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I'm referring to Evocación, the first movement of Iberia, which is in the key of C flat (7 flats, every note flat). The key of B uses exactly the same hotes, but using 5 sharps instead of 7 flats. To the listener the C♭ and B keys sound identical. 5 sharps are easier, one would think, to deal with than 7 flats. The meaning of choosing C♭ over B has nothing to do with the sound of the piece, and it makes the work harder notationally for the performer. There is a message to the performer (who is the only one who would know) in the choice of the C♭ key. If you can't play this key you shouldn't even be looking at this piece? Flats are more dreamy, but sharps grate? For the performer only? Commentary welcome.

I'm a pianist, and have performed this piece, for myself only, many times.

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    Personally I think Cb major is quite a straightforward key to play in, because everything is flat. No harder than B major in my view. – JimM May 22 '17 at 8:31
  • I disagree with this. In Cb you have to play B instead of C and E instead of F. For me that's at least a little confusing. The key of B just uses all five black keys instead of the white keys just below them. – Daniel Eisenberg Jun 6 '17 at 18:09
  • @JimM Conceptually, C♭ seems easier for me, because it's literally "C but everything has a flat". But playing it, it seems harder for me than B major. Maybe that says something about how I (and other people) conceptualise music? Or maybe I'm overanalysing. – user45266 Mar 26 at 4:11
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It's a trade-off over how to write the accidentals to be consistent with the harmony and avoiding enharmonic "jumps" in the notation.

Even with 7 flats in the key signature, there are a couple of bars in the middle which are full of sharps, which might be a notational mess in B major. (I haven't actually written it out B to check, though!)

The ending is in A flat major with a change of key signature, but a G sharp major ending would have had 9 sharps in the key signature.

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    What's wrong with B major followed by Ab major? Why does it matter if one key has sharps and the next has flats? – Andrew Gallasch May 22 '17 at 5:26
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    @Andy Nothing is wrong in terms of the notes played when your instrument is 12-TET. However, moving Cb -> Ab is a I -> VI movement (common), but B -> Ab is I -> VIIbb (what!?). There is something to be said for picking the key of least friction, but having the notes be meaningful in they key is also important, as the relativity of notes influences their function within the piece. I have seen "notationally correct" pieces with double sharp/flat key signatures for this reason. Those weren't the versions given to performers though. – CAD97 May 22 '17 at 5:57
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    It's relatively common for piano music to modulate to the enharmonic equivalent of a certain scale degree to avoid overly complex key signatures. Chopin does it quite often and even Schubert is not afraid of this. – 11684 May 22 '17 at 17:48
  • @11684 Similarly, see any piece modulating through all twelve major keys (Beethoven, for instance, has a set of two preludes that do this); of course somewhere in the middle of the sequence there's a modulation that only makes sense enharmonically! – Kyle Strand May 22 '17 at 17:52
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    @CAD97 If your comment were fleshed out into an answer, it would probably be the best one. (Not that the existing ones are bad, that's just a very valuable comment.) – Kyle Strand May 22 '17 at 17:54
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There are many valid reasons to prefer one enharmonic variant over the other.

  • As alephzero has pointed out, if the harmonic structure of your movement tends to modulate upward it is almost certainly better to notate seven flats than five sharps, to avoid a disruptive break in notation half-way through.

  • J. S. Bach was quite capable to notate a piece in D sharp rather than E flat simply because he needed to plug a gap in his omnitonal works, he already had a fugue in D lying around and transposing D to D sharp is easier for the copyist than D to E flat.

  • When a harp piece is notated in C flat, this means that you're using the longest, least tense position of each string, which results in a particularly mellow sound.

The point is, without a source documenting that Albeniz chose this variant for one particular reason rather than another, there are too many possibilities to decide that question.

  • Could you expand the harp theory, please? I'd have thought ( maybe erroneously) that the Cb string on a harp is also the B string. When I play guitar/bass, I pluck in different positions along the string, and although that changes the tone, it doesn't change pitch, and if it does, it's only for the first fraction of a second. – Tim May 22 '17 at 6:59
  • @Tim The harp is quite interesting: it has a pattern of 7 strings, CDEFGAB, which you then use pedals to tune up or down a half step. I thought originally they had a pattern of 12 (semitonal) strings, but the actual pattern is the 7 strings of the C scale, allowing for the traditional harp gliss. Read More – CAD97 May 22 '17 at 7:44
  • @CAD97 - so, similar to a chromatic harmonica, or pedal steel guitar, in different ways! I haven't tinkered with a harp since 1967, so it's all been forgotten. And maybe the Welsh harp is different anyway? Still has coloured strings, I guess? AND - does a pedalled Cb sound the same as an open B?? – Tim May 22 '17 at 8:15
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    Whoah! Whole can of worms opening here! Basic harp tunings are C, Eb and Ab - geographically influenced, in the main. But - often they are tuned to coincide with the key of the piece, so I guess, without looking at the score, this harp would be retuned to Cb (or maybe B...) Lever harps have levers that allow two not choices ( natural/sharp or natural/flat), whereas pedal harps have three choices - flat/natural/sharp. – Tim May 22 '17 at 8:44
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    @Tim Lever harps and other "folk music" harps follow their own rules. Kilian Foth was talking about orchestral harps which are standardized (7 strings per octave tuned by C flat major, pedals with two notches to raise the pitch to natural or sharp). To an orchestral harpist, written B and Cb are always notes played on different strings. For diminished 7th glissandos, you do set the pedals to produce some doubled notes on adjacent strings - e.g. C dim7 would be C D# Eb F# Gb A B#. Like a guitar, the open strings (tuned in flats) are more resonant than "fretted" strings using the pedals. – user19146 May 22 '17 at 16:48
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A simpler explanation is that the movement is in A♭ minor, and C♭ major is its relative major. Therefore its key signature is C♭.

From wikipedia page A-flat minor :

Its relative major is C♭ major.

0

An excellent question which I came across as I am just about to publish an edition of Evocación.

One of my first tasks was to see how it looked in B major; I cannot deny that it felt wrong. I found it quite difficult to find a valid reason and in the end opted to keep it in the original key.

It is always interesting to examine the choice of key and time signatures by composers, and although with equal temperament all keys should sound the same on a piano, it has to be said there is something sensual, dynamic and practical in preferring to compose in a particular key. Albeniz is a special case as in 10 of the 12 pieces of Iberia, he does not change key signature in spite of many complicated modulations, and this often presents a baffling number of awkward accidentals; these will always indicate either “exotic” deviations or a change of key, and in my view it is much clearer to change the key signature if the modulation lasts for more than a few bars. By 1915 In the study pour les arpèges Debussy changes key signature mid-bar.

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