“I would accept no hard and fast rule in program-making except one: that works in the same key should not follow one another. A varied succession of keys is required to stimulate the listener’s attention.”
So says Alfred Brendel. That’s standard advice about making a classical concert program — don’t play long stretches of music in the same key. Mr. Brendel, for example, rules out playing in one program Schubert’s B-flat-Major Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier.”
In a chamber music festival, almost accidentally, I put together a program of Haydn’s Piano Trio in G Major, Hoboken XV:25, Max Reger’s Suite for unaccompanied viola in G Minor, and Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25. A whole evening of tonal music centering around the pitch G — I guess Mr. Brendel didn’t approve.
Instead of sounding too unvaried, the result seemed to me highly unified. A long pull on the listener resembling the power of an extended minimalist composition, or a piece with an extended drone — or (also in G) Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations!
Linking together dance movements that shared a single tonal center was an innovation in instrumental “suites” in the 17th and 18th centuries. In a symphony by Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms, the first and last movements share a key center, but inner movements are written in other related keys. In Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, all three movements are in D major or minor — a glimpse of future or past unity.
The balance, or opposition, of variety and unity is a dichotomy providing essential friction in a lot of art. Your preference between variety and unity may explain whether you like an old-fashioned varied concert program, or the putting together of several pieces more similar in tonality. And your preference may have to do with this moment in time.
Perhaps sameness is more of a virtue in a world where (as Marshall McLuhan assessed it) linear thinking is no longer possible? If linear thought and experience prevailed in the past then variety could capture attention. If the allatonceness of today threatens to overwhelm, then a tonal sameness can be compelling.
In recent cooking, there are lots of examples of several dishes presented together that explore a single ingredient. I savored the several desserts on a single large plate billed as an “apple tasting.” In one season, Fernan Adria‘s entire menu featured water!
Last week, the poignance of Schubert’s F-Minor Fantasy (played just before intermission) extended all the way to the end of a chamber music concert that included several contemporary pieces. I was thinking (feeling) of Schubert, as I played Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel at the end of the program — both this music written by Pärt and Schubert’s Fantasy are in F. And at some meta level, the sounds of the Pärt brought back the February F-minorness of that LPR show!