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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice
Richard Taruskin

So it is no exaggeration to claim that when Mozart is functioning at the top of his form, it is precisely the hidden craft that creates the impression of intense subjective emotion, and that without the concealed devices that only technical analysis can uncover, the emotion could never reach such intensity. A matchless case in point is the slow second movement of the Symphony no. 39 in E♭, K. 543, the first of the “self-motivated” and possibly self-centered 1788 trilogy. What follows will be the closest technical analysis yet attempted in this book, focusing in as it will on the career of a single pitch over the course of the movement (so keep the score at hand). Ultimately, however, the object of analysis will be not so much the recondite technical means as the palpable expressive achievement.

The unfolding of this Andante con moto in A♭ major conforms to no established format. Attempts to pigeonhole the movement according to the forms that were later codified in textbooks result in clumsy circumlocutions that betray their anachronism. The Scottish composer Donald Francis Tovey, one of the great music analysts of the early twentieth century, once found himself in precisely this quandary, reduced to describing the movement chiefly in terms of what it did not contain:

The form of the whole is roughly that of a first movement [i.e., a “sonata form”] with no repeats (I am not considering the small repeats of the two portions of the “binary” first theme), and with no development section, but with a full recapitulation and a final return to the first theme by way of coda.4

Psychoanalyzing MusicPsychoanalyzing Music

ex. 11-1a W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, opening

But no one ever listens to music like that. Any meaningful description of the movement will have to account for what it does contain, not what it doesn’t, beginning with a main theme (Ex. 11-1a) that, as Tovey observed, is presented as a fully elaborated, closed binary structure. This, of course, is something that never happens in a “first-movement” form, where the whole chain of events is inevitably set in motion by the interruption or elision of the theme’s final close. If we must pigeonhole, the category that is most likely to occur to us as a working hypothesis while listening is that of rondo. And there would be some corroboration for this conjecture later on, as we shall see, in the form of contrasting “episodes” (again reminiscent of those encountered in the slow movement of Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, to which the present Andante is formally related). But it would still be better to take things as they come and regard the form of the piece as a result or outcome of a sequence of meaningful acts or “gestures,” some of them now and then recalling this or that familiar formal strategy.

The two halves of the opening theme are related in a way that recalls “sonata form,” with the second half encompassing some motivic development, especially of the unaccompanied violin phrase first heard in mm. 2–3, and then a double return. That double return is tinged with irony, though, in the form of a modal mixture—the substitution of the parallel minor for the original tonic in mm. 22–25. The return is no return. You can’t go back again. Experience has cast a pall. The inflection of C to C♭, the tiniest inflection possible, makes a huge difference. Mozart was very fond of half-step adjustments that have outsized repercussions. Looking back at the first half of the theme, for example, we notice how he has managed to reroute the second cadence to the dominant just by inflecting the signature D♭, as heard in m. 3, to D natural in m. 7.

The inflection to C♭ means a lot more. It bodes ill. As the music historian Leo Treitler memorably put it, the seemingly unmotivated modal mixture is “a signal of a coming complication, or perhaps it is better understood as a provocation—the injection without warning of an element, however small, that is uncongenial to the prevailing atmosphere and inevitably provokes trouble.”5 Indeed it will. And yet the theme’s final cadence puts the intruder out of mind as though nothing had happened. In psychological terms, the C♭ and its troubling implications have been “repressed,” as one might repress a disagreeable passing thought. But as a result that cheery final cadence has an ironic tinge; it is covering something up. One has the uneasy feeling that “something” will be back.

And sure enough, a new intruder now bursts upon the scene: the wind instruments, silent up to now, enter on the dominant of F minor, the relative minor of the main key, and force the music into a new harmonic domain. The element of force is palpable, not only because of the peremptoriness of the winds’ maneuver, but because of the completely unexpected nature of the strings’ response: stormy, anguished, protesting (or, in “objective” musical terms, abruptly loud, syncopated, dissonant). Most significant of all, what finally forces the bass instruments off their tremolando F is the reappearance in m. 33, in a much more dissonant (diminished-seventh) context, of the repressed C♭, now a far more active ingredient, harmonically speaking, than it had been before (Ex. 11-1b). The repressed has returned; and, as always, it has returned in a more threatening guise. In m. 35 it actually takes over briefly as harmonic root (of a “German sixth” chord) before resolving, its force spent, to the dominant of V.

