An understanding of the characteristics of the different keys can help you develop a palette of sounds. So do you know your innocent C major from your gloomy F sharp minor?
I recently interviewed cellist Christoph Richter for the ChamberStudio website and among other fascinating things, he told me about Christian Schubart's guide to the various keys and their musical meanings. Richter argues that Mozart and Haydn would have been brought up learning about the differences between keys, but that this is rarely taught now. It is, he says, essential in order to avoid having a 'prototype sound' for all the keys. Here is what Schubart has to say, translated by Rita Steblin:
Completely pure. Its character is innocence, simplicity, naivety, children's talk.
Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
D flat major
A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace in its crying. Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
D sharp minor
Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D sharp minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
E flat major
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
Complaisance and calm.
Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
F sharp major
Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
F sharp minor
A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love – in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; resentment and dislike.
A flat major
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
A flat minor
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; the colour of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of affairs; hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
B flat major
Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope, aspiration for a better world.
B flat minor
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colours. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lie in its sphere.
This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones's fate and of submission to divine dispensation.
From Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).