Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, contemporaries and polar opposites on the surface, likely had more in common than not. They took divergent stances on symphonic composition, however. Sibelius recalled an exchange: “I said that I admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs … Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’”
I cheerfully classify myself in the Sibelian camp, although I’m in no wise an anti-Mahler type. I find a great deal to admire in Mahler’s symphonies and other works; naturally I enjoy the glittering orchestrations and massive sonic effects—I’m as tickled by spectacle as the next guy—but many of my favorite Mahler passages are relatively restrained, such as the contemplative lyricism of the 6th symphony’s slow movement, or the grandly-conceived sonata form of the 9th’s first movement. I’ve journeyed far since my first aghast and repulsed encounter with Mahler; all I heard was narcissism and psychotic grandiosity. Both those characteristics can still unnerve me today, but with time and (some) familiarity I’ve been able to move past some of my earlier aversion. Das Lied von der Erde, a work that brings me no end of pleasure, fascination, and admiration, had a lot to do with that. Das Lied was my entry ticket to Mahlerdom.
But my heart is with Sibelius and his ilk—i.e., composers who practice profound logic, which is to say, composers who believe that the highest expressiveness comes from using the least amount of material, and not the most. That I’m not alone in this regard is witnessed by the composers who belong in this category: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, among others, including Sibelius.
Profound logic is on my mind these days, not a surprising state of affairs considering that I have once again given a series of lectures on the Mozart G Minor Symphony (No. 40) to my classes at UC Berkeley. This time around I have three Music 27 classes, thus three times through the same lecture in the same week. You’d think after 27 years teaching this course the piece would have become old hat by now, something to teach on autopilot. Not a chance. The first movement of the G Minor serves as the general introduction to sonata-allegro form but I choose to elaborate significantly by describing, and demonstrating, the brilliance of the thematic and harmonic design. Mozart practices his own version of developing variation—usually associated with Brahms—in his deriving all his thematic materials from two simple seed elements. The first is a descending semitone (E-flat to D); the second is a simple three-note rhythm (cha-cha-CHA; i.e., two eighths and a quarter.) The skill with which Mozart carries out this task boggles the mind, but more importantly, it stirs the heart in that it creates a movement in which everything seems utterly inevitable, as though every note has to be there, as though it must be in that particular place at that particular time.
Perhaps most miraculously, Mozart’s striking economy of means isn’t necessarily audible on a first hearing, nor does it call attention to itself. It simply is, and the more you delve into the movement, the more resonances you find with those original paired seed ideas, pitch and rhythm. Even the final chords (three of them in augmentation of the original eighth-eighth-quarter pattern) refer back to the opening theme and its source materials. Everything is organized and developed from those initial ideas, but there’s nothing sterile or static about it. Surely this movement exemplifies Brahms’s admiring statement that “It is a real pleasure to see music so bright and spontaneous expressed with corresponding ease and grace.” Especially because, pace Herr Johannes, it isn’t the slightest bit spontaneous—even if it manages to seem so.
Shortly I’ll be presenting the Beethoven C Minor Symphony to the same class. I hope that the Mozart presentation will have paved the way for them to understand and appreciate Beethoven’s magnificent spinning out of those famed opening four notes into the materials of not only the first movement, but into unifying threads throughout the symphony as a whole.
Profound logic runs through so much music that I cherish. Not long ago I performed the B-flat Major Partita by Bach; as part of my study I noticed the pervasiveness of lower-neighbor motions and a frequent reference back to the opening figure of the prelude. The C Minor Partita offers numerous references to Bach’s signature 5-1-2-3 figure, heard so often in his instrumental and vocal works. (Think Ebarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion or, in a major-key dialect, the Resurrexit from the B Minor Mass.) Or the way Bach generates the fugue subject of the B Minor Mass Kyrie from a single interval (a rising step) and, by so doing, creates the entire movement. Or the countersubject of the Fugue in C Minor from Volume I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, created from the melodic outline of the subject.
Brahms and the opening four notes of the D Major Symphony (No. 2)—a lower-neighbor tone followed by a downwards leap of a fourth. That lower neighbor becomes an upper neighbor to create the last joyous outburst in the brass that brings the symphony to its conclusion. The major-minor duality of the Third Symphony.
Well. I could go on and on and on; the instances are common and numerous. Nor are they restricted to only the greatest of composers. During the Viennese Classical era such resonances and organic unities were well-nigh built into the prevailing practices of the time.
Profound logic inspires my admiration far more than an all-encompassing embrace of everything. Perhaps I am reflecting my overly rational outlook, in that profound logic is quite possible to achieve whereas embracing everything is unachievable hyperbole. Perhaps I am reflecting my many years analyzing compositions and teaching about musical form. Perhaps I am reflecting my age, inasmuch as I’m much less likely to be moved by sensation than I once was. Perhaps I’m just being snotty. Whatever the underlying causes, that’s where I am with my musical aesthetics: I’ll take profound logic over being like the world every time. I’m not interested in being like. I’m interested in being.