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samurai

The Role of Movements vis a vis Theme Development in Classical Music

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As a relative newcomer to classical music, that is, as one who is for the first time in a long life trying to listen and feel this music instead of just hearing it because it is "supposed to be good", I do not want to become over analytical--for want of a better term--in trying to understand and appreciate this genre.
I have listened to a lot of jazz--still do--and can sort of conceptualize most of the time what a piece is trying to do and how it is structured, in terms of its theme introduction, development {improvisation} and return to the original. {In most cases, anyway}. Is this way of looking at and listening to music applicable or valid when it comes to classical? In other words, what I am trying to "work out" is whether or not each movement of a symphony is supposed to develop a theme--or themes--and how or if the other movements in turn develop their own motifs or should harken back to the initial theme as sounded in the first movement. When the piece is ended, should it have held together as an organic whole to be considered "great" or does the emotional content and response it produces in the listener trump any technical considerations. I understand that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.
Please forgive me for being so ignorant and unclear in some of my questioning; I am still trying to refine my thinking and approach in order to gain a clearer understanding. Thus, should the last movement of a piece make any reference to the first? Are there any "hard and fast" rules or is it totally subjective and up to each composer how he or she wishes to construct their symphony?
In advance, let me thank any of my fellow members who are brave enough to try and read through and make some sense of what I have written.
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  1. science's Avatar
    There are really no hard and fast rules, especially in the 20th century. But in general there is a similar concept - melodies and variations on melodies - going on in most of the music.

    I find "theme and variations" movements and works to be the simplest to interpret, because it is all right there laid out for you. "Sonata form" movements (the "allegro" movement of most symphonies) are just a bit more complex. You need a listening guide to a few of them, and then you get the hang of it. The classical era was the easiest for me to start to figure it out - Mozart's 40th is great. When the development section arrives, you'll hear the melody repeated very obviously, and then the change at the end of the 2nd phrase punches me in the gut. One of the most powerful things in music. But it is done a little differently every time: Haydn basically invented the form, and he himself varied it so much that, beyond there being an exposition and a development and a recapitulation, pretty much anything seems to go.

    Beethoven's fifth was also good for me, to see the emotional structure of the work as a whole (from the "doom" of the 1st movement through various other moods to the triumph of the conclusion) which is essentially copied in many other 19th century works, and especially to see how a particular motif ("bu bu bu buuuuuuum") could be manipulated. It's an intellectually fascinating thing. With Brahms, the motifs are sometimes only two notes, and it is amazing to hear what he can do with them.

    After that, the next works that I really got some insight into their structures were Chopin's Nocturnes. They fit my attention span, and most of them had some relatively simple structure (ABA' or ABA'B' or something like that) that I could figure out.

    Anyway, in short, there are patterns in the music, and all kinds of patterns. I'm sure that every time a rule has been identified, composers raced to break it before others.

    Since you know jazz, you probably know chords and harmony. I've noticed that a lot of listeners seem more interested in harmony than melody. I have incompatible theories to explain that: it might be because the exploration of increasingly "strange" harmonies was analogous to scientific progress for modernists, or because it is easier for some listeners to hear harmonic moments than to remember multiple melodies, or because harmonies are subject to relatively straightforward analysis and then complex analysis while melody is more elusive and intuitive, or because melody is more accessible to the unitiated to whom the initiates wish to contrast themselves.

    Anyway, for whatever reason, a lot of listeners seem more interested in harmony than in melody, and regardless of our priorities that gives our attention another focus.

    To me, the most mysterious and interesting aspect is timbre - the way instruments sound, alone or in various combinations. My favorite composers - Brahms, Debussy, Janacek, Chopin, Stravinsky - seem able to extract more beauty from the notes. I cannot follow the melodic structure of Brahms' clarinet quintet because the timbers are so beautiful, they command my attention. Debussy, I think, basically cared about nothing except timbre.

    If you're not overstating your ignorance, I'm probably about 1 year ahead of you in my self-exploration, not at all an expert! There are many paths through these woods that I haven't travelled, and then I've probably also been lost more often than I've realized. I definitely hope someone more knowledgeable than I am will reply to both our posts!
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  2. emiellucifuge's Avatar
    A Symphony is considered a single work even by composers, and therefore you can expect some unity. Not necessarily that the movements are linked by themes, but their various tempi and moods are designed to either compliment or contrast.
    The usual germanic structure of Allegro, Slow, Scherzo, Finale, is designed to provide the epic and grand emotional journey that is the Symphony.
    For various aesthetical reasons Russian composers reversed the order of the middle two movements.
    An interesting example is Mahler's 6th symphony, which has spawned a lot of confusion concerning the order of its two middle-movements. The various arguments provided for each order are usually concerned with the dramatic contour, and each way changes somewhat the overall message or at least the emphasis of the entire work.

