Together with the puzzle, Mozart gives you the answer
-BusoniCHAPTER AIM: To explore Mozart’s use of harmony in a number of sections of this piece
Pretty much all western music, be it blues, jazz, country, or pop, is written in a particular key. We just don’t usually spell it out.
The Beatles’ Let it Be for example is composed in C major, the same key as this symphony. And yet we would never think of putting that in the title (although Let it Be in C does have a certain ring to it).
Classical music, on the other hand, pays closer attention to the key a piece of music is written in. Hence this piece is fully titled ‘Mozart’s symphony No 41 in C major’.
That tells us something. Yes we will begin in C major, and we will almost certainly finish there. But in between – unlike a pop song – we will travel on a harmonic journey. As we saw in , this journey is the engine for much of the musical action that takes place.
There and back again
And so piece of classical music usually begins in a certain key – then explores different keys – before returning to our home key for its conclusion. That’s actually a good model for the vast majority of classical music, including most of Bach’s, Mozart’s, and Beethoven’s output.
There’s a good reason for this. We instinctively feel our home key, even if we don’t realise it. So we are sensitive to travel away from and back to that key. That progression gives us the outline structure of a piece of music, its narrative if you like.
Don’t think being tied to a home key is a limiting constraint: it isn’t. A composer has a huge array of choices to make over which keys to explore during the journey of their composition. Travelling to closely related keys, or making more exotic journeys to distant ones. Treading well-marked paths trough familiar key changes, or finding new ways to move between more distant ones.
When you think of what you can already achieve musically just staying within a single key (take Let it Be), the freedom to operate through different keys adds a multiplicity of harmonic textures to explore.
Music’s relationship to harmonics changes, like fashions. The baroque music of Bach takes pleasure in really exploring the harmonic pallette to the full. But the music of Mozart’s age (known rather confusingly as classical music since it comes from the classical age) has a more straight-forward relationship to key.
There is a reason for this. Mozart’s music has been composed to sound easy and pleasant to the ear. He wants us to remain comfortable in the aural space he creates. That means clearing away a lot of the clutter of complex harmonics, and staying in or near your home key (known as your tonic).
Jumps in key can have a jarring effect, especially if we travel far from our home key, our ‘tonic‘, rapidly. The consequence is Mozart’s music (and that of contemporaries like Haydn) tends to maintain a pretty stable harmonic relationship overall.
There is one major beneficiary of this, and that is Melody, which is promouted to the forefront of the overall sound. With the harmonic background more stable, Melody can take a more central role.
The first minute
Jupiter Symphony Finale, First Minute
Let’s look again at our first minute, but this time through a harmonic lens.
Although the music is busy – plenty of notes flying around in all directions – harmonically the music is actually rather stable.
Pretty much the entire section remains in the key of C major. This is our ‘home’ key. It is the place we begin – and where we will end. The movement away from this key will be the development of the piece.
During this first section, we hardly stray very far from our home key. We modulate to closely related keys, sure, but no more than you would in a pop song, changing chords whilst staying in the same overall key. It’s actually not a push to say those first 45 seconds cover a pretty similar harmonic range as Let it Be.
It is only at 0.47 above that we get the first tentative harmonic exploration of the piece: a short section that leads us to…
0.53 ….D major, which sets us up for our first proper change of key.
And the new section of music that follows, has been clearly delineated by this first actual change of key. The harmonics are making us aware of the developing structure of the music. But everything is handled with proportion. These are the very gentle harmonic explorations.
58s Key change 1
Classical Simplicity, apparently
Which isn’t to say Mozart isn’t capable of harmonic subtlety, or even complexity. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mozart makes his music sound simple, but that doesn’t mean it is simple. Rather, the harmonic action is subtle, creating its effects without drawing attention to itself.
Let’s tease this out by looking at a different section of the music that comes less than a minute later:
1m 32s Key changes 2
- 00.00 Everything fairly simple, remaining in the same key
- 00.11 We hit a new key
- 00.13 And another, immediately!
- 00.17 We return to our first key
Like a shot in the arm, these rapid changes of key inject the music with vitality and lift. It’s quick, smart, and so effortless, you hardly notice it. Mozart is using deft key changes to create energy and excitement in his music.
And he can take that spirit of adventure further still. Listen to how he tackles this same section when he revisits it towards the end of the piece:
9m 41s Key changes 3
- 00.00 Our starting key
- 00.04 A new key
- 00.06 A new key again, and a surprising one!
- 00.07 And again, another new key…
- 00.09 And again! Before we return to
- 00.11 Our first key again.
It’s a new, and different route back to our home key of C major. And yet, it’s so quick and effortless, you hardly register the surprising key changes. It’s an ingenious harmonic journey back to our home key in such a short time!
9m 41s Key changes 3
And yet, at the same time, these quick-fire change of key feel correct and appropriate. It’s like having something revealed that’s somehow been there all the time. Giving the puzzle, and supplying the answer, as Busoni so memorably put it atop this chapter.
It’s perfect Mozart: surprising you, and yet at the same time delivering what you had always wanted. Music that satisfies and excites at the same time. That’s an effect Mozart can conjure up like no other composer.
And Mozart can take us further still. Listen to this section, from the heart of the piece:
4m 28s Development Section pt 1
Key changes take place at a number of times, giving us the sense we are moving into a new place. This gives the section the feel of a bridging moment.
And then we arrive at our ‘new’ place. Now a number of rapid changes of key take place, giving this section a real sense of development:
4m 40s Development Section pt 2
- 00.00 key 1
- 00.02 key 2
- 00.05 key 3
- 00.08 key 4
- 00.11 key 5
- 00.14 we seem to have landed at a key…only before we have time to settle…
- 00.18 Another key. Followed by…
- 00.20 The woodwind play, in a different key again, followed by…
- 00.22 Again, a new key…
- 00.25 Again the woodwind in a again different key…
- 00.27 And again another key…
By now, we have totally lost the anchoring of our home key. What we do have is a feeling of tumbling and a sense of disorientation. We feel – momentarily – rudderless and strangely lost, before Mozart smartly puts us back on track by the end of the clip.
4m 40s Development Section pt 2
It isn’t just the separate melodies and instrumentation that create this sense of disorientation and unease. They key changes themselves have shifted to the point where we are harmonically restless, unsettled. We no longer quite know where we are.
It is only from 00.30 above that we finally come back to some kind of grounding – harmonically – and establish a key on which we will actually settle.
In other words, Mozart is more than capable of providing harmonic doubt. But generally, that is not what his music aims to do. This is music that knows exactly where it is going, that is in total control of where it is taking us. Such qualities imbue the music with confidence and spirit. But this also means that when the music makes forays into new and less obvious harmonic territory, those explorations become all the more vivid too.
One Last Example
Mozart is such a master of the craft, that he makes each change or development in his music sound inevitable, as though it was always going to go in this direction.
Just listen to this clip, one of the final bridging sections, towards the very end of the piece:
It’s a section that is so harmonically rich and complex. In fact there is even some doubt over which key we are inhabiting at all!
And yet, as ever with Mozart, it sounds natural and effortless. And subtle: it’s not showing itself off. Blink, and you might miss it. For a more detailed analysis of this section, GO HERE.
Simple and complex, as you so often get with Mozart: both at the same time.
But always, always beautiful!
To go to the next stage of the course, with a look at some of the the history behind Mozart’s music, use the orange link below. And to continue with the introductory course, use the blue Beethoven link below.
- To hear Mozart being harmonically rich, try the Lacrimosa from his Requiem.