Here C major is being very dramatic. Usually C major is peaceful or joyful no matter what else is going on. In fact it can make an otherwise dramatic key sound happy.

The drama of this piece is as if this was composed in C minor. However despite the flats and everything it is still C major. Also there are very few if any minor chords.

Even if a C major piece is primarily percussion, strings, and brass and is loud it is not often angry or sad.

In general majors are less versatile than minors in their feelings.

How could such a happy and peaceful key like C major be very dramatic like C minor often is?

  • I thought this piece was in G minor (but so atonal in several sections that it doesn't use a key signature). It hammers several successive G's in the melody in multiple sections (including the beginning and a particularly forceful reprise), and it also emphasizes D's in those sections. Although I don't remember B's or Bb's in those sections much, those sections prominently use Ab's, which are more common in G minor-like pieces than G major-like pieces. – Dekkadeci Feb 5 '18 at 2:11

I'm not sure I would characterize this piece as C major at all, despite the fact that it is written with no key signature, and ends with a C in the bass. It never really "toniciszes" the C with a dominant/tonic relation (nor is it in A minor, for that matter). In fact, I believe it is, in many ways, more akin to atonal music.

In addition to the 5/4 meter that Tim mentioned, the piece makes heavy use of dissonances -- especially minor seconds -- throughout, and it often appears to be in multiple keys at the same time (polytonality). For example, at 1:20, where the bass finally resolves to a C (from the G that it had been droning up to that point), the chord in the rest of the instruments is actually a D♭! (A half step above the C, and a tritone above the G). Using tones a minor second above the bass note recalls the darkness of the Phrygian mode.

Even in the the spots were major chords are used prominantly, they are used in such a way that they would never occur in any single key. For example, there's a passage (around the 4:00 mark) of completely parallel major chords that goes: Cmaj, Bmaj, B♭maj, Bmaj, Cmaj, Dmaj, Emaj, F♯maj, G♯maj, Gmaj (all set against a B drone). Not only do all the notes of each chord not belong to a single key, but even the roots themselves don't all belong to a single key! That's just one example bar, but there are many similar (but slightly different) bars throughout the piece.

There's really never any sense of "this is the tonic, this is home" throughout the piece, which, as I mentioned, is achieved by avoiding dominants and using heavy dissonances, and notes from multiple keys.

  • 2
    In general, I agree. The tonality of the work (such as it is) is carried pretty much by the bass. Immediately after the ostinato on C (rehearsal mark III), there is an upbeat F followed by G-A and then an oscillation between B♭ and C - a kind of subdominant allusion. This bass is later recapitulated starting from C. Immediately after that is G♭ (!), but as the centre of an oscillation between G and F that eventually takes it through G♯ to A. Throughout this piece, there is a lot of oscillatory motion in all voices (your chordal example included) that sets up centres, but obliquely. – user16935 Jan 11 '15 at 23:48
  • Yeah I hear several majors and minors at the same time. Like at 1 point I might hear C minor and F major at the same time. Its almost like all keys are in an argument like C major saying "I am better because I am a happy key" and C minor saying "I am better because I am more versatile than almost all these other keys, especially the majors" and F major saying "I am better for the same reason C major is" and so on. – Caters Jan 12 '15 at 1:35
  • and I might even hear C major and C minor at the same time. – Caters Jan 12 '15 at 1:36
  • @Caleb Hines - it appears that the transposing instruments are written in their corresponding key signatures, which may mean Gustav intended it to be 'in C'. What do you think? – Tim Jan 12 '15 at 13:10
  • @Tim In my copy, none of the instruments, regardless of transposition, have any key signature. If it were in C, then I would expect (for example) the Bb Clarinets to be written in D, since they sound a whole step lower. That they aren't indicates to me that Holst really didn't care what key this was notated in. – Caleb Hines Jan 12 '15 at 13:31

The generalizations on majors and minors are biased because of their over-use of how they are handled and stylized in classical era.

Key is just one of the elements used in musical creations. Musical meaning and atmosphere is defined using a combination instrumentation, orchestration, dynamics, articulation, harmony, tonality, motives, melodies...etc. Key is just a part of the tonality, not a magical thing defining all the character.

The question actually includes the answer where the observations on the example piece are told.

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