Posts Tagged ‘Berlioz’

The Middle

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

My last post described some things that I learned from another art form, woodcarving, through my father and his teacher, Spirit Williams.  Here’s another in the same vein, purely by chance, mind you.

I firmly believe that other art forms have a great deal to tell us about composing, which means that if I have a chance to chat up an artist during a plane ride, I’m going to take it. Last Spring, I met Kiersi Burkhart on a plane from somewhere to somewhere (I think it involved Denver, a city where I one day hope to see more than the airport and the hotel where the airline sends me when my flight is screwed up). She writes young adult novels, and also a blog. This post showed up the other day, about how to help the middle of a novel.   Her five suggestions have me thinking about the middle of pieces, so here are my thoughts about Kiersi’s thoughts and how they might relate to composing.

1. Raise the stakes. This “tip” gets thrown around a lot, and for a long time I wasn’t really sure how one could implement such broad-sided advice.

The easiest way I’ve found is to first work out what your characters’ goals are (both small and large), and then determine: what are the consequences of your characters not achieving those goals? Now make them even more dire. Life and death. Death and destruction. Whatever you can do to make the repercussions of your characters’ not achieving their goals worse, do it.

I think the best way to raise the stakes in a musical composition is to move beyond your starting material in some way.  I’m not suggesting that you string together theme after theme after theme (although it worked occasionally for Mozart), but if you’ve focused on one melodic idea up until this point, say, a third of the way in to the composition, it’s time for some contrast.  This new material should relate to earlier portions of the piece in some way–a similar harmonic framework, or a motivic relationship–but there is a need for variety as well.

Another way to raise the stakes might be to employ a change in texture–if things have been very homophonic up to now, it’s time for some counterpoint; if you’ve been writing lots of interwoven lines, it’s time to pare the texture down.  All kinds of great things can happen in the middle of pieces–the classical approach to creating a movement has a middle that is much more loosely-constructed than the beginning, and even in the middle of a Bach fugue, we can go long stretches without either a cadence or the fugal subject, just riffing on little ideas that have come up.  Speaking of riffing, think of the structure of a bebop jazz performance, with its tightly-constructed presentations of the head at the beginning and end and the loosely-constructed solos in the middle.

2. Lower the low points. The best part of middles is when it seems all hope is lost–that there is no possible way your character can achieve his purpose.

Remember in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo gets trapped in carbonite? Even worse, he’s shipped off with a bounty hunter to see Jabba the Hut, and our heroes are too busy trying to save Luke to chase him down.

At this moment in the story, we (the audience) feel somewhat defeated, like there’s no possible way Han can be rescued from his terrible fate. And in Return of the Jedi, this situation only gets worse when Leia is enslaved by Jabba.

Find that low point in your story (make one, if it’s not there already) and then make it worse. While you’re beating your hero into the ground, beat harder. Did something go wrong in his heist plan? Find three other things to go wrong, too. And it’ll be really satisfying to your audience when your clever protagonist manages to worm her way out of this ridiculous bind.

I think what Kiersi is getting at here is dramatic tension–the middle is the place where we really aren’t sure how things are going to work out, and as such, it has the possibility of being the most exciting part of a piece of music.  Certainly, as a composer, I often view my pieces this way when they are in process: there comes a point when I know what the rest of the piece is going to look like, and I know that I will be able to finish it.  Composing the middle, though, can be frustrating for exactly that reason–I don’t know how I’m going to get out of the situation in which I’ve placed myself.  There’s a famous moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica where the texture devolves into these dissonant, repeated chords, as though Beethoven threw up his hands, smacked the piano keyboard, and wrote down the results.  Beethoven takes this almost-mistake and slowly winds his way out, with a diminuendo and resolutions of dissonant notes that leads back to the main theme–the beginning of the ending.  In my own Piano Sonata, about three-quarters of the way through, the relatively-complex rhythms and texture dissolve into a single line, notated in stemless noteheads, a moment of repose for performer and audience, and a summation of what has come so far in the piece, and preparation for some of the breathless material that lies ahead in the push to the climax.

3. Up the conflict. Are your characters friends, lovers, or comrades in arms? Are they getting along, smooching, snuggling and heisting in perfect harmony?

This is the primary way in which I find middles sag: the character relationships stale. Either they are at peace with one another for too long, or they’re at odds without any moments of relief.

Cause some conflict. Stir up some drama. But be wary of falling into common conflict traps: misunderstandings that would be easy to resolve, unlikely coincidences, or blowing up a small issue into a big one (this is my biggest complaint with romantic sub-plots).

