Breaking through structure

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

We’re heading towards Easter and the celebration of good news and transformation. In our Lenten study we’re up to the later chapters of Matthew’s telling of the Good News, and we have entered the portion in which the very structure of religion is disrupted.

Transformation – whether you seek it or it overtakes you – means a familiar existence gives way to a new way of being. It’s literal or metaphorical death. Perhaps the most famous image is the seed that dies to its existence as a seed, splits open and discovers its hidden nature as a new sprouting plant:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:24-25]

When I think of transformation, I think of the music of Gustav Mahler. He is the master of thematic transformation, and because of this he is able to break open the symphonic structure as it was understood at the end of the 19th century, not destroying the symphony, but allowing it to transcend its old boundaries and achieve a different kind of completion.

Mahler’s music embraces many real-world sounds – dance music, military signals, birds, cow bells, running water and much more – but, rather than primarily illustrative, his music is more like parables: everyday things telling a story symbolically. In his thematic transformation Mahler incorporates but goes beyond the Classical symphonic techniques of working with themes as abstract musical material; he incorporates but goes beyond the Romantic techniques of depicting scenes, moods or narratives; in fact, by working the musical material at the level of symbolic significance, he synthesizes abstract and illustrative musical functions into what we might refer to as music that can philosophise.

In our limited space here it’s hard to do justice to examples, but let’s touch on one of the most significant elements in Symphony No.1. The interval of a falling fourth appears throughout the symphony, undergoing transformations that sometimes progress so organically that you might not always consciously recognise that the same germ is there in many guises, unifying the symphony. But it’s good to begin with one of the most obvious thematic connections. In the opening of the first movement you hear the falling fourth emerging from a sustained A and building into a short theme:

In the final movement it is an answer to the problems posed by the symphony:

But we can only make a relatively crude comparison here. If you go with Mahler through the course of the symphony then the transformations take on meaning. Try listening to the whole symphony and ‘buy into’ the world it offers you at the beginning, and by the end of the symphony you’ll get a small sense of leaving that world behind in order for it to be born anew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *