Thursday, April 7, 2016

One Mozart Theme

Most writing about music takes place in a rosy-tinted fog of unknowing. They talk about how "vibrant" the music is, or how "edgy" or "expansive" it is. Here is an example from a recent review in the Guardian of a CD of Sibelius symphonies:
It’s all played with immense care, but Elder’s view of the miraculously organic opening movement, which transforms from ambiguous exposition to hyperactive scherzo, is brisk and matter of fact, almost peremptory at times, so that the weight of the great affirmative climaxes and the sense of release when the scherzo finally takes wing don’t carry the charge they do in some performances.
You might hear what they are talking about if you listen to the CD--or at least convince yourself you do--but if you actually looked at the score you would see none of this, at least, not without a great deal of analyzing and speculating. Talking about music using the adjectives of ordinary language doesn't get us very close to the music.

So let's take a close look at a particularly interesting theme by Mozart and see what is actually going on. One of my favorite symphonies has long been the Symphony No. 29 in A major. Here is the piece played by The English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

I'm not going to talk about the whole piece, or even the whole first movement. No, I just want to look at the first thirty seconds or so, which feature a very unusual theme, first quietly and then louder with a counterpoint. Here is the whole opening theme in score:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
The first theme ends with cadence from mm. 31 to 32. Let's break it down a bit. It starts with this motif, with the octave drop:

That is just the first and part of the second iteration: the whole of this first phrase has that same motif three times, each a step higher forming a sequence. The motif takes up three measures so the three iterations take up nine measures with a cadence into the first beat of that 9th measure. Then there are four measures of a linking passage using turns to take us from one A up an octave to another A. Then the first phrase repeats, this time forte with a interesting counterpoint. The first and second violins repeat the opening phrase in unison and a half note later it is echoed in the violas and cellos giving it much more intensity by means of the canon, the dynamic and the range. This canonic echo is delayed a half note and is harmonized in thirds: the violas begin a fourth below the violins and the cellos a sixth below. This continues through the three steps of the sequence. Instead of the turn passage this is followed by fourteen measures of tremolando cadential figures that cement a modulation to the dominant, E major. Then the second, more lyrical theme, continues in E major. All this takes up about 34 seconds of the beginning of the symphony.

I can't talk about the nuts and bolts of what is going on here without using technical terms any more than I could talk about how a car motor works without using words like carburator and piston. So here are some definitions. And remember, you can always look up musical terms in Wikipedia, which does a pretty good job with them.

  • theme: a fairly small structural section in music. In the Classical era they were typically eight or sixteen measures in length and always ended with some form of cadence
  • motif: a brief group of notes that can be used in various ways and are usually repeated. The da-da-da-dum that begins the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven is a good example as is the three measure idea that begins this symphony
  • sequence: device where a motif is repeated at a different pitch
  • cadence: the most important structural device in tonal music. Cadences are in three major varieties: the perfect authentic cadence, the V7 to I that ends all Classical era pieces and most major sections. Weaker cadences are the half cadence, I to V and we also encounter deceptive cadences, V to vi.
  • canon: a canon is a texture in music where one voice closely imitates another. The schoolroom example is "Row, row, row your boat" where each subsequent voice is an exact repeat of the first. But there are more complex examples like this one, where the imitating voices are a fourth and sixth below and a half note later. There is a fascinating canon by Bach where the imitating voice is four measures later, a fourth lower, upside down and in note values twice as long!!
  • tremolando: a texture where a note is given a rapid reiteration
  • modulation: in tonal music, the notes are organized into keys. The key of A major, for example, uses the notes found in the A major scale. Tonal music often uses the device of modulation where the music moves to a different key. It is a bit like shifting gears
  • turn: a very commonly used four note motif where a note is spun out by first giving the note above, then the note, then the note below and then the note again
I think that is all the technical terms I used!

Now go back and listen to that opening theme again. Then listen to the whole movement. That delightful opening theme returns later on in the movement.

Just a final note: I said that Classical themes were typically eight or sixteen measures long and that is true. But of course the great composers like Mozart are NOT typical. This opening theme has two big phrases: the first is twelve measures long and the second is twenty measures long. Also, the prominent use of the falling octave interval is very unusual for a classical theme. You might also note how extremely parsimonious the basic motif is: there is literally nothing there except the octave drop and the lower neighbor note. Here is another performance of the symphony:

UPDATE: I just have to add that Mozart was all of eighteen years old when he wrote this symphony.

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