Use inherent character flaws to guide your conflicts. Is one of your characters prideful? Have that pride lead her to hurt the other character in a way that seems irreparable.

Again, we have to turn to Beethoven, who can’t seem to write a middle section of a symphony movement without a fugato (and who was imitated by countless others).  As Kiersi mentions, though, it’s easy to fall into some common traps, and fugato is one of them (why does Brahms turn every movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem into a fugue?  I submit that it may have been youthful inexperience).  Unless your piece has been somewhat contrapuntal up to now, throwing a fugue in seems kind of desperate (Berlioz writes scathingly about this practice in his orchestration treatise).  But the beauty of fugue is that it does have that “cool” factor, and it’s critical to find something to do with your materials that propels the piece forward.  Look for the same kinds of rhythmic intensification that fugue can provide–change the position of motives within the bar, let them happen sooner, and closer together.  Foil the listener’s expectations about when things will happen: sooner (more drama), later (more tension).

4. Comic relief. I might be the only writer with this particular problem, but I have a hunch that I’m not. Why so serious? If things are getting intense in your middle–as it probably should–be cognizant of how your reader is feeling. In the middle of drama and conflict, give your reader the occasional break.

The break doesn’t always have to be comic. Let your characters have moments of tenderness or insight into one another. In a romance, let passion momentarily override conflict (leading to more conflict, of course). In a thriller, let your protagonist feel victory–short-lived victory. A good middle is a combination of low and high points, leading up to your dramatic finale.

This can be hard to remember, but great music can be funny, not just serious.  Whether it’s Bach’s quodlibet in the Goldberg Variations with its use of street songs (not funny to us, but probably hysterical to Bach), or the trio of the Scherzo in Persichetti’s Symphony for Band, where a little group of instruments, pulled along by a muted trombone, plays a little march that sounds like it would go with a Dr. Seuss story, there is humor in good music.  A composer is a human being, and being human means being both tragic and comic.  Some composers do this better than others: think of the burlesque version of the march from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony that shows up in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.  I’m sure that Shostakovich laughed the first time he heard it, because his own music is filled with irony and parody as well.

That said, it’s easier to plant comic relief in a dramatic work–the Papageno subplot in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example, and of course the dark humor of the graveyard scene in Hamlet that adds levity while staying on topic–the downstairs view of the goings on at Elsinor, perhaps.  Kiersi also suggests that intimate moments in the middle provide a break–it works in music, too, as in the piano-cello duet in the second movement of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1–intimate not only in texture but in meaning as well.

5. Escalate tension. A good climax is the tip of the highest peak of your story arc. Leading up to that peak are your second, third, and fourth-highest peaks.

I suggest doing this with “post-outlining”: now that you know all the plot points of your story (all the “ups” and “downs,”) organize them in order of severity. Your lowest lows and your highest highs should come near the end, leading up to your finale.

This is especially important when revealing important plot information. You don’t want to save all of your high-value cards and staggering reveals for the very end; drop some of your big bombs (but not your biggest bomb) during that sagging middle section, then escalate leading up to that super mondo finale–and hopefully leave your readers panting.

This suggestion may or may not apply to a given situation–sometimes the beginning of the end of a piece of music is a moment where tension is released–the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement, for example, or the beginning of the “Simple Gifts” variations in Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  The ending of a piece is inevitable once it begins, and layering coda upon coda (in the way Tchaikovsky does in his Fifth Symphony, for example) doesn’t move the beginning of the ending anywhere closer to being the middle.  In good music there is a crucial difference between music of the beginning, music of the middle, and music of the end.  Some great middle moments, though–the trombone chorale in the last movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony comes to mind–are the last moment of calm, an eye in the hurricane.  The birdsong section of the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony is a change of character that builds into a critical statement of the motto theme of the symphony before the return of the main theme for the movement.  It would behoove all of us to study the Romanza movements that Mozart frequently uses in his later piano concerti–the quick middle Sturm und Drang sections like the one in K.466 are the uber-middle–the middle part of the middle movement of the three-movement structure.  The formal considerations of music are somewhat different than those of the novel, of course, because of the way that repetition is a critical component of good composition, but the dramatic concerns are similar.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is said to have said what every composer (and author) knows: something to the effect that starting a piece is easy, but getting to the end is hard.  This is the difference between being a tunesmith and being a composer:  a song is all theme, but a composer has to be able to take themes (or the equivalent) and connect them in meaningful ways, constructing the musical equivalent of a novel.

