Tonal Centers of Some Great Composers

Continuing the discussion of people’s tonal centers, I have found that various composers of classical music seemed to be drawn more strongly to particular tonal centers.

For example, the following works of Beethoven are in C Minor:
Symphony No. 5
Piano Concerto No. 3
32 Piano Variations, Op. 35

In Beethoven’s explorations of E-Flat Major, another “favorite” key, you can listen to the following:
“Prometheus” Variations
Piano Sonata Op. 81A “Les Adieu”
Eroica Symphony
Emperor Concerto

Chopin, on the other hand, has numerous pieces in B-Flat Minor, including:
Piano Sonata No. 2
Prelude Op. 28, No. 16
Nocturne No. 1
Scherzo No. 1

He was also fond of D-Flat and C-Sharp, as illustrated by the following works:

Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 (“Raindrop”)

These two keys, D-Flat and C-Sharp, were considered together since they are produced using the same black key on a piano keyboard and, unless you are looking at a printed score or know the music, you would not be able to hear any difference.

There are certainly plenty of other examples; I speak mainly of piano music because, as a pianist, it’s what I know best.

As an interpreter of these composers in concerts, I strive to immerse myself as deeply as I can in the unique tonal language of whichever composer I am playing. Bach’s treatment of C minor is vastly different than Beethoven’s, and each has something of value to say to listeners.

As a composer, rather than exploring my own tonal center, especially in commissioned works, I instead aim to discover and express the tonal center of a song’s recipient, an endeavor that has yielded some surprising and delightful results, such as when someone needs to have a scale “designed” for them because they don’t fit into the usual major/minor mold

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