Psychoanalyzing Music

ex. 11-1b W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, mm. 33-38

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ex. 11-1c W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, mm. 48–53

Again it has been repressed, but with much greater effort than before, and incompletely. In mm. 39–45 the winds and basses try to recover the poise of the motivic dialogue first heard in mm. 9–14, but the unremitting tremolo in the violins acts as a continuing irritant, and another anguished response bursts out at m. 46, leading to a recurrence of the repressed note in the bass (in its enharmonic variant, B natural) with gathering force (in m. 48 as a nonharmonic escape note, in m. 49 as the functional harmonic bass; see Ex. 11-1c). The first violins try to change the subject at m. 50, but they cannot shake the B natural; it keeps intruding in place of B♭ (its trespass or forced entry underscored by its being sustained), and in m. 51 it is approached by a direct and highly disruptive leap of a tritone.

Now, ironically, it is the winds, the original disturbers of the peace, who intervene to calm things down. The long passage from m. 53 to m. 68, leading to a serenely harmonious reprise of the original theme in the original key, is dominated by two points of imitation in the winds, of which the subject is drawn from the first wind entrance at m. 28; an effort to “undo the damage” is perhaps connoted by the inversion of the sixteenth-note turn figure (compare m. 54 et seq. with the flute in m. 29). The whole passage that follows (through m. 90) sounds like a “recapitulation” of the original theme, with the strings and winds now cooperating amicably in bright and brainy counterpoints (some of them, particularly the winds’ staccato scales in mm. 77–82, in a distinctly opera buffa spirit).

But in m. 91 (Ex. 11-1d) the repressed again returns with a vengeance, abetted by a portentous four-note chromatic segment in the winds that ushers in a passage of bizarre, almost bewildering commotion. It is the old storm-and-stress material first brought on by the winds in m. 28, only now transposed to B minor, a key so “far out” with respect to the original tonic as to have no normal functional relationship with it at all. Its relationship to the original “storm-and-stress” key, however, has been prefigured by that violin leap, already characterized as “disruptive,” from F to B in m. 51. And of course its tonic pitch is none other than the foreign body the movement has been trying to eject since its first appearance in m. 24. The repressed thought has not only returned, it has become an anguished, controlling obsession.

Psychoanalyzing Music

ex. 11-1d W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, mm. 91–97

Now it can be ejected only by really drastic measures. To recount them briefly: after a first fitful attempt to dislodge the B-natural by chromatic steps, it returns (spelled C♭) and is resolved in mm. 103–4 by treating it as a dominant to F♭ (how many times could that note have functioned as a tonic in the eighteenth century?). In m. 105, the F♭, by picking up an augmented sixth (D natural in the winds), is identified as the flat submediant of A♭, the home key, and is finally resolved to E♭, the dominant, in m. 106 (see Ex. 11-1e).

Psychoanalyzing Music

ex. 11-1e W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, mm. 103–108

Still the repressed note does not give up without a fight. After one last resurgence of conflict (mm. 116–19), the first violins try to bridge the last gap to the tonic, but are stalled briefly (mm. 121–24) by a couple of “difficult” intervals—a diminished fifth, and finally a diminished seventh that softly insinuates the C♭ for the last time before the final subsidence into the tonic (Ex. 11-1f). When the main theme comes back for the last time (m. 144), its cadence is at last purged of modal mixture, as if to say “I’m cured.” Even so, at m. 151 and again at m. 155 there are a couple of lingering, curiously nostalgic twinges (Ex. 11-1g). The C♭ comes back as a decorative bass note, always in conjunction (at first direct, then oblique) with D natural, with which it forms a “pre-dominant” diminished seventh, directing the harmony securely back to a tonic cadence that is repeated four times, the last time suddenly loud. This overly insistent close seems to protest a bit too much, as if to say “I’m OK! Really!”

Psychoanalyzing Music

ex. 11-1f W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, mm. 121–125

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ex. 11-1g W. A. Mozart, Symphony no. 39 in E-flat, II, end

The use of words like “repression” and “obsession” might seem carelessly anachronistic. They are (or, at least, can often be used as) psychoanalytical terms—terms that had their main currency in the twentieth century. Obviously, Mozart could not have known them, just as he could not have known the work of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the main theorist of psychoanalysis, who was chiefly responsible for their vogue in twentieth-century parlance. But of course Freud knew Mozart, just as he knew the literary legacy of Romanticism, and repeatedly commented that his own contribution oftentimes amounted to no more than giving names and clinical interpretations to age-old psychological phenomena that poets (and, let us add, tone-poets) had long since portrayed artistically in their every detail.