Mahler, Symphony No. 9, first movement

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Of the nine Mahler symphonies, the Ninth is probably the one I come to with the least familiarity.  I’ve never seen it in concert, and I’ve never had reason before to really listen to it.  It is, I’m finding, a very different animal than what comes before, although in many ways, it is a culmination of some trends that really began with the Seventh symphony.

Like the Seventh, there is significantly less clarity of formal structure as motive becomes more and more important.  I’m reminded of Schoenberg’s assertion that motive is what composition really is about—creating a motive and then following its logical developments until a composition is worked out.  Only a few years after Mahler’s Ninth, we begin to encounter works like Schoenberg’s Pierrot, in which motive becomes the music, comprising melody, harmony and rhythm, or Erwartung, which takes a very different motivic approach, giving only exposition, never repetition over the course of a one-act opera.  Only fifteen years after Mahler’s death, Schoenberg devised dodecaphony, which was yet another effort to allow motive to determine all aspects of musical content.

There is, then, a tautness to Mahler’s Ninth that was missing from the Eighth.  The Eighth was motivically conceived, of course, but also had such a sprawling nature, such a blend of instruments, voices and text that it was probably impossible for Mahler to focus on the motivic aspects of the composition.  A text that expresses what the last scene of Faust tries to express cannot be contained in just a few motivic ideas, as Mahler correctly divined.  Both are great works, and thrilling in their way, but I remain skeptical as to whether the Eighth is really a Symphony in more than name.

If I might dwell, then, before entering into specifics, upon what actually makes a symphony.  Chuck Berry sang:

I got no kicks against modern jazz, /Unless they try to play it too darn fast, /And change the rhythm of the melody, /Until it sounds just like a symphony.

 Of course, Berry didn’t mean an actual symphony, but rather the technically driven, studied approach that jazz was coming to acquire in his era—the era of Miles Davis and other practitioners of “Cool Jazz”—in juxtaposition to the raw, often deliberately unschooled approach to rock’n’roll of his day.  But what does it mean to sound “just like a symphony?” 

When I first encountered Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, I found myself wondering why he didn’t just write a slow movement and have a “complete” symphony, since I was by that time aware that a symphony had four movements in a certain order.  But then composers such as Schumann, Sibelius and Barber also felt able to compose single-movement symphonies, and history turns out to be replete with examples of symphonies that lack a fourth movement or have “extra” movements.  In the end, what is the symphonic concept?  What makes a composition for orchestra (or for band, as the ever-insistent voice of Rodney Winther reminds me) into a symphony?   Some aspects I think are important:

