F-sharp

(Mostly music. I know you’re thinking: Jesse Sheidlower wrote “The F Word”, and now it looks like I’m writing on “The F Sharp Word” — like the F word, only more pointed. But no. No sex, and barely anything to do with language. But you’ll have to endure Antonio Soler and Muzio Clementi.)

From the lgbt+ neighborhood on Facebook, in a discussion that started with ukuleles — there was actually some convoluted lgbt-relevance in that — and turned to accordions (plus some bagpipe stuff), whereupon I spoke approvingly of Astor Piazolla’s music as performed on accordions and even more of Antonio Soler’s keyboard music (in particular his sonatas for various keyboard instruments, including the organ) as arranged for accordion. Adding that Joseph Petrič has wonderful recordings of some of the sonatas on accordion (I have his 1997 CD).

Jeff Shaumeyer responded:

Oh, I particularly like the F♯ Major sonata — it strikes me as rather silly, and *who* writes in F♯ major anyway?

And that set me off.

(Side note. Here I’m revealing secrets about the sorts of things we lgbt+-folk talk about behind your backs, in our safe private places. Hugo Wolf looms large, and lieder more generally. Opera and musical theatre, of course. Ties. Queries about what hardware, software, appliances, cars, ec. to buy. Food, glorious food: food we’re cooking, food we’re eating at restaurants, food we’ve just discovered. Gay history. Our families. The deaths of people we love and people we admire. Current movies and tv. The Wizard of Oz. It’s intense.)

F♯ major. From Wikipedia:

F♯ is the key of the minuet in Joseph Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 24, Op. 78, of Chopin’s Barcarolle, of Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” from Nabucco, of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, of Erich Korngold’s Symphony Op. 40, of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata. The key was the favorite tonality of Olivier Messiaen, who used it repeatedly throughout his work to express his most exciting or transcendent moods, most notably in the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

With 6 sharps, it’s a rarely used key signature — so it’s scandalous that the article omits the Soler.

(A bit more on Padre Antonio Soler below. Basic data: Spanish, 1729-83, with his many keyboard sonatas often compared to those of Scarlatti.)

I love the F♯ Soler: like many of the padre’s works, it strikes me as circus music, but exceptionally fine circus music (unsurpassed in this line until Chopin’s Etudes came along) — bright, exuberant, simultaneously playful and muscular.

Three notable performances of this keyboard sonata, R. 90 (date uncertain):

(#1) Fernando Valenti (1974) on harpsichord, approximating the instrument Soler probably had in mind

(#2) Alicia de Larrocha (1961) on a modern piano; de Larrocha was an exponent of Soler’s keyboard works, and she recorded this one a number of times

(#3) Finally, an accordion version, by Nikola Peković (2016)

The Soler in F♯ major led me ineluctably to a favorite keyboard piece in the (also rarely used) key of F♯ minor, Muzio Clementi’s Sonata Op. 25 No. 5. But before the Clementi:

More on Soler. From my 1/21/15 posting “Antonio Soler and the Mournful Valley”, which has basic biographical information, and then in a more personal tone:

I’ve played some of the keybord sonatas on the piano, and very much admire Scott Ross’s harpsichord performances of them. But Ann [Daingerfield Zwicky] and I especially loved the two-organ concertos, full of playful joy and wild enthusiasm. You can listen to No. 3 in G minor, performed by Ton Koopman and Tini Mathot, on YouTube here. [No you can’t; this excellent performance has been removed from YouTube.]

With very hesitant memory, I recall a performance by E. Power Biggs and Daniel Pinkham of some of these works at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, with Biggs playing the Flentrop pipe organ he was instrumental in bringing to Harvard.


(#4) Note that this was the first recording of these works

… I say “with hesitant memory”, since I can’t recall any details of the performance, so I can’t swear that Ann and I actually were in attendance. But we certainly had the recording by Biggs and Pinkham in our Cambridge apartment, where we played it nearly to death; hardly anyone had heard of Soler. (That was a vinyl recording, now long gone from my music collection; it seems not to have been released on CD, so now I have several alternative performances on my iTunes.) Memory is a fragile thing.

