight and yellow prison of 7 notes – always out of tune on an all white note piano. Bland. Boring. Utilitarian. Catholic. No blacks allowed. Trapped in a temperament that is equally out of tune. Give me a 5, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18 note equal temperament, or JIT. At least that is honest. Inspiring. A more truthful CMajor. If you can’t do that, at least give me C# minor, or F# major in a concert if you can, so I can be as far away from C major as I can possibly be.

  8. GW

    Bryan-Kirk, in the case of Beethoven, whose entire mature corpus was written in the post-continuo era and in Vienna well after von Swieten had brought Kirnberger’s treatise on tuning back from Berlin, assumptions about great differences in key identity due to temperament are misplaced. Given the larger ensembles he composed for and the freedom of modulation he expected, a tuning well on the way to equal temperament would have been practiced. More importantly, the differences in key character would have been due to factors other than precise intonation: general tessitura, use of open strings, extent of keywork and cross-fingerings required by woodwinds, low or high crooking and use of hand positions in the horns.

  9. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt


    Very very interesting argument GW, and I am glad you responded with some historical references. However, I find some striking differences of opinion on this subject by other musicologists, and I still believe there are subtle differences in “tuning” during that time which gave the keys their character., albeit on the road to ET but not quite ET. Let’s also not forget Beethoven’s favorite means of expression was the string quartet.


  10. Erik K

    Don’t forget about the creepiest C major chords ever in the chorale in Mahler 6 – IV. For a key that’s theoretically bright and sunny, Mahler makes it sound like the darkest night imaginable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *