Why would you write something in F sharp major (the key with six sharps), when you could write it in F major or G major? Why is Prokofiev’s 7th symphony in the deeply un-user friendly seven-sharped C sharp major, and not C major (or even the slightly easier to read, enharmonic D flat major)? Schubert Impromptu D.899 no. 3 is in the six flats of G flat major, but is it’s effect greatly spoiled by translating it to G major (as indeed some early publishers of Schubert’s work did, to improve sales to amateurs. The usual answer by musical purists is ‘yes of course you shameless philistine’ – plus some long argument about the subtlety of  colour that make G major sound bright and brash, and G flat major subtle and shady (on that point, on the piano could this be because the black notes, which are less played than the white notes, sound ‘subtle’ because the hammers on those notes are less worn and softer?). I’ve even seen the argument that the very fact that G flat major is difficult to play in changes the way the pianist approaches the playing of the piece to make it sound softer.

But, for all those purists who get hot sweats at the idea of this change in key to improve playability, there are still plenty of composers who are quite happy, particular with songs, to shift the key signature to whatever suits the voice of the singer. I’ve seen versions of Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord in A flat, E, F, and D – four very different keys – all presumably sanctioned by the composer.

Which brings as to Le Matin a song written in 1864 (not to be confused with a much later setting for male chorus of a different poem called Le Matin), which is resolutely in F sharp major…

Le Matin grab

Now, to be fair, at its sedate pace, playing this in F sharp major does not pose much of a challenge to a moderately competent pianist. Some steady simply four-square crotchet F# major triads make the opening of this song sound like a moody pop song, or quiet ‘all by myself’ number for a music – and even though some twinkly falling-raindrops effects permeate throughout, there’s nothing here to challenge the player, singer or, unfortunately, listener. This isn’t one of Saint-Saens more interesting efforts in the song genre. Essentially we get three verses with a slightly more convoluted accompaniment each time, and slight changes to the rhythm of the melody each time (including the beat of the bar on which the tune comes in, which creates an odd effect). There’s a brief coda, and the song finished.

It’s surprising that this song isn’t more interesting – it is based on a poem by Victor Hugo, which is actually pretty good (at least from what I can tell from Google translate):

Dawn lights up,

The thick shadow is leaking.

The dream and the mist

go where goes the night;

Eyelids and roses

open half-closed.

From the awakening of things

we hear the noise;

Everything sings and murmurs,

everything speaks at once.

Smoke and greenery,

nests and roofs;

The wind speaks to the oaks,

the water speaks to the fountains;

All the breath

become voices

Everything takes up his soul,

the child his rattle, the hearth its flame,

The lute his bow

Madness or dementia,

in the huge world,

Everyone starts again

what he was sketching.

That we think or love,

constantly agitates,

towards a supreme goal,

everything flies away;

The skiff is looking for a mole.

The bee an old willow,

The compass a pole,

Me, the truth.

OK, I’m not sure why a skiff would look for a mole – but you get the gist. But in short the song is too sedate and lacks colour, which is odd, considering Saint-Saens must have settled of F sharp major for SOME reason.

Interestingly in the above recording the end of the song appears to be a B minor F#major transition (fairly standard romantic song ending), but the manuscript, as I read it has Saint-Saens’ intention as B major F# major. I’m appalled…the liberties people take with key signatures…choh!

Le Matin

Why you might want to listen to it:  A gentle song for those who think lutes are played with bows (as Victor Hugo apparently did).

Why you might want to avoid it: Your eyelids are likely to remain half-closed by the end of it.

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