Together with the puzzle, Mozart gives you the solution.
CHAPTER AIM: To learn about musical themes
Mozart is a great melodist, but he’s no mere tune-smith. He works his melodies to such a degree that it is more helpful to think of them as ‘themes’ rather than simply as tunes. And that process of working his melodies is something we’re going to examine in more detail this chapter.
Warming to ones Theme
One of my problems, listening to Classical Music for the first time, was the lack of obvious melodies. Well, that’s not quite right: the real problem was my prejudice to what a melody actually was. Often, I was waiting for that one tune I had heard and liked to come back. What I didn’t realise was that this tune was in fact a multiplicity of tunes, being crafted and molded through a huge variety of processes.
This is why with classical music it’s more useful to talk of themes rather than tunes. We can think of themes as something like hard-working melodies. A melody describes a singular sequence of notes, but a theme can be far longer and more extensive in function. It can change in character. It can be broken up, and recombined into new forms. It can metamorphose into something entirely new.
If notes are letters, and melodies are words, then themes are entire sentences. Packets of information that make some kind of sense. When we hear themes more clearly in the music, as opposed to just melodies, we’ll start really quickly to make sense of larger patches in the musical thicket.
Listening to ones Theme
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the first theme that begins the movement:
Now let’s just break that down into different sections. The first part is a simple four note sequence:
That four note sequence can be broken off and chained to different melody, as happens half a minute later:
There is a DNA-like quality to the way Mozart uses the most simple material bolted together to build the most complex structures. Listen for example to the way Mozart changes the mood of the piece by playing this four-note theme through changes of key:
And now just listen as Mozart proceeds to grind that four note sequence into something altogether more complex and meaty:
Let’s not forget a little earlier, when Mozart pushes the same four notes into the wind section, where they seem to engage in a struggle against a flurry of strings:
It’s a really quite extraordinary section. Four times the woodwind and strings seem to brush shoulders, ignoring each other. It’s like a sort of musical dialectic, that cannot achieve synthesis. The effect abrasive and unharmonious. Here, our themes don’t seem to develop, but rather they clash. The result is almost schizophrenic, utterly unlike Mozart’s usual melodious desire to please.
And yet, this is so like Mozart, pushing creativity into new, almost rude forms. Mozart’s work always sounds so effortless, so simple, that it is easy to be deceived as to its actual complexity. But here, 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.
Let’s just go back to that opening phrase. Here it is again:
This time we are going to concentrate on the next four notes in the sequence, which really form more of a rhythmic unit than a tune. Here they are:
Four note sequence
Now even this tiny rhythmic component is reused throughout the movement. Here it is just a few seconds later:
And now again, multiplied, to announce the close to this opening section:
The Art of the Natural
So simple is the material that Mozart uses that it can seem like he’s using Lego to build a stunning sculpture. Mozart is constantly inventive, always looking for new ways to develop his melodies, his themes. That is why the music sounds fresh and yet somehow natural. His themes mutate and transform between themselves, giving the music an organic quality of self-creation and replication, as if it is effortlessly evolving by itself. It feels miraculous. A phenomenon like Mozart, said Goethe, remains an inexplicable thing.
Consequently Mozart’s music feels inherently rich and fertile, even fecund, as it flows in creativity. Yet all the time it sounds spontaneous and effortless. ‘Natural’ is an apt description. Like life itself, this music seems to replicate, mutate, and respawn in many new and varied ways, whilst still retaining an entire genetic unity. And it seems to do it by itself. The apparent ease of the process can lead some to underestimate Mozart’s craft, as has been mentioned earlier (see )
There are just so many instances of this kind of development that proliferate through this movement. Here is another short motif, this time only three simple notes, sounded clearly three times by the violins just over a minute in:
How many times can you hear in these three notes played by separate instruments in the next 15 seconds of the piece? Try and count them…
Back to Business
Let’s return to our original four-note sequence, here it is as a reminder:
Only now we approach near the end, the sequence is used, in an inverted form, as if suddenly posing musical question marks:
If you’re finding it a bit tricky to hear the inversion, here are the two sets of four notes edited side by side:
Do it yourself…
We should now be getting a clearer idea of the light density of Mozart’s art. Like perfect a filou pastry: light and puffy yet constructed in the most detailed fashion. To appreciate this, you can listen to the piece and take any sequence of notes that feels familiar, and see if you can track it through the music.
For example, let’s take the six ascending notes with a trill (that is a rapidly repeated sequence of two notes) on the fourth note. The sequence is repeated six times by high and low strings:
We first heard the sequence when it was bolted onto our opening four notes near the start of the piece. Do you remember?
Now try listening to the entire piece, with an especially keen ear for this six note pattern. See how many examples as you can: there are rich pickings to be had.
Indeed you can pick out any phrase from this music which has began to sound familiar, and see if you can track it yourself through the movement. Classical music is not just a random burble of notes. It is structured. And Mozart typifies this quality. When you start to appreciate that structure, the beauty stands out all the more.