G-sharp minor is a strange key. Its five sharps and the notorious acoustic squeal from G-sharp to D-sharp, dubbed the “Wolf fifth,” have precluded its use in just intonation and mean-tone temperaments. It was only with the general acceptance of equal temperament in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or some form of equal partitioning of the chromatic scale, that it could even be considered. Moreover, the need for a double sharp to notate the leading tone and the crucial dominant chord has made it into something of an eyesore from an orthographic standpoint, which is not the case with its enharmonic A-flat minor (despite the fact that it has a key signature of seven flats) or its relative major, B.
As a result of its relatively late appearance in music history and a scarcity of examples, the key has a somewhat undistinguished character and color. For example, there is nothing in the music of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp minor from either book of The Well-tempered Keyboard that would stipulate that these pieces should be in G-sharp minor; which is to say, these pieces could work in another key (G or A minor, for example) without any detriment to their musical characters. Perhaps it is for this reason, as well as an unavoidable awkwardness that the key poses for many instruments, that it was sidestepped during the Classical era. No piece or movement of a piece by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven is in G-sharp minor. Beethoven, in fact, avoided the key on the one occasion in which its use might have been justified. The third movement (“Marcia funebre”) of the Sonata for Piano in A-flat major, Op. 26 dips into the parallel minor of the sonata’s key, A-flat minor (shrewdly introduced in the third variation of the first movement), rather than the more easily legible (in terms of key signature) G-sharp minor.
The nineteenth century and the expansion of chromatic harmony during this time proved more welcoming to G-sharp minor, although works in this key were generally restricted to the piano. To my knowledge, Chopin was one of the first to compose works of significance in G-sharp minor following Bach’s examples from The Well-tempered Keyboard. The fiercely difficult and fiercely original Etude Op. 25, No. 6 (c. 1833) subjects the right-hand fingers to demanding passages in thirds in the key of G-sharp minor, with a startling modulation in the middle section to C major. The Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 12 of c. 1837, a collection influenced by Bach’s The Well-tempered Keyboard, shows a tempestuous, Sturm und Drang treatment of the key:
After the mid-nineteenth century, the key became somewhat more prevalent, in fact being a particular favorite with Russian composers. Mussorgsky might have provided the impetus in this instance with two well-known pieces from Pictures at an Exhibition set in G-sharp minor. The second piece in the collection, “The Old Castle,” explores a melancholy G-sharp-minor setting, while the fourth piece, “Bydlo,” contrasts with a bolder, lugubrious setting. Mussorgsky’s choice of key in these instances may have been influenced by piano technique, rather than by any special traits of the key itself. For example, the opening measures of “The Old Castle” comprise two voices in the left hand, accompanied by a variety of articulations to specify their execution (fingerings are my own):
Mussorgsky’s strategy may have had a historical precedent in Beethoven’s unusual choice (for its time) of C-sharp minor for his Sonata Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”). In the famous first movement, the repetition of the G-sharp in the right-hand melody can be more easily executed if the hand is elevated above the keys. The key of C-sharp minor, like G-sharp minor, forces the hand into an elevated position and allows suppleness of the wrist, which is less the case if the piece had been notated in C minor:
Other Russians, such as Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, explored the qualities of G-sharp minor, although continuing to restrict their explorations to piano music. Scriabin, in particular, seems to have had an early fascination with the key (perhaps following Chopin’s influence), for the key appears in his Sonata No. 2 (probably the first complete sonata in this key), the Mazurka Op. 3, No. 9, the Etude Op. 8, No. 9, the Prelude Op. 16, No. 2, and the Prelude Op. 22, No. 1. Curiously, however, the key does not appear in any instance after Op. 22, perhaps coinciding with his break from the Chopin tradition. Like Chopin, Scriabin’s use of the key could be tempestuous, docile, tragic and heroic. His Prelude Op. 16, No. 2 shows an original treatment of the key and a piano sonority that can be found in no other instance; which is to say, the key finally seems to be finding a character:
There are surely other examples of pieces in G-sharp minor. What pieces can you think of?