In my last my post we practiced hearing a long, classical-style melody by picking out the first theme from the first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. We listened to the ways Mozart stretched his tune into a compelling run-on sentence, ducking the obvious choice, pulling the listen onward up to the point where he brought it to a close worlds away from where he started out.

Why choose to end a gigantic melody so far from where the piece began? Because it sets the stage beautifully for a second theme. As I mentioned last time, pretty much all the great composers for 100 years after Mozart included at least two themes in the opening movement of a piece. The tendency is to make the second theme contrast as well as possible with the first, so if the first begins darkly, the second should begin brightly. Notice also that in the 40th symphony, Mozart makes the popular choice of making his first theme sound loud, fast, and aggressive and his second one softer, slower-sounding, and prettier. He  chooses to use “happy” major chords instead of the “sad” minor ones from the opening theme. Let’s listen.

You might have noticed that the piece goes “Theme 1 – Theme 2 – Theme 1 – Theme 2” at first. This is so that the listeners in Mozart’s time would have a very good idea of all the melodic ideas in his piece before he got to the best part – the development. This is the section of an opening movement where a composer takes some of the most interesting phrases from both themes and “remixes” them, moving them further away from their familiar places, extending them, chopping them up, combining them and all the while building up a great deal of tension.  In this case, Mozart spends about a minute and a half just playing around with the first few notes of the piece, and shows of the astounding variety of musical effects he can get after that short amount of music.

            Naturally after all that development, we want to hear the main themes again, and Mozart obliges, but in order to not sound too repetitive (who wants to hear the same minute-long melody three times in the same piece?) he puts a spin on his themes. The first one gets stretched out a bit and intensified, but the second one gets the true evil treatment – he changes it into a super-dark minor key. When the movement is almost over you may notice that there’s some new music that’s never played before and this is the coda, the extra bit of composition that composers do to round things out and give finality to an ending.

All in all, it ends up like this:

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You might say that this chart of the movement doesn’t do anything to describe its emotional power or musical worth and that’s certainly right. It basically is a guide to help you follow it through the common pattern known as sonata form. It’s the balance of the piece, how long the melodies go, how much they get altered and what happens when, that makes it hang together so nicely – much like the composition of a great painting or the pacing of a good action movie. Plus, once you know the order of events, as everyone in Mozart’s time did implicitly, you can appreciate how slick the guy was maneuvering his way around an orchestra. What did you hear? Let’s talk.


AuthorSteve Mossberg