September 20, 2006

Gratuitous Musickal Posting

A.C. Douglas quotes approvingly and at length from a recent NYTimes column by Anthony Tommasini on where Mozart's music might have gone had he lived longer. This part in particular caught my eye (ommissions by ACD):

The other compositional trend in Mozart’s late works is harder to grasp and difficult to describe. It involves his increasing preoccupation with motifs and the technique usually called motivic development.

Motivic development, which reached a zenith in Viennese Classicism, allows a composer to generate an entire score from a small pool of motifs, the little components that make up a theme or a phrase. These components can be a cell of pitches, a snippet of a melody, a short rhythmic figure.


Composing music this way did not come naturally to Mozart. He had an intuitive gift for melody, a keen ear for searching harmony and a hard-won but complete mastery of contrapuntal writing that allowed him to tuck intricate, multivoice passages into his operas, even in the midst of some bustling comic ensemble. Yet he was by nature a man of the theater. His piano concertos come across like operas for instruments, as do many of his piano sonatas. Generating a string quartet or a symphony through the technique of motivic development took a special sort of focus and effort.


[I]n the summer of 1788, Mozart worked simultaneously on his last three symphonies: No. 39 in E flat, No. 40 in G minor and No. 41 in C (“Jupiter”). [...] Why did he undertake them? ... [M]y guess is that he wanted finally to come to terms with this matter of motivic development.

His work paid off. Almost every bit of the G minor Symphony, for example, can be heard as emanating from the motifs that make up the first phrases of the first movement....

These matters are difficult to describe in words. The point is that for all its tumultuous shifts, this symphony sounds inexorable and of a piece from beginning to end. Mozart worked long and hard to make it so.

I think I can imagine where Mozart was heading as a theater composer. But with this business of motivic development and the symphony he was just getting started. What a loss. Forget reaching his sister’s age. If only he had made it to 50.

One clue about the possible direction of Mozart's motivic development and the symphony can be found, I think, in several passages of both the 40th and 41st in which he indulges in brief explorations of very wild, discordant treatments of the underlying motifs. (I will unveil my own Philistinism right here and now by stating that those passages have always put me off these symphonies just a bit.)

One possibility is that had Mozart continued with this kind of experimentation, his giant musical mind might have leaped to such incredibly abstract ideas that the actual music he produced might well have become almost unhearable to the average oaf like me. On the other hand, Gangerl might have decided that what he was turning out was, to put it simply, ugly and gone on to other ideas.

Who can say. But go read the article anyway.

Posted by Robert at September 20, 2006 10:05 AM | TrackBack

On the other hand, maybe it was a good thing that Salieri had him killed.

That way, he preserves the "big jam donut with cream on top" status, if you remember that Monty Python bit. (His arrival is greeted with pleasure, his departure leaves us hungry for more).

Posted by: The Colossus at September 20, 2006 10:56 AM

Better than a stream of bat's piss, I reckon.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at September 20, 2006 12:36 PM