Eric Knechtges, a colleague at Northern Kentucky University, recently sent out a survery to university composers. One of the questions was, “3) Any advice for potential composition students concerning the college application process, and/or constructing a portfolio?”
Here’s my answer:
In our portfolios, I like to see three compositions which demonstrate the student’s stylistic preferences, ability to pursue a project to completion, and interest in various media. In general, it is not necessary to include a large-ensemble piece, especially if performance recordings are available of smaller-scale works. MIDI realizations can do more harm than good. I would rather hear or see short-to-medium length pieces that demonstrate technical mastery of compositional skills such as motivic development, phrase and phrase group organization, variation technique, harmonic and rhythmic coherence and ability to pursue an idea to its conclusion in a fully-formed piece (with beginning, middle and end). Submitted scores should have a professional appearance, with attention to the details and standard practices of manuscript or digital score preparation–dynamics, tempi, articulation. There should be a clear sense that I am not looking at a “first draft,” and that significant effort has been put into revision and the “polishing” phase of work.
Perhaps these are merely my personal prejudices (particularly about making a score look good), but some of these traits are evident to me in the great music of the past. One of these, motivic development, is the main idea behind the third movement of Mahler’s Sixth, and I want to explore that today.
When I’m teaching basic composition to my students, I always stress economy of material, because emphasizing a single motive or a small group of motives throughout a piece builds unity while also providing opportunities for variety. Unity is essential because it makes the piece sound like itself and not like a string of melodies or harmonies. Variety, however, is very important in most styles, because very few listeners want to hear a great deal of exact repetition.
Mahler has set this movement in the key of E-flat major, a key that is somewhat removed from the symphony’s key of A minor. On closer inspection, though, it is the relative major of the parallel minor of the relative major of the home key (a minor to C major to C minor to E-flat major), so there is a relation here, although it’s somewhat tenuous.
The music begins with a theme, stated in the violins, that introduces much of the material with which Mahler concerns himself throughout the movement. As Russell Mikkelson frequently states, composers are like bad poker players, because they show you their cards at the beginning of each hand. In addition to the head-motive of this theme, with its distinctive sol-mi-sol rising and falling sixth, there are motives in the second half of the first full measure (motive a, four eighth-notes, descending by third, then by seconds) and the second half of measure 3 (motive b, a written-out “turn”). In measure 8, the oboe presents a final important motive, motive c, a figure which alternatively rises falls and rises, with sixteenth-notes on the second half of each beat to give the impression of hesitancy.
The a motive reappears in the violin melody in m. 13, first implying a IV triad, then a borrowed iv on its repetition. Immediately thereafter, the c motive appears in the violins and woodwinds, again as part of the melody. In m. 16, the a motive reverses its earlier trick, outlining iv and then IV (the entire passage is constructed over a tonic pedal point). Measures 20-27 present a fascinating woodwind accompaniment texture, based on the c motive and its inversion. The melody is assigned to the English horn, and begins in m. 22 with an inversion of the head-motive of the first theme–a falling and rising fifth instead of the sixth from before. The key of g minor is suggested here, but it does not last, with a return to E-flat major in the next section of music, beginning in m. 28 with a horn melody that incorporates all the important motive material so far. In m. 31, Mahler extends the dissonant Db5 in the solo horn by two beats, requiring a 2/4 bar (m. 34) to put the next cadence on the downbeat.
There follows a chromatic passage (mm. 36-41) that appears to lead toward C major, but then at the last moment returns to E-flat. The next passage is based solely on the motives (a and c) from the first theme, with the c motive dominating the music in mm. 42-52, with a making its appearances in mm. 45-46, again highlighting an alternating major-minor chord. While the overt major-triad-turning-minor motive that has characterized the previous movements of the symphony does not appear in this third movement, there seem to be more sublte, buried echoes of it in this particular use of the a motive, which occurs several times.