  • Instrumental.  This is probably a basic requirement, and it doesn’t omit all non-symphonies, although it does omit, or threaten to omit, many pieces with the title “Symphony.”  Is Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral finale a symphony by this definition?  There is great music in its first three movements, but these act as prelude, really, to the cantata that is the last movement.  I’m not certain that a piece with voices can truly be a symphony, but I know that they aren’t required.  In fact, they sometimes undermine the symphonic ideal, at least to my thinking.  The fact remains that as much as we are musical beings, we are also verbal beings, and the marriage of text to music is always an uneven match.  Text, if we understand the language, wears the pants, so to speak, and will almost always compete successfully for the attention of most listeners.  Even the most vapid lyrics seem to win this contest.  Thus, to me, the symphonic concept is inherently instrumental.
  • Relative equality of parts.  As a trombonist, I have rested through much more symphonic music than I have played, of course, but Brahms’ First would not be complete without the trombone chorale in the fourth movement.  In that sense, the trombones are equal in importance to the other instruments, and no part can be disposed with.  That chorale could have been played by horns or bassoons, but not without a change in color and thus in character.  The appearance of a color that has been held in reserve through the first three movements is a profound and noble moment, and as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors.  However, in a concerto, one part is inherently more important than all the others, and in works titled Concerto for Orchestra, or similar names, it is again the virtuosity of the players that is on display rather than the composer’s ability to make a profound statement.  Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is not a symphony because, although I think there are messages about life in it, it is mostly about the ability of players to perform music written idiomatically for their instruments.
  • Plumbing the depths.  As Libby Larsen said, composition is about telling someone else through music what it is like to be alive.  Just as large-scale formats in other arts—mural, novel, film—put on display the understanding of the auteur of the human condition, the symphony tells us about human experience from the point of view of the composer, and, in the best moments, from the point of view of the musicians who perform the piece.  Is this present in the earliest pieces called “symphony?”  Perhaps, but it is difficult to know at 200 years’ remove.  Certainly in Mozart’s later symphonies and Haydn’s later symphonies, we get a glimpse of this, and of course it is Beethoven who forced composers to rethink the symphonic concept.  The Soviet Nicholas Miaskovsky composed over a thousand numbered symphonies—he was less writing about his life than writing for it, though, and one must wonder whether such pieces should be considered “symphonic” in their conception.  Again, it is not a difficult thing to write four movements in a symphonic pattern, particularly in a Common Practice style, but to pour one’s heart and soul and communicate to all who can play or listen on a meaningful level is a much greater challenge.  We mustn’t discount happiness and cheerfulness, though.  While there is pain and struggle and anguish in the world, a great symphony can also be filled with light—Sibelius’ Fifth, perhaps, or Dvorak’s Eighth, or much of Mendelssohn.  If one actually is happy, and filled with joy, it is probably one’s artistic duty to compose music that recognizes the value of this, an idea almost forgotten in our world of desires and causes and political statements.
  • Internal unity.  Simply writing four pieces on a related concept or program does not a symphony make.  No one would confuse Holst’s Suites for Military Band for symphonies despite their musical worthiness.  In the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz wisely fuses the five movements through internal self-reference—the idée fixe.   With no knowledge of the program, these five pieces would seem to hang together, as do the movements in Mahler’s symphonies, because in the best symphonic writing, the number of movements is, in the end, less crucial than the way those movements are connected.  Schumann recognized this and did not try to claim the Overture, Scherzo and Finale as a symphony.  The movements of a symphony must follow one another without apology and without explanation.  They must be inevitable.  They must be as different speakers making the same point, “good-cop, bad-cop,” as it were.  Composers use harmony, melody, motive, scoring—all the tools at their disposal—to achieve this.  The sonic world of Brahms’ Second Symphony cannot be confused with that of the Third, and Mahler’s world in the Seventh Symphony is a distinctly different one from the Ninth.
  • Commitment to purpose and purposeful excellence.  A true symphony is a serious, heartfelt gesture intended to be the best work of a mature composer, written without constraints of mediocre performers and looking to the future.  It is likely to be experimental in some regard, although the experimentation is less likely to be in the realm of compositional or instrumental technique than in the realm of expressive capacity.  Just as a good pianist will test and probe the potential of an unfamiliar instrument, a true symphonic composer attempts to determine just how her ideas about existence can best be communicated through sound.  A symphony is not a one-off, but rather the core of an artist’s musical expression.  Yes, at the age of 34, I have still not written a symphony, for many reasons, but I feel that I must first master certain aspects of compositional technique, some of which are approached through this study.  A symphony should lie at the core of my oeuvre in retrospect, and given my social milieu, the opportunities that have and may come my way and my personal style, I may not be a symphonist, or there may be in the end only one symphony in me—perhaps a better situation, as how can one write such a summative piece twice?!

And now, 1500 words into this post, I have not even made a single specific reference to the piece at hand—if this were an assignment in one of my classes, I would fail myself!  But the assignment I’ve given myself is to figure out how to grow as a composer:   I hope to one day be a symphonist, or at least write large-scale music, which I have determined are not necessarily the same thing.  I am learning what I need to learn from Mahler, and my listening and score-study project is yielding fruit, if in unexpected ways.  My score is filled with notes on Mahler’s work, and I refer myself to it for future reference, but why shouldn’t this summative work, written by a man at the peak of his personal powers of musical technique and expression, elicit from me a summative sort of response, albeit slightly early?  If you’re dying for specifics, check out the strange interlude of regular formal rhythm—four-bar phrases—that begin in m. 148 and precede and follow an otherwise nearly complete lack of regularity in this regard.  Also, Mahler’s layering approach to this movement reminds me of some of Sibelius’ music—I don’t know whether there was cross-fertilization there.

Onward!  Keep fighting mediocrity!

Mahler, Symphony No. 6, 2nd movement

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

I keep thinking of non-Mahler topics I would like to tackle here, but things have been busy.  I have some time over the next few weeks, so perhaps they will pop up, but for now, here are some observations on the Scherzo from the Sixth Symphony.

The  first time I ever heard this piece, in April 1995, as performed by the Cincinnati Symphony, I heard the Scherzo as a sort of reimagining of the first movement.  I feel less and less that this is true, but the opening bars of each bear a striking similarity with their pedal A and melodic figures that rise toward the meat of the piece–a Schenkerian inital ascent, as it were.

