Motive and Melody

Playing with Blocks

Musical Signatures
Explore Mahler’s most characteristic musical techniques. Find out more about his unique approach to the basic elements of music.
“I see it more and more: one does not compose, one is composed!”

Mahler created melodic lines out of simple cells that lend unity to a large structure. He often built on this basic "musical DNA" in a seemingly endless series of elaborations and variations.

The Fourth
  • The interval of the fourth unites many themes in Mahler’s first symphonic movement. To allow it to emerge naturally from the falling fourths in the violins, Mahler portrays the cuckoo call with this same interval, which gradually becomes the basis of the movement’s main theme.

  • Mahler alters a pre-existing melody in Finale of the First Symphony in order to make its shape correspond to the unifying interval of the entire work. As he did with the cuckoo’s call, Mahler adapts a famous phrase from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, changing the falling sixths to fourths.

Discovering a Phrase
  • Mahler often lets us in on the creation of a lyrical idea by giving us the first two notes of a phrase, then three, and eventually the whole musical thought. In this piano introduction to a song on a poem by Fredrich Rückert, "I am Lost to the World" (Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen), this sequence evokes the quality of introspective thought.

Birth and Death
  • At the very beginning of the Ninth Symphony, mere hints of musical language come together to form a complete sonic picture full of affecting detail.

  • Then at the very ending the important motives drifting in and out of the texture before the final stillness.

Developing Variation
  • Many of Mahler’s most gripping slow movements combine rondo with variation form. Every time the theme returns, it is elaborated, ornamented, extended, or combined with a countermelody or even a variation of itself. In this way, themes that are already very powerful when first stated, reach ever higher degrees of intensity. In the Tenth Symphony, this mode of expression reaches its greatest realization.