The Evolution of Piano Music in C-Major | 1722 – 1921 by Frederick Viner

C major – the beginner’s key. There are many reasons why pianists first enter music through this particular collection of notes: for a start, the key of C happens to be visually cohesive, featuring only the white notes on the piano (no pesky sharps or flats to worry about), oriented around the central scaffold of middle-C; it also happens to be the tonality of much iconic repertoire popular amongst budding pianists (see Bach, Mozart and Joplin’s contributions). It turns out though that C major, as well as every other key, garnered weirdly specific characteristics during the 18-19th centuries, owing to the unique aural properties of unequal temperaments. While the descriptions of some keys are hilariously outdated (‘melancholy womanliness’ for D minor?! Yikes), C major’s still rings somewhat true: ‘Completely pure…innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk’ – from Christian Schubart’s ‘Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst’ (1806) But it can also be so much more. In the hands of masters the key has represented everything from romantic yearning to sardonic wit, from nervous anticipation to sheer monotony (*cough* Czerny). In this video you’ll hear a whopping 46 composers’ takes on it, spanning roughly 200 years of music history. Watch out for the ever-increasing complexity of figurations, the gradual widening of the music’s registral span, as well as the very breakdown of C major itself in the early 20th-century examples. Note also how some figurations never went out of fashion, like the hopping R.H. chords in the Clementi, Moscheles, Heller and Stravinsky, or the famous alberti bass which underpins both the Mozart and Prokofiev. It goes without saying that this list is by no means definitive. Bach was not the first to write for a keyboard instrument (a rather different type of keyboard instrument at that) and Stravinsky was obviously not the last; and countless great composers didn’t make the cut. Despite this, I hope you enjoy a whistle-stop tour through the evolution of piano music…in C major! This is an educational commentary and analysis that falls within fair dealing. Recorded at the University of York Rymer Auditorium by Ben Eyes. Copyright © Frederick Viner