What is really interesting about the first section of the Scherzo is that it seems to be related to a device that Mozart and Hadyn used from time to time in their menuetto movements–the spot that later composers used for the Scherzo.  In a few of their minuets, Mozart and Hadyn employ a strict canonic construction, and if Mahler’s use of canon isn’t strict, it is at least suggested–very clearly in places like mm. 7-9, in which motives are repeated directly, and in Mahler’s use of invertible counterpoint.  It is, really, the same old trick that Zarlino teaches–using invertible counterpoint, write two sections of music at the same time.  Again, Mahler isn’t strict, but his motivic choices allow him to layer and relayer his material.

Orchestrationally, there is a great deal of sort of “standard” writing, with mixed scoring that is effective, but not particularly colorful.  Lutoslawski, with his single movement symphonic plans, criticized the Romantic composers for making two large statements in their symphonies–typically the first and last movements.  He had Brahms in mind, but surely Mahler is no less guilty, if not more so.  In the Sixth, the last movement is by far the most significant, with the first movement probably next so, if not least for beign the most memorable.  Where, then, does that leave this piece, the middle child?

In constructing a piece of this length, is it possible to fully engage the audience for the complete duration of the symphony?  It is difficult to imagine the audience not becoming slightly fidgety at some point.   In Shakespeare, there is frequently a pause in the dramatic arc at the beginning of the last act–some ceremony, or comic relief.  In the same way, Mahler has moments of intense drama that are contrasted with moments of thoughtfulness and repose–even, moments that are simply “vamp” that have us waiting patiently for a scene change or to let us relax.  Is it lazy to think of Mahler in this way?  He was a man, not a god.

This movement spends a great deal of time on the subdominant of its various keys, for example, in m. 44ff.  There is also a fair amount of sequential motion, although generally up or down by second.  This aids in getting to more remote keys, as at m. 62, which sees a modulation to C-minor.

The concept of key is beginning to feel a little stretched in some places, as in the long “D-major” section beginning in m. 273, which never arrives at a tonic chord (although, characteristically for this movement, it lands on the subdominant in m. 299).  At the same time, there are more meter changes in this movement than in any of Mahler’s work so far.  While the outer sections are somewhat canonic in structure, the frequent meter changes disrupt this by throwing a simple-meter wrench into a compound-meter machine.

The major-minor motto of this piece makes its appearance at some of the crucial formal junctures, but most importantly in the coda, beginning at m. 419.  The harmony moves down by step, with AM-am, GM-gm, FM-fm in the trumpets and flutes.  The motto returns again in A, and is repeated several times against motivic material from this movement. 

Berlioz and Tchaikovsky brought such motives into their symphonic writing; in a way, Mahler’s concept of the symphony owes a great deal to Symphonie Fantastique.  Mahler has been self-referential before, but this is the first instance of a “motto” in any of his symphonies, and so there can be little wonder about the attachment of such importance to it by musicologists.  As a composer, though, I am more interested in the musical effect–what does the listener with no knowledge of Mahler’s biography or any explicit or implicit “program” to the symphony make of this device?  It is a unifying element, certainly, but its application seems slightly ham-handed at times.  The motive itself, as I mentioned in my previous post, is clear and direct, and distinctly unconventional–a relatively rare occurence in tonal music.  Could Mahler have dealt with it in a way that is not so obvious?

Another month with this symphony, then, so another month to ponder such questions.

Mahler–Symphony No. 3, 1st mvt.

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I’m finding myself behind schedule on this piece, but it’s also the end of the semester, so hopefully I will be able to catch up on this piece.

This movement comprises Part I, and roughly half of the total piece.  Lutoslawski commented that there was a tendency of Romantic symphonists to overwhelm the listener with multiple significant statements–a justification for his own later symphonies, perhaps, which are signle movement works.  As in the first movements of his previous two symphonies, Mahler presents us with a “big idea” that could almost stand on its own.  And yet, unlike in previous outings, the overall tonality of the movement is incomplete.  It is literally impossible for this movement to be taken as a complete piece in the harmonic language of the late 19th century, and strange indeed for a piece to end other than where it began.  Despite its weight, despite its musical significance, this movement is incomplete on its own.

Where Mahler’s first two symphonies begin by developing motives, the Third begins with a theme–a wonderfully memorable one scored for eight horns.  What is interesting about this opening is that the theme is stated and then left completely until a later portion of the piece.  The theme is followed by relatively unrelated material that unfolds slowly over the next 200 bars.  This very clear initial statement followed by a “putting together” of new material is somewhat unique.