    Thematic unity was not common in the classical era, but has gained popularity throughout the romantic era. In this case, it is most often that themes from the various movements are brought back in the final movement.
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  3. samurai's Avatar
    Hi science and emiellucifuge: Thank you both for your responses to my rather clumsy and often meandering blog. So emiellucifuge--if I understand your last paragraph correctly--are you saying that other than in the romantic era, the final movement does not reprise or refer back to themes from the other movements? And what is the difference between the classical and romantic eras--are they determinates of time or style or both?
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  4. emiellucifuge's Avatar
    The opposite. It wasnt part of the 'Classical Symphony' model to have themes appear in multiple movements.
    Beethiven had some unity with the triplet rhythm in the 5th, the finale of the 9th is built from previous themes. Perhaps the first examples? Im not sure.
    But during the romantic era it became much more common, perhaps developing into the norm.

    The classical era (c. 1750-1830) and romantic era (c. 1815-1910) are defined by style.
    Much better descriptions than I could conjure can be found on Wikipedia:
    En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_period_(music)
    En.wikipedia.org/wiki/romantic_music
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  5. Sid James's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by emiellucifuge
    Thematic unity was not common in the classical era, but has gained popularity throughout the romantic era. In this case, it is most often that themes from the various movements are brought back in the final movement.
    Quote Originally Posted by samurai
    ...So emiellucifuge--if I understand your last paragraph correctly--are you saying that other than in the romantic era, the final movement does not reprise or refer back to themes from the other movements?...
    i'm just on the run here, so i'll focus on the topic of how/whether a "main theme" of a work comes back in the final movt.

    emiel is right, in the classical era, this was usually not done (but beethoven started to do this, esp. in the 9th symphony - but he does come back to initial themes in a reworked way in the finales of his late string quartets, but i know member samurai isn't talking about these, so i won't go into depth. however, a number of writers in the field consider this set of string quartets as like one big work, a unified entity, and i can hear how in many ways there are many correspondences between these, the boundaries between what beethoven was doing between one and the other/s is not hard an fast, there's alot of interconnectivity between them).

    however, as emiel suggests, as haydn was one of the movers and shakers of putting symphonies & string quartets on the map, so to speak, what he did with these forms/genres was staggering in terms of innovation, variety, flexibility, imagination, i could go on. one example when something from earlier DOES return is in his sym #103 "drumroll." the drumroll that opens up the symphony has a reprise - or comes back - towards the end of the finale. this was actually not the convention at the time, haydn was bucking the trend big time. no doubt he did similar things in other symphonies, but #103 it's pretty much in your face, you can't miss it. having said that, this drumroll is not really a theme, more a "marker" or "skeleton" around which he "hangs" the work.

    in terms of composers after beethoven - eg. berlioz, liszt in their symphonies, they did begin to flesh out fully the implications of haydn but esp. beethoven's methods/ideas. berlioz's symphonie fantastique, with it's idee fixee would no doubt have made huge impact on wagner's use & development of the leitmotif (leading motif) technique in his operas. same with liszt's faust symphony, where the theme is transformed greatly from it's appearnance in the first movt to the final third movt., and the epilogue - with tenor solo & male choir - bringing back an aspect of this theme which was changed in the second slow movt. liszt's piano sonata in b minor also has a couple or a few themes that go right through the work.

    i'm not that knowledgeable with regards to specifics, but i can name a few more pieces that came later with themes that do come back eventually at the end of the work, or hover around the work as a whole.

    - c.v. stanford - requiem - the gentle horn call that ushers in this massive 80 minute work comes back at the end, but suggestions of it pop up here and there in between (as far as i can remember, anyway)
    - zemlinsky - lyric symphony (sym #3)
    - elgar - cello concerto
    - berg - esp. the string quartet op. 3 & chamber concerto, which open up right at the beginning with 3 or so fragmentary ideas which pop up throughout these works and are joined by other ideas/fragments
    - carter - string quartet #1 - the jagged cello solo which opens the work goes right through it, transformed in the final movt. into a violin solo which is much brighter and song-like.
    - hindemith - string quartet #6 in e flat major - made up of four movts., seperate ideas from the first 3 movts come together in a kind of counterpoint in the final (4th) movt.
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  6. Sid James's Avatar
    oh & how could i forget shostakovich.

    most notable example of thematic unity is his DSCH signature motto - transformed from tragedy to triumph in sym #10. in cello concerto #1 the journey of his name/motto is more ambigious, imo. in SQ#8 it starts dark, gets more and more intense, and then ends bleakly, almost hopelessly...
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  7. samurai's Avatar
    Thanks to you all for your quite learned--and clear--explanations to my questions as posed in my blog entry. Sorry that I didn't respond a good deal sooner.
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