Not only twentieth-century listeners, but Mozart’s own contemporaries recognized that his instrumental music was unusually rich—unprecedentedly rich, they thought—in “inner portraiture.” It was Mozart above all who prompted Wilhelm Wackenroder (1773–98), an early theorist of Romanticism whose life was even shorter then Mozart’s, to formulate the very influential idea that “music reveals all the thousandfold transitional motions of our soul,” and that symphonies, in particular, “present dramas such as no playwright can make,” because they deal with the inner impulses that we can subjectively experience but that we cannot paraphrase in words.6

It was because of this perceived “new art” of subjective expression, as E. T. A. Hoffmann dubbed it, that symphonies, like all instrumental music, achieved an esthetic status far beyond anything they had formerly known, to the point where the instrumental medium could rival and even outstrip the vocal as an embodiment of human feeling. Hoffmann made the point quite explicitly and related it to the historical development traced in chapter 10. “In earlier days,” Hoffmann wrote,

one regarded symphonies merely as introductory pieces to any larger production whatsoever; the opera overtures themselves mostly consisted of several movements and were entitled “sinfonia.” Since then our great masters of instrumental music have bestowed upon the symphony a tendency such that nowadays it has become an autonomous whole and, at the same time, the highest type of instrumental music.

And specifically about Mozart’s E♭-major Symphony, K. 543, which contains the movement we have just examined in detail, Hoffmann wrote:

Mozart leads us into the heart of the spirit realm. Fear takes us in its grasp, but without torturing us, so that it is more an intimation of the infinite. Love and melancholy call to us with lovely spirit voices; night comes on with a bright purple luster, and with inexpressible longing we follow those figures which, waving us familiarly into their train, soar through the clouds in eternal dances of the spheres.7

It is tempting to speculate that the novel impression of enhanced subjectivity in Mozart’s instrumental music, and its vaunted autonomy (leading eventually to the idea, prized in the nineteenth century, of “absolute music” as the highest-aspiring of all the arts), had something to do with Mozart’s own novel, relatively uncertain and stressful social situation, and the heightened sense that it might have entailed of himself as an autonomous individual subjectively registering an emotional (or “spiritual”) reaction to the vicissitudes of his existence.

A number of critics have pointed to Mozart as the earliest composer in whose music one can recognize what one of them, Rose Rosengard Subotnik, has called the “critical world view” associated with modernity.8 Such a view entails a sense of reality that is no longer fully supported by social norms accepted as universal, but that must be personally constructed and defended. Its ultimate reference point is subjective: not the Enlightenment’s universal (and therefore impersonal) standard of reason, but the individual sentient self.

It is a less happy, less confident sense of reality than the one vouchsafed by unquestioned social convention, and it points the way to the “existential loneliness” or alienation associated with romanticism. Hoffmann himself, perhaps somewhat irreverently paraphrasing the words of Jesus, averred that the “kingdom” of art was “not of this world.”9 Artists who see themselves in this way are the ones most inclined to create “art for art’s sake,” as Mozart may have done in the case of his last three symphonies.

And yet, of course, it was a change in the social and economic structures mediating the production and dissemination of art—the conditions, in short, “of this world”—that gave artists such an idea of themselves. Mozart was the first great musician to have tried to make a career within these new market structures. We shall see their effects most clearly by turning now to the works he composed for himself to perform, particularly his concertos.


(4) Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis, Vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 189.

(5) Leo Treitler, “Mozart and the Idea of Absolute Music,” in Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 206.

(6) Wilhelm Wackenroder, Phantasien über die Kunst, für Freunde der Kunst (Hamburg, 1799); in Wackenroder, Werke und Briefe (Heidelberg, 1967), p. 254.

(7) E. T. A. Hoffmann, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” (1813), in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 777.

(8) See R. R. Subotnik, “Evidence of a Critical World View in Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies,” in Music and Civilisation: Essays in Honor of Paul Henry Lang, ed. E. Strainchamps, M. R. Maniates, and C. Hatch (New York: Norton, 1984), pp. 29–43.

(9) E. T. A. Hoffmann, Kreisleriana (1813), trans. Stephen Rumph in “A Kingdom Not of This World: The Political Context of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Beethoven Criticism,” 19th Century Music XIX (1995–96): 50.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11002.xml