This part of the movement is very static from a harmonic sense–the music is centered on D minor and A minor chords, and much of the music is about gettingb to A–from a half-step above and a half-step below.  Perhaps for Mahler’s narrative tonal design, it is necessary to firmly establish the home key to make clear that the ending is not in the home key.  The sheer length of the movement may be a reason for this.

Measure 99 has a temporary change to Bb minor–a mere half-step from A minor.  If A minor is expected, we are denied this, as within a few measures we return to D-minor.  Measure 132 introduces new material which will later be expanded.  Mahler’s use of the chromatic mediant relation is striking and clearly divides this music from the rest of the piece.

D-minor returns in m. 164 with what I, as a trombone player, of necessity considered to be the most significant portion of the piece.  The only earlier trombone solo I am aware of that is this expansive and which is more important is the middle movement (“Funeral Oration”) of Berlioz’ Symphonie funebre et triomphale.  The trombone writing also bears a certain resemblance to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture.  However, this project has given me a new perspective–most of the material of the solo has been introduced previously in the horns. 

Finally, more than 200 measures into the piece, Mahler begins to head toward a new key area–m. 225 has the return of the chromatic mediant material, leading us to a presentation of thematic material in Db major.  Another ten measures sees the music in C major with the first appearance with music in the strings that continuously is  transitional music–mm. 239-273. 

Measure 273 also finally has the return of the opening theme–transformed into a major mode (F major).  The composer and conductor in me has to snicker at the notation Mahler gives to the first violins in m. 276, which has three anacrusis eighth notes.  Mahler feels the need to write “Keine Triole,” “no triplets.”  In conducting rehearsals, I have often had to clarify what should be obvious from the notation–if three eighth notes are preceded by an eighth note in common time, they are almost certainly not triplets.  But who did Mahler imagine was going to play his music?

Measure 302ff has an interesting orchestral effect–trumpets echoed by woodwinds.

Measure 330 has a change to D major, but the harmony is a long pedal point on A until 351.  A return of the march theme, and then a climactic passage that ends in measure 369 with another key signature change (although the key is G major (or G minor) despite the indication of one flat).  The brightness of the march leads us to a darker place–leading back to the more sublime, more subtle music that appeared just after the opening.

The solo trombone reappears in measure 423, this time in F major instead of D minor.  I always used to practice this solo more delicately than the first, with more lyrical qualities.  It is as though it lies between the frenetic celebration of the martial music and the dark brooding of much of the other material.

There is a fantastic transformation of the initial theme in solo clarinet and bassoon in mm. 478–barely recognizable yet completely familiar; such is the power of developmental technique.  The chromatic mediant material returns in m. 482–this time sequenced so that the resulting key is Gb major for a wodnerful duet between horn and violin–what composer would have considered such a thing?

Measrue 514, still in Gb major has a restatement of the march theme over a subtle scrim effect in violins and harp more French than German.  This leads to material in Bb minor. 

Measure 530 sees the transitional material from earlier in the strings now become developmental in nature.  Mahler builds to a return of the march theme, but with additional counterpoint.  The march transforms from the glorious music of earlier to some sort of nightmare version, swinging through Eb minor and C major to land on Db major.  The march fades into the distance, and the percussion battery retransitions to the opening material at m. 643.

I’ve been teaching Forms and Analysis this semester, and one thing I’ve emphasized to my students is that a restatement of earlier material is rarely verbatim, and is usually truncated in some way.  The same is true here.  While Mahler opens with the same music, he cuts about 100 bars to bring back the solo trombone at measure 681.

This third solo is a combination of material from the first and second solos.  Measure 708 is indicative of Mahler’s frequent decision to score the low register thickly.  This is something I avoid in my own writing–I’ve read the orchestration texts too closely, perhaps, because Mahler’s scoring is very effective.  I resolve to attempt something like this in my next large-ensemble piece.

The solo section ends with a direct modulation to C minor, with material related to the earlier transitional passage.  The march music returns in F major and a repeat and elaboration of earlier material.  A succession of 6-3 chords, first in D-flat major, then in G-flat major, pulls back to F major in measure 867–the transitional material now becomes the coda.

Any piece of this size–nearly 40 minutes and 900 measures of music–has to have an internal structure that is coherent but not repetitive.  Mahler’s approach is to continuously develop a few basic themes and pieces of material.  This is not, of course, unique to Mahler–only a few composers have eschewed repetition to the extent that Schoenberg did in Erwartung.   There is a balance between harmonic stasis and harmonic progression, and of course the large orchestra provides a highly varied timbral pallette.