As it turns out, that Biggs/Pinkham recording of #3 (from 1961) has been released on CD and is now available on YouTube; concertos #1-3 here:

(#5) Rollicking performances, as in the Koopman/Mathot recording I linked to it my earlier posting

These concertos are now usually listed as “six concertos for two keyboard instruments”, without specifying just which instruments to use, and there’s been a wide range. A fair number of two-organ versions. Meanwhile, Kenneth Gibert and Trevor Pinnock have recorded all six, some for two harpsichords, some for two fortepianos. And Bernard Brauchli and Esteban Elizondo have recorded all six, some on two organs, some on two clavichords, and some on organ and harpsichord; their tempos are generally slower, and their playing generally less energetic, than I prefer. But here’s Brauchli/Elizondo doing a fairly bright performance of #3, on organ and harpsichord:

(#6)

Clementi. Discussion of the composer, a link in the transition from Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven, in my 11/20/14 posting “Muzio Clementi”, with this illustration:


(#7) The first page of Clementi’s Sonata in F♯ minor, in the edition I began studying in January 1957; the piece is clearly labeled as Op. 26 No. 2 in this edition, but it’s now uniformly listed as Op. 25 No. 5

A moving 1955 performance by Vladimir Horowitz:

(#8)

On the key (with 3 sharps in the key signature; it’s the relative minor to A major), from Wikipedia:

Very few symphonies are written in this key, Haydn’s Farewell Symphony being one famous example [recall that the Farewell Symphony also has a section in F♯ major].

… The few concerti written in this key are usually written for the composer himself to play, including Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Vieuxtemps’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and Koussevitzky’s Double Bass Concerto.

In addition to the Farewell Symphony, Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 40 (Hob. XV:26) and String Quartet Op. 50, No. 4 are in F-sharp minor.

Handel set the sixth of his eight harpsichord suites of 1720 in F-sharp minor. Aside from a prelude and fugue from each of the two books of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Bach’s only other work in F-sharp minor is the Toccata BWV 910. Mozart’s only composition in this key is the second movement to his Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major.

Another rare key. No mention of the Clementi, alas.

Back when Ann and I lived in Cambridge MA, during exam weeks the student-run radio station at Harvard (WHRB) would run “orgies” of music on some theme, in 6- or 12-hour chunks (occasionally longer: the Ring Cycle came around every few years, apparently). So Ann and I once got to experience 6 hours of music in F♯ minor. Including this Clementi!

3 Responses to “F-sharp”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    By the way, the second movement of the Haydn F# minor trio is in F# major, and its entire content reappears, in F major, as the second movement of his 102nd symphony. (I don’t actually know offhand which piece came first.)

  2. Mike Pope (@mikepope) Says:

    Great post. One question, which I kind of hesitate to ask–did you edit the Wikipedia article about F# major to include a mention of Soler?

    As an aside, when I first say F# major, I had visions of a forest of sharps, but F# minor, on the other hand, is comparatively an “easy” key, no?

    As another aside, I also wondered about the nature of your discussion about ukuleles. (One reason I wonder is that the notion of “hard” keys is sort of a non-thing in fretboard instruments–? Barre chords or capos can do a lot of that work, haha.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Long time approving this comment, because I wanted to clarify the first point in e-mail, but I’m overwhelmed with things, so this will have to do.

      #1: “did you edit the Wikipedia article about F# major to include a mention of Soler?” I first took this to be a question that presupposed that the Wikipedia article had been edited to include Soler and asked whether I was the person who had done it. As far as I can see, the Wikipedia article has not been altered in this way, so I was just baffled. Then I saw that you might be using the yes-no question as an indirect urging: the question presupposes that the article *should* be edited to include Soler and asks whether I have undertaken to do this, thereby urging me to do it if I haven’t. (After hearing other people’s experiences in trying to edit Wikiedia articles, I’m just not going there.)

      #2: F# minor is indeed a comparatively easy key for reading from a score (its relative major, A, is a very common key). Apparently the problems of F# minor have tainted F# major as well.

      #3: The ukuleles got in there only as a side explanation of how discusson of F# minor came up on the lgbt+ FB group. Yes, fretboard instruments don’t really care about key choice in using the instruments (while for other instruments, some keys are hard to play, some easy). But for reading from a score, all those sharps are an impediment, whatever instrument you’re playing. (If all the world were fretboards, the scores could all be in C major or A minor, with an instruction: “play in F# major” or “play in D# minor” or whatever.)

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