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For example, Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in d minor has the 4th movement end in D major. There are many many other examples that I have seen of this pattern; some that end on the major version of the same key, whereas others end on a different major key.

Is the reason purely to end on a "happy note"?

The only symphony that I can think of that declares it as minor and ends on the same minor key is Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in e minor.

  • By the way: one of Brahms's intermezzi is the only work I know offhand that ends in (e flat) minor after having begun out in e flat major. – Kilian Foth Apr 25 '15 at 20:18
  • @KilianFoth wow didn't even know one such major -> minor! – Ryan Apr 25 '15 at 20:19
  • One major-key symphony that ends in the minor is Mendelssohn's 4th (the Italian) in A major: its finale's in a minor. For more examples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major/minor_compositions – Rosie F Feb 5 '17 at 14:59
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Tim was partway there. It's not uncommon in movements that are in the minor to end in the major, not just a tierce de Picardie, but a coda in the major, or even a good part of the recapitulation: it's a way of resolving the tension inherent in the minor mode in common practice tonality. A finale in the tonic major is taking that sense of resolution up a level of hierarchy.

A finale in the major on a different tonic than the opening movement, however, is exhibiting what is usually called progressive tonality. One might say that the emphasis is on the "journey", on transformation rather than resolution in such a case.

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  • Great answer! I probably should have put that I wanted more of a historical reason than a stylistic one, but I'll go ahead and accept this. – Ryan Apr 26 '15 at 15:34
  • @Ryan, the need for resolution was tied to history: you'll see precisely the kind of thing I'm talking about in the Viennese Classical composers (sometimes very cagily in Beethoven's case). With the Romantic generation, that need starts to disappear, and, by the time you reach Nielsen and Mahler, the need to return to the opening tonic is pretty much gone. Highly recommended, if you're interested: Charles Rosen's books, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and The Romantic Generation. – user16935 Apr 26 '15 at 15:54
  • @Ryan In fact, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in c# minor ends in D Major! – Pat Muchmore Apr 26 '15 at 16:28
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Mozart No. 40 in g minor, and Sibelius No. 1 in e minor, are two more examples of symphonies that begin and end on the same minor chord.

Many composers and songwriters have an aversion to ending on a minor chord. They feel it leaves the piece 'un-resolved.' There's a scientific reason for this: the major triad is composed of natural overtones of any fundamental pitch. The minor triad has no such origin. It is 'made up.'

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The 'tierce de Picardy' is maybe your answer. It is known as the Picardy third, and is used to finish a minor piece , on the parallel major. Obviously, if the piece is 'xyz in D minor', the key signature is going to be one flat throughout it, unless there's a key change or modulation, but it'll probably gravitate back to D minor again.

The 'different major key' ending is often the relative major, so in my example, it would end on F major, or you could say IN F major.

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    The Picardy third is a single chord at the end of a minor piece, not an entire final movement. – Pat Muchmore Apr 25 '15 at 16:37
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    Yes, but I think Tim is saying that the reasons for this may be parallel or at least similar, and I think he's right. There is an aversion among many composers to ending on a minor chord, as it leaves a feeling in many ears of non-resolution. There is a scientific reason for this-- the major triad is composed of natural harmonics of any fundamental note. There is no similar origin of the minor triad. – L3B Feb 7 '17 at 3:02
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The Western musical ear is very tuned into hearing a major scale and a major scale as the norm. Maybe this has something to do with the construction of the harmonic series, maybe not. (Other musical traditions have taken different paths. Have they achieved a similar catalogue of art music? It's a much-argued point.) Anyway, in the context of tonal music, anything else feels slightly unfinished. Hence the 'Tierce de Picardy' and its extension into a whole section in a major key, particularly in Common Practice symphonic works that use key relationships as a major structural element.

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