As a composer, I must now ask myself whether I am capable of the same sustained kind of writing, abandoning, as I usually do, Mahler’s use of a basically functionally tonal idiom.  The truth is that I don’t know–studying Mahler is a way to at least see how it can be done, but my longest single movement is about twelve minutes.  This is the challenge that lies before me.

Mahler, Symphony No. 1, 4th movement

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

When I was in high school, WOSU-FM, the classical radio station in Columbus, used to broadcast symphony orchestra concerts on weeknight evenings.  One night, slaving away on homework, I heard an incredible sound pouring forth from the speakers of my radio.  I hadn’t realized that such music was possible, and I wasn’t sure what to think.  It was unfamiliar to me, and I remember trying to puzzle out who the composer might be.  After a thunderous ending, applause erupted, and the announcer explained than Daniel Barenboim had led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.  I had heard the music I now write about.

As an experiment, largely hypothetical, I trolled some orchestra websites to see whether, in the next  year or so, I would be able to see in concert, in America, the Mahler symphonies I have yet to hear in live performance, the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth (the answer, financial considerations aside, would appear to be “no”).  What I did find was that the First Symphony is by far the most commonly performed of Mahler’s work in this country.

Why might this be?  Its size, perhaps.  It is Mahler that still fits the second half of a program rather than taking an entire concert by itself.  It requires no voices, yet still has the grand sonorities and climatic utterances that thrill audiences.  It is, in a way, Mahler without the difficulties of Mahler.  Orchestras that would never consider the Sixth or the Seventh happily program the First.

To the movement at hand.  I have a feeling that the opening sonorities–a cymbal crash, followed by a diminished seventh chord scored piercingly in the winds, with a low bang in the timpani and strings–has been shocking audience members out of their slow-movement-reveries since the premiere.  The upper strings answer with a rhythmically treacherous lick from high to low and back, so that the brass can introduce a motive that appears throughout the movement, answered duly by sinister descending chromatic triplets.  Two more times, taking longer each time, the upper strings give this cadenza-like material, each time becoming more winded.  It is the bass solo from Beethoven’s Ninth gone horribly wrong, or inverted.  My Forms students could cite this as an example of phrase extension by interpolation.  The final violin soliloquy overlaps the winds’ chromatic motives and leads to the countermelody at rehearsal 6, the entrance of the main theme for this movement (do-re-fa-sol).

Despite the sprawling, multi-faceted nature of this movement, like any good Austro-German composer, Mahler is sparing in his use of motivic material.  The other important motives in the material introduced in this (for Bernstein) twenty-minute span are all derived from the theme at rehearsal 6, either by inversion or by multiple transformations.  At rehersal 8, where Bernstein slows the tempo despite no indication for it, we reach a developmental section (rehearsal 9 instructs “zuruckhalten” or roughly, “ritard,” however).

The music so far has been in the rather remote key of F minor; Mahler touched on this key in earlier movements, but never dignifying it with a key signature.  This third-relationship between keys is something to look for in Mahler’s subsequent work.  The inclusion of “Blumine,” by the way, brings yet another key center to the piece (C major).  Perhaps we see another possible reason for its eventual omission.

The melody at rehersal 11 is related to the rehearsal 6 motive by inversion (although not precise).  Measure 149 begins a fascinating transitional section–as though the movement has run out of steam, but for a few last gasps.  One wonders more about Mahler’s program for this piece.  We relax into the still-more-remote key of D-flat major.  A brilliant orchestrational moment at rehearsal 17 sees the oboe taking over the melody from the strings, which step into the middleground, only to step back a few measures later.  The handoff here is sublime.

Rehearsal 18-19 is a study in effective string doubling, with the violas saving the day (with this and another passage down the road, I think the violas here demonstrate their usefulness and become the orchestrational heroes of the piece).

At rehearsal 21, Mahler begins to bring back large swathes of material from the first movement, beginning with the spooky chromatic melody from rehearsal 3 in that movement.  Almost a third of this movement is material recalled from the first movement, making this piece cyclical in a way that dwarves the use of motto themes by Berlioz and Tchaikovsky.  Over the next few decades, some last movements become recapitulations in their own right–the first examples I can think of are Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Orff’s Carmina Burana.  In both these cases, the first movement isn’t merely repeated, but augmented, and it seems possible that this movement was the inspiration.

