Melody is the essence of music.
CHAPTER AIM: To unlock Melody’s power with four simple notes
This chapter we’re really only going to examine four notes, in fact the first notes of the movement.
First Four Notes
It’s a simple four note melody, each note the same length. Three notes ascending, with the higher lift on the third note cushioned by the lowering of the fourth. Simple.
First Four Notes
These four notes – in the extraordinarily creative hands of Mozart – act as a spine throughout the movement, and show not only the brilliance of Mozart’s method, but also the power and reach of Melody itself.
If we’re going to explore Melody, Mozart really is the perfect guide. Listen to the medley above: how many tunes can you recognise?
Odds are more than you would any other composer.
Mozart is the master of melody, probably the most gifted tune-smith our species has ever produced. Beautiful melodic music flowed from him at will. Or as he himself rather eloquently put it:
“I write music as a sow piddles”
That’s amply demonstrated by how much we have been broaching melody in our first two Mozart chapters.
(If you want to know what pieces the above clips come from, go to the recommendations section at the end of this chapter).
The First Four Notes
Let’s return to those first four notes of our piece. Here they are again:
First Four Notes
Now let’s just set them in context, by seeing what follows:
First Eight Notes
Llisten now, as the entire phrase is taken up by the whole orchestra:
Next 9 seconds
Notice how the second half of that TA-TA-TA-TAAA phrase is itself repeated again. A repeat of the repeat if you like:
Next 9 seconds
Now, melody is being repeated, and emphasized through that repetition. The repetitions almost insist: this is about clarification of the music’s voice. This is about making an orchestra sing.
Listen to our own piece, but try to take it the overall sound. Take the widest perspective, and listen to the shape and character of the music.
Do you hear how the music constantly and consistently seems to unify in a particular direction? It’s the promotion of melody amongst the musical box of tricks that creates this effect: it gives the entire orchestra a unity of purpose.
There’s more to this than just unifying the orchestra around the melody of the music. Listen to how the music speaks to us, the voice it employs. It displays liveliness, wit, and oodles of charm. There’s exuberance, swagger, even a touch of plain showing-off.
All traits we associate with big and individual personalities.
Indeed it seems we’re hearing the personality of Mozart, transmitted through his music. So many different feelings seem to flutter throughout the orchestra. Sometimes the effect is pronounced and exciting, sometimes nuanced and subtle. And yet the music always seems to speak with a singular personality. It has character, it has a voice.
No surprise Mozart was also such a superb composer of opera, where he could nuance the tiniest of emotional beats with individual colour from particular instruments of the orchestra. You could say Mozart brought the art of the opera into symphonic music.
He taught the orchestra to sing!
Back to those Four Notes
Let’s take a closer look at our simple four-note melody. Here it is, together with that TA-TA-TA-TAAA phrase we noted earlier:
First Six Seconds
Twenty seconds later, and we hear our four-notes again. Only this time something is different:
The notes have unchained from the previous phrase, and now linked up to a new melody, that happily leaps off. And this is repeated a number of times, rapidly.
Our four-note phrase has lost its tail, and morphed into a three-note phrase. And that has an effect on the music. This phrase now seems to pivot like a diving-board for the next musical idea to spring off.
And spring off it does, happily cascading through each of the five string sections, like a waterfall. We’ve looked at the section before, but here’s a reminder:
- 0.00 Second violins
- 0.02 First violins
- 0.05 Violas
- 0.08 Cellos
- 0.11 Double basses
Barely 20 seconds later, we hear our same four note sequence again. Only this time, it seems again to have been chained to new melody:
There’s a DNA-like quality to the way Mozart uses his material. Think of simple amino acids combining together to make longer chains of proteins, which in turn build into a larger structure.
Constantly assembling the basic material into new parts to drive the music forward. It’s simple and brilliant.
It’s also a very fluid way of using melody, and it demonstrates how melody can mean so much more than just having a great tune. There is a process of creative engineering going on, a structure beneath the surface that is far more detailed than we may at first think.
Think back to that Mozart quote:
Mozart is a deceptively simple composer. His work is far more complex than it at first seems. And that’s because he doesn’t want you to notice the complexity, he doesn’t want you to find it hard listening to his music hard.
Mozart’s use of pleasant melodies to drive his music, not to mention his classical pleasure in clarity and balance, mean that he is occasionally looked down on as a simplistic, chocolate-box composer.
Well, it’s true his music is melodious and sweet. And it’s also true quite a bit of chocolate has been sold in his name (he’s even had a few sweets named after him).
