Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, in his treatise on thoroughbass (p. 60 of this edition), gives a neat little table of modulations from C Major into many other keys.

Some of these keys, such as B Major, are quite distant from C Major, according to 18th century norms at least.

My question, what practical applications(if any) did such distant and non-obvious modulations have in a late 18th century compositional context? One possibility I can think of is in an improvised keyboard fantasia. But did musicians of that era have any other uses for such far-flung modulations?

  • Hm... "use" is a philosophically odd word here. What use does modulation ever have? Or do you mean "application"—in what context might one encounter it? It's certainly true that keyboard players, and organists in particular, were already a standing joke for getting lost in improvised chromaticism in the early 17th century. (to cite myself, libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Bonner_uncg_0154D_11176.pdf , p 124 and following) Oct 28, 2021 at 15:48
  • English is not my first language, sorry. Oct 29, 2021 at 11:20
  • Another more precise word might be "purpose" or "function," but choosing "use" certainly does not expose you as a non-native speaker of English. It could equally apply to choices in visual arts or in other activities. What's the point of flashback in narrative literature? What uses does it have?
    – phoog
    Oct 29, 2021 at 11:44
  • Franz Schubert was born too late to be composing in the late 18th century, but the reputation is that he just plain jumped to new keys, even remote ones (this is made quite obvious in his Moment Musical No. 5 in F Minor, which even jumps from B minor to C minor at one point and jumps up a semitone again some measures later).
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 29, 2021 at 12:23
  • I had to re-read to see you specified 18th century, not the usual distant key/Romanticism connection. Oct 29, 2021 at 15:38

2 Answers 2


The place where distant modulations are most readily encountered in the 18th century is probably in recitative. This is an example of musical conventions being stretched in the service of drama: many musical innovations can be seen in dramatic music, or at least in program music, before becoming routine elements of musical style.

Recitative's dramatic function is fairly widely understood: it serves to advance the plot because it carries the bulk of the libretto's dialogue. It also serves a formal function, because it provides a modulatory transition from the key of the preceding aria or other musical number to the key of the following one.

Bach's passions are a good example of this, because Bach's use of tonality in these pieces as an element of large-scale formal development has been the subject of much study. In fact, Wikipedia has tables laying out the tonal structure of both the St. John and the St. Matthew.

The Matthew passion table is a bit more precise: rather than giving a single key for each recitative, it shows both starting and ending key. The first one that is shown with a fairly distant modulation is Da das Jesus merkete. Following a cadence in D minor, it begins with the evangelist in B♭ major introducing the words of Jesus, who starts on an F7 chord, the dominant of B♭. The next chord, however, is D major (first inversion), the dominant of G minor, then, ignoring the modulatory details, we go to C minor, G minor, D minor, and A minor, before the final cadence on E minor. The next piece begins in B minor. Thus, there is a very orderly transition around the circle of fifths, effectively taking us from a key signature of two flats to one of two sharps.

Zooming in to look at the smaller scale, the modulatory details glossed over earlier tend to portray suffering, anger, and other negative emotions through harmonic instability, frequently using diminished seventh or minor ninth chords. Examples include the Gm-G7-Cm motion on Arme, "the poor," which sets up the i6-iv6-V-i (of G minor) cadence in which Jesus foreshadows his death.

The following sentence begins in C major, but the bass note is E. This does not resolve to D as expected, but moves to C♯ as the root of vii°7 of D minor. The next cadence settles on D minor, but not before the melody has a diminished second, moving from E♭ to C♯ as Jesus foreshadows his burial.

For a non-Bach example, consider the recitative preceding Cleopatra's Piangeró la sorte mia from Handel's Giulio Cesare. I won't go into detail, but she's setting up the aria (in which she says she will lament her fate) by describing the facts causing her despair. Here are the chords, lead-sheet style:


(Here, where the bass moves by a tritone to F𝄪, she sings O Dio, "O God!")


The aria is in E major.

  • In these baroque oratorios and operas, there would be extramusical significance to the keys as well. Before equal temperament, different keys had actual tonal differences, and some might have distinctly "out of tune" chords, for a "traumatic" affect. Certain arias might be in certain keys just for the benefit of the vocal range, but they might have programmatic significance as well (making the modulation into or out of them a matter of symbolic change). Oct 29, 2021 at 14:46
  • @AndyBonner that's true. I'm not quite sure why I forgot to mention it in the answer. Nevertheless, I don't suppose that tonal differences such as out of tune chords qualify as "extramusical" factors.
    – phoog
    Oct 30, 2021 at 11:49

The only purpose given in that section of the book is modulations avoid tonal monotony. Albrechtsberger doesn't seem to give any artistic explanation - at least in that section - about why any particular modulation would be used. Although he does make the contrast between "easy, natural" and "surprising" modulations. So, that opens the door to the idea various modulations can have different effects.

In section CVII he makes the point "...it is possible...to modulate into all keys." Given the book is a thorough-bass manual, a method book, I think the point may be a keyboard player should be technically trained to make any distant changes. In other words, all those modulations are listed not because of their particular artistic effects, or not even from conventional use, but simply because they are all possible. If all are possible, list them all, practice them all.

However, @Phoog's answer gives the usual explanation: distant changes = dramatic effect.

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