Note the fantastic dovetailing at rehearsal 24.  This is the kind of technique that makes this piece treacherous for the less-experienced player.

At rehearsal 26, the music presents a tiny chorale for trumpets and trombones in C major, and then continues in C major.  This chorale returns on two other occasions, more forcefully each time, and also moving the music into D major, the key of the symphony. 

Between the second and third “attempts” to bring the movement to an end, another large chunk of the first movement reappears–the portion that leads to the climax of that movement.  Perhaps the most memorable moment in the first movement is the tutti fanfare, and that is what is brought back here.  Instead of the rousing horn melody from the first movement, we are given the brass chorale, fully-voiced and leading us to the home stretch.  The music stays firmly in D major this time, and we are brought to the triumpant conclusion.  Compositionally, there is more repetition here than I would consider appropriate, but it has been, afterall, nearly an hour since we started into Mahler’s paracosm.

Strangely enough, while as a teenaged I at first was thrilled by the bigness of this ending, I now find the little moments most fascinating–I leave you with two of them.  The measure before rehearsal 40 gives us a preview of coming attractions–a string moment that sounds like it stepped out of Copland’s Appalachian Spring.  Then, before rehearsal 45, the violas, my heroes for this movement, lead a transition to the final energetic music that is just perfect.

So–on to another, much bigger piece this month.  I am gratified that I have demonstrated that I can pull ideas and compositional techniques from a piece on this scale.  With one exception, they only get bigger from here, but I entreat all of you to come with me on this trip.  Now, for two months of the Second, beginning, as Mahler said, with the Titan’s funeral march.

Mahler, Symphony No. 1, “Blumine”

Monday, August 24th, 2009

As a working composer, I am always very interested in false starts, incomplete pieces, works which composers abandon at any stage of composition, even after performance.  The process of composition is just as important to me as the product.  It is only fitting, then, that I at least take a peak at the “missing” movement, titled “Blumine,” from Mahler’s first symphony.

In the original 1889 symphony, “Blumine” was the second of five movements, with a programmatic scheme.  By the time of the original 1899 publication, Mahler had dropped the program of the symphony, and with it, this movement.  The score ended up in the hands of one of Mahler’s pupils, and came to light in the 1950s.  It was subsequently published and recorded in the late 1960s.  Since then,  most performances and recordings have kept to the four-movement plan which seems to have been Mahler’s final intention, but “Blumine” occasionally pops up.

As a composer, I must ask myself why an entire completed and performed movement was deleted from this piece.  Compositionally, the piece works.  It is beautiful, well-scored, unambiguous and basically successful.  As always, Mahler’s use of the orchestra, while not as adventurous as in the other movements of the symphony, is flawless.  From this composer, I would expect nothing less.  But Gustav Mahler was his own worst critic, and frequently made extensive revisions during rehearsals and after the premieres of his symphonies (his Tenth symphony was probably left incomplete because of the time spent on a major revision of the Third Symphony).  It is believed that many works by Mahler simply have not come down to us because the composer destroyed them, guarding his legacy carefully, perhaps.

So why would Mahler have excised “Blumine?”  One flaw of the piece is that it is somewhat limited thematically, and feels at times more like a strophic song than a symphonic movement.  I have been discovering that Mahler’s use of repetition is a key to understanding his ability to build large forms, and here the repetition is not unwelcome–the piece works–but it is somewhat unabated.  There is a single theme, based on a single motive.  There is some development, but it is not extensive.

A second reason that suggests itself is that it just doesn’t seem to adhere to the composer’s style as expressed in the other movements.  This piece is very clearly an intermezzo, standing between the more significant first movement and the more forceful Landler that would become the second movement.  Mahler’s middle movements are rarely the sort of fluffy, friendly pieces that we see in “Blumine.”  Where is the angst, the drive, the seriousness?  In addition to the dramatic suggestions, the style simply seems dated.  It is more like Berlioz than Mahler.  Perhaps Mahler came to realize that the symphony became too disparate in sentiment with the inclusion of “Blumine,” and when it came time for publication, it seemed best to leave the piece behind.  The Wikipedia article on this piece suggests that it existed before the rest of the symphony as incidental music for a play unrelated.  While Mahler may have had good feelings for the piece, it lacks the passion, the irony, the dramatic import of the rest of the piece, and even seems mispaced harmonically (C-major, where the other movements are in D-minor or D-major).

An interesting diversion, to be certain.  Score and recordings are readily available (I found a good recording on the Naxos Music Library), and any serious Mahler fan should check them out.