No flowers… (3)


My posting of last night was only a few hours old when a friend of mine sent a message to tell me what he thought about the relation I’d pointed out between that theme from Mahler’s First Symphony and the tune that begins a Chopin ‘Nocturne’. Here’s what his email said:

I don’t think there is any strong connexion at all, other than a passing inflexion or two. One might be able to cite quite a few other examples of much closer connexions/’influences’ in other works. But it remains an interesting observation, worth making.

Well, I don’t want to fight about it — it wasn’t my discovery, after all! — but, myself, I’d tend to say that the relationship was a little stronger than just ‘a passing inflection or two’. If you write out the succession of scale degrees presented by the first seven bars of Mahler’s tune, you get the following:

3 – #2 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 2 – 3 – 1 – #1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 4 – 3 …

And if I put in red type the scale degrees that this tune has in common with the opening of Chopin’s melody, the ‘overlap’ is this:

3 – #2 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 231 – #1 – 2345 – 4 – 3 …

Which I think is a fair degree of relatedness (although obviously it isn’t supported rhythmically or durationally at every point; I’ve not factored in the harmony; and Chopin writes a lot more notes than Mahler does…).

Of course, there’s no disagreement at all between me and my old friend regarding the existence of those many other places in Mahler where we find “much closer connexions/’influences'”: it’s actually hard to think of another late-romantic composer on Mahler’s level of greatness who was as seemingly unconcerned about (or maybe just unaware of?) all the places where he was actually ‘composing from memory’. Just to make sure that every reader has at least the beginning of a grasp of what I mean, let me present two examples of the kind of relationship I’m talking about — one that could hardly be shorter…

… and another that could hardly be closer (The second clip here contains the entire piece, simply because I like it so much)…

Given the large number of places where Mahler writes some gesture or passage whose antecedents are remarkably undisguised, I’ve often wondered whether it might be worth putting together a posting that collects together clips of all the dozens of examples that commentators and critics have proposed down the years: it might be interesting to see which can be heard to be genuine relationships or similarities, and which can’t. The reason I’ve never done this — apart from the fact that it would take days! — is that it has always seemed to me that there are far more important things to be described and demonstrated in Mahler’s output, and that putting together such a collection would actually encourage people to pay the wrong kind of attention. What I don’t want to do with my time on earth is enable the kind of critical or musicological attitude which is merely a refined derivative of resentful hostility and psychological denial — something where, essentially, an artist bursts into the room and shouts ‘You’re going to be amazed at what I’ve got to show you!” … only for someone in the corner to point and say “I can’t believe you’re wearing odd socks!”

Among the things that do seem to me to be worth demonstrating are the connections that Mahler appears to have engineered — consciously or unconsciously: there’s probably no chance of us ever knowing for sure in every case — between different ideas and movements in his own works. And I’m going to finish by presenting one that seems to have been carefully (consciously?) placed in — or, at any rate, near — that theme from the First Symphony’s finale specifically in order that it can make an expressive-narrative point in the work’s very last pages.

The stretch of music in the following clip starts with the slow theme’s post-cadential die-away: after a few seconds, our circling motif gives way to a horn entry — and before the horn has finished, we hear a little descending shape on the violins

Now let’s turn to a tiny clip from those very final pages…

Hands up if that connection is one you’d never noticed before…

Well, you’ve noticed it now!


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