Brahms, E flat major, E flat minor, and inner power


We have been practising the Saint-Saens E flat major Ave Verum which is sung a cappella as well as the Brahms Geistliches Lied which is also in E flat major.  There has been a lot of E flat majors!

For me, it’s very interesting to work with Brahms in E flat major.  The key of a piece does often give it a specific “musical colour”.

Yes the E flat major is, perhaps first and foremost, Beethoven’s “heroic” key, the key of the Eroica (symphony #3) and the Emperor (piano concerto #5).

But in Brahms, we find the E flat major key used in a different though perhaps related way.  And in fact in Brahms there seems some special connection between the E flat major and the E flat minor as well.  (Beethoven, of course, is the master chameleon who would compose a 2nd movement in E major for his C minor key piano concerto #3! [the note E doesn’t even figure in the C minor scale!]).

One of the other prominent pieces that Brahms wrote that is also in the key of E flat major is the first of his Intermezzi Op 117.

In common with the Geistliches Lied, the music created by Brahms in this E flat major piece has an innocent and almost childlike purity and piety.  It is almost as if the outward heroism has been completely striped away, leaving a steady current of inward power.

We can probably safely say that in Brahms’ musical language, the E flat major key is a major key that can communicate sadness, comfort and hope.  In fact, we almost feel there are some urges in the music in the Geistliches Lied to go to the related minor, the C minor, in small parts of the music, but it never does.  In fact, the piece ends with a very grandly beautiful series of soaring Amens – a beautiful coda exhibiting almost the full range of the E flat major chord!  In the E flat major intermezzo, which Brahms called a “lullaby of my sorrow”, the middle section is in a minor key too, in this case the E flat minor.

I am thereby reminded of the connection between the E flat major and the E flat minor in Brahms.

I ponder on the fact that the first ever solo piano piece Brahms wrote (the Scherzo Op.4) was in the key of E flat minor, and then, in the Rhapsody Op.119, no.4, the very last solo piano piece Brahms wrote, he starts the piece from E flat major and ends it in E flat minor.  No “recapitulation” back into E flat major!  And of all 24 keys to use, Brahms used this first and last for the piano.  He also wrote the last piece of the Op118 in E flat minor (the “middle section” of this beautiful pieces goes, rather conventionally, to its related major, the G flat major).

Brahms’ facility in moving between E flat major and E flat minor can be seen even in this early Scherzo, where he moved, you guess it, from the E flat minor of the 1st movement, to the E flat major of its Trio I.

The E flat minor is rarely used in orchestral music – possibly because none of the notes in the chord of the E flat minor is played on an open string? – Berlioz’s orchestration manual calls this “almost impracticable”.

The interesting (and perhaps particularly dark and ruminating) effect of the E flat minor is that both its 1st (E flat) and 3rd (G flat) notes are flat notes and played on black keys on the piano.  This makes it 1 of only 2 minor scales where both these are on black keys (the other key is B flat minor).

So, the “research” I have been doing for our concert is to listen to some Brahms E flat major (and E flat minor) pieces: 3 excellent ones include his Intermezzo Op 117, no 1 (very Brahmsian “inner power” E flat major) (Radu Lupu), his Intermezzo for the piano, Op.118, no 6 (one of my favourite Brahms pieces) (Murray Perahia; no 6 start at 17:00), and the Rhapsody Op.119, no 4 (from E flat major to E flat minor … and majestic throughout, just like his Scherzo, but in reverse …) (Radu Lupu).


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