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Mahler, Mary Jane, and Memory


I’ve been revising chapters of my unpublished book, Melody and Texture in Music, hoping that the revised text will help to attract a publisher; meanwhile I have been posting fragments in these pages. My current revision is of Chapter 14, “Orchestral Texture,” which sometimes refers back to Chapter 10, “Contrapuntal Texture,” and Chapter 13, “Sonata Form.” Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which I have long pointed to as a contrapuntal marvel, brings some of these things together.

Back in summer 1973, I drove across the country, listening on the radio to the Senate Watergate Committee hearings and John Dean’s riveting testimony.  At one point I stopped to visit friends in California; we smoked some local grass and listened to Mahler’s Fourth.

I pointed out my long-standing fascination with the sound of the upper melody at mm. 126-141 in the first movement, a brief motive developed over several bars with an amazingly intense sound of four flutes in unison. The melody by itself — one of about 14 themes “shuffled like a pack of cards” in this movement — isn’t so remarkable until it reappears in the third movement and finally in the fourth, where it morphs into the main vocal theme. As I listened, my stoned ears didn’t focus on the flutes as much as the interior melodic activity: the whole cello section with trills and figuration, crossing over and under the bass clarinet, then joined by violas and violins (“gentle accents” in the score). I could hear these things in amazing clarity, and never forgot the sound; and I can still hear them even though I never partook of marijuana after that. Dig out your scores, turn to Rehearsal no. 10,  and see if you agree with me about this very striking orchestral counterpoint.

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