But don’t confuse simplicity with the simple. Mozart’s music may not offend the ear, but neither does it patronise it.
A better metaphor for Mozart’s craft is the swan: gracefully gliding across the water, whilst unseen below the feet paddle furiously.
Let’s turn back to our simple four-note melody, and take another peak under the water…
Through the Grinder
We’re going to look a section of music that comes right at the heart of this movement. It’s the gristle of the meat of the movement…
The section begins by changing the mood of the piece. It does this by simply playing our four-note melody through a change of key:
4.28 – 4.40
- 00.00 Our four notes in first key.
- 00.07 Our four notes in a new key.
It’s a curtain-raiser for something very unexpected. Just listen as Mozart proceeds to grind that four note sequence into something altogether more complex and gritty. :
4.38 – 5.13
We start with those chasing canons (0.02), that we first heard in our first Mozart chapter.
But then (0.16 above) something rather odd happens.
We hear our four note sequence, played in the wind section. But the flurry of strings plays a totally different tune. There’s no reply or conversation here. The two sets of insrtuments seem oblivious of one another.
It’s quite extraordinary. Four times the woodwind and strings seem to brush shoulders, ignoring each other with their separate melodies. The effect is abrasive and disharmonious. Here, our themes don’t link. Rather they clash.
The result is almost schizophrenic, and very very unlike Mozart’s usual melodious desire to please.
And yet, it’s also very Mozart: pushing creativity into new, almost rude forms. This is a composer whose instinct is so good, the music always sounds effortless.
To emphasize: because Mozart’s work sounds so effortless, it’s easy to miss the complexity.
4.38 – 5.13
That’s not the case in this section.
It’s as if Mozart has for a brief moment lifted the beautiful canopy from his music, and shown us the engine room, pumping away raw thematic material in a noisy, almost ugly clamour.
And it doesn’t end there. Just listen next as Mozart proceeds to ramp those four notes through five rapid key changes:
- 00.00 One
- 00.03 Two
- 00.07 Three
- 00.10 Four
- 00.14 Five
What we get is a tumbling almost dizzying effect. Now those four notes sound bare, almost tired.
It telling us it’s time to head home.
The Beginning of the End
Mozart still isn’t finished with his four-note melody, even as we approach the end of the piece.
A linking section appears:
10.15 – 10.26
Here, Mozart plays yet another trick with our four-notes. The sequence is flipped, so that the first step up becomes a step down, and likewise with the final step down, which is now an ascending step. He’s created an inverted form of his melody.
The inversion is perfect. Now, each phrase hangs like a question mark, asking what might happen next:
10.15 – 10.26
- 00.00 Question One
- 00.03 Question Two
- 00.07 Question Three
What happens next is perhaps the most astonishing section of a piece full of astonishing section. And once again our four-note melody will play a major part. That treat will have to wait until the final part of this course ().
But still Mozart hasn’t finished with our four notes. Right at the very end of the piece, Mozart reintroduces the theme:
10.49 – 10.54
Even now, Mozart is doing something new. The TA-TA-TA-TAAA phrase comes in immediately, almost like an attack.
When we first encountered the phrase, right at the start of the piece, there was a small gap before the TA-TA-TA-TAAA sounded. Now, there there is no gap. The TA-TA-TA-TA comes in more rapidly.
Here are both versions side by side, to clarify the difference:
Opening v Closing
This loud reinstatement of our theme, but in a more truncated and hurried form, makes us instinctively feel the end of the piece is almost here, it’s so simple and yet also so ingenious.
Four notes, in such a variety of forms! You really have to take your hat off to Mozart.
Final dish of our main Mozart course next: Harmony!
QUIZ If you want to know the pieces from that clip medley at the top of this chapter, we have:
- Serenade in G major, K542 “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic“
- Queen of the Night’s aria from the opera The Magic Flute K620
- Piano Sonata 11, 3rd movement, known as “Alla Turka”, K331
- Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass K626
- A Musical Joke, Divertimento K522
- “La ci darem la mano” from the opera Don Giovanni K527
- Slow movement (Andante) of Piano Concerto No 21 K467, used in the film “Elvira Madigan“
- “Voi che sapete” from the opera The Marriage of Figaro K492
- Opening movement of Symphony no 40, K550
- “Non piu andrai” from Marriage of Figaro K492
- Third movement (Rondo) from the Horn Concerto no 4, K495
- Overture to the The Marriage of Figaro K492
Apologies to the many other great Mozart tunes not included…