For M is Musick

Intertextual Connections: Mozart, Beethoven & Rachmaninoff

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Last week when revisiting the sonata-form first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor from 1788, one brief passage began triggering intertextual thoughts. I had heard music very much like this before, but where? After some mind-scrambling, I came up with two passages, though I’m still not sure these two exhaust the intertextual connections buried in my subconscious.

The passage in Mozart’s symphony that instigated this chain of events comes from the moments just before the Recapitulation. In bars 160 to 165, the main motive of the movement (short-short-long descending figure with a weak-strong metric placement) is sequenced in tandem between flute and oboes descending chromatically over a dominant pedal just before the violins enter with the opening theme.

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Notice that the main motive (labeled X below) is at times modified through this passage into a simple chromatic descent (labeled X’).

Now jump ahead from 1788 to 1811, the year Beethoven completed and premiered his  Fifth Piano Concerto. The passage below appears in the initial statement of the main theme of the concerto’s third movement. Aside from the change in meter and mode, the two passages are so similar as to be virtually identical. The voice leading of Beethoven’s right-hand top voice corresponds exactly with Mozart’s flute part: Both contain motive X and move from scale degree 5 to 1 by way of a lower neighbor to 7 (5-4-3-2-1-7-1) with chromatic steps inserted along the way. Likewise, Beethoven’s left hand inner voices correspond exactly to Mozart’s oboes, moving in parallel thirds from scale degrees 2/7 down chromatically to 3/1. Both resolve harmonically to tonic at the passage’s end.

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Skip ahead more than a century to 1940, the year Rachmaninoff completed his final composition, the Symphonic Dances. The Mozart excerpt conjured up a particular passage from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Dances (shown below). The similarities aren’t as exact as with the Beethoven, and the passage is stretched out considerably, but the prominent features are still there. A pedal tone runs through most of the passage (though on tonic rather than dominant). Motive X is present, and while through much of the movement the short-short-long rhythmic element is usually combined with an outlined triad rather than a stepwise descent, here the motive appears in the form of X’, a chromatic descent. Furthermore, Rachmaninoff’s assignment of the X’ descent to double-reeds (bassoon and English horn) brings a timbral connection to Mozart’s oboes. (Was it this timbral connection that initially brought this passage to my mind?) The descending chromatic voice-leading over the pedal also connects with the Mozart, with the tenor voice 7-6-5-4-3 line connecting with the lower oboe part, descending chromaticism being one of the hallmarks of the Rachmaninoff style. (Was the fact that this line begins on the same note (D) as Mozart’s prominent flute line the reason this passage came to mind?) Finally, it may be worth noting that the prevailing key of this passage is Eb major, the same key as the Beethoven excerpt. (Or was it this key relationship to the Beethoven that triggered the connection? I really don’t know anymore.)

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