Measures 53-56 present a fascinating common-tone modulation, where the pitch G changes from mi in E-flat major to me in E minor. First the c motive and then the a motive introduce the “second theme,” this time in the horn. As this theme dissolves (it never really becomes a full-fledged theme, but its certainly too long to be simply a motive), Mahler begins to expand upon the a motive–first in the clarinets by inversion and rhythmic displacement, then in the bass instruments by expanding the third into a fourth, allowing two repetitions of the motive to cover an octave (in m. 65). In mm. 68-70, a chromatic sequence that maintains the contour of the a motive is heard against the c motive (modified) in the trumpet and oboe.
In mm. 76-77, an almost Baroque-sounding descending-fifths sequence appears–extremely familiar in Common Practice styles, but realtively rare in Mahler, who simply doesn’t seem to have harmonic rhythms that move this quickly. In the following measure (m. 78) is an early appearance (although not the first, but the first significant one) of the a motive transformed by both retrograde motion (the third at the end instead of the beginning) and the displacement of the third note up an octave, putting dramatic leaps of a seventh and a tenth into the texture. The c and then the a motives pull the music to the next key, E major, at m. 84.
A note to my students, a spectacular example of the technique known as “horn fifths” appears in m. 85, introducing a trumpet melody that relies on the c motive. It seems that the tendency is for the c motive to be spun out into some variation of the a motive at many points in this piece, such as in mm. 89-92. In mm. 95-99, the c motive, and then the a motive create a monophonic modulation (based on the diminished seventh chord) to return to the main theme and the home key.
Measure 100 and the following passage suggest a recapitulation, but Mahler has other plans in mind. The last chord in m. 114 acts as an augmented sixth chord which points to C major (an interesting use of the augmented sixth to point to a tonic function instead of the dominant, in this case to a key a minor third below the original key). All three motives (a, b and c) appear in this C-major section, which ends in an unprepared modulation to A major (mm. 124-145, again, down a minor third). In this section, Mahler employs the a motive in the bass with the c motive in the horns against a violin melody that reaches higher and higher, to a C#7. In m. 137, A major turns to A minor, without a key signature, as the oboe gives the “second theme” material.
A slightly less abrupt key change leads to C-sharp minor in m. 146, as the full orchestra begins to enter with with climactic material based on the a motive (at first, to m. 156 or so), then on a chromatic version of the c motive, this time in eighth notes instead of the alternating eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth-rest pattern. By m. 160, the music has abated, leaving music in B major based on the b motive, followed by the c motive to set up an entrance of the a motive on the Neapolitan chord (C major, m. 164). The major-minor motive is impled by the a motive in mm. 167-8, again extending the phrase by two beats, which are then rectified by the other 2/4 bar in the movement, m. 171.
The a motive takes over the texture in m. 173, as the music returns to E-flat. Then in m. 176, the descending fifths sequence appears in a moment that is reminiscent of nearly every Hollywood love theme. A note on the scoring here–one of the interlocking voices here is given to the 1st and 2nd violins, and the other to the violas with the oboes and clarinets, and the effect is very strong (of course, it seems to require seven woodwinds to allow the violas to balance.
The remainder of the movement is coda material, dependent mostly on the a motive and some of its modifications. Mahler’s use of dynamics in m. 188 allows an effective color change, and there is an itneresting use of rhythmic augmentation of the a motive (with octave displacement, and modified to suggest harmonic closure) in the flute in m. 196ff. Overall, the tautness of this piece seems to outdo everything Mahler has presented so far. Despite the sprawling length and scoring of this symphony, the motivic clarity allows it to be highly managable in a way that hasn’t always been the case in these works.
On, then, to the highly-charged, tense finale. I hope to be able to concentrate on aspects of compositional structure rather than any supposed autobiographical content (a study of how much of this is authentic and how much simply mythological would be very interesting; one day, I hope to tackle Henri-Louis de la Grange’s massive biography of Mahler. Until then, my biographical understanding of these pieces comes largely from Kurt Blaukopf’s shorter work).
A final note, I’ve recently become aware of a similar project to my own, done much better, I must say, and by a composer of vastly greater experience than myself. Anyone reading this blog should head over to YouTube to see Don Freund’s videos analyzing Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Great stuff!