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
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?