The associative story of a theme


Yesterday I listened to Beethoven’s orange piano concerto in G major (why orange? I’m not sure, isn’t everything in G kind of orange?) I’d just finished my last essay of the term so I had an exhilirating experience of complete liberation, and I felt like I’d never seen music with such clarity before (and we’re talking about a piece I’d only heard once or twice!) Once I talked to a violinist who said something very interesting about making the audience get the “little jokes” in the music. Oh, now I got the little jokes in the music! I was melting away in the slow movement, dancing along to the rondo, and giggled when Beethoven spent three minutes with music consisting of seemingly nothing but scales and trills. I giggled at scales. It was amazing.

But honestly, look at this theme!

And for those of you who (want to pretend to) read music:

Figure 1. Excerpt from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto №4, Mov. 3. (Courtesy of IMSLP)

How can something be so bouncy so shamelessly? (Okay, fair.) I could imagine myself being an early 19th century classical music conoisseur listening to this thinking “what a twat, he takes himself so seriously and yet half of this is just ghastly scales and trills and octave runs endlessly.” (Also why Bernstein said that Beethoven was quite simplistic in everything but in his treatment of form.) My 19th century alterego would have also felt very cold listening to this at the public premiere on 22 December 1808, in the Theater an der Wien, since there was no money for heating at this concert organised for Beethoven’s personal benefit.

And what a concert! Four hours long! (in the cold!) Presenting:

  • Symphony №6 (premiere)
  • an aria
  • a movement from the Mass in C
  • this piano concerto (premiere)
  • Symphony №5 (premiere)
  • another movement from the Mass in C
  • a fantasia for solo piano (I guess Beethoven felt like there was space for some impro in the middle of all this)
  • Choral fantasy in c minor

If I’d been one of the dedicated listeners who stayed till the end, I would have thought, upon listening to the choral fantasy: “hm, this is oddly familiar.”


My actual self yesterday, listening to the Fourth Concerto, thought the same during the secondary theme of the thrid movement, except the other way around. Have a listen at 9:30.

Figure 2. Courtesy of IMSLP.

Don’t you think it’s oddly familiar? Well I’m not saying there is actually any connection, but maybe minds work in interesting associative ways and I like long-arching stories, so let’s just compare with a liberal ear to the theme of the aforementioned Choral Fantasia in c minor:

Figure 3. I got too lazy to IMSLP things out.

That little descending and then ascending figure going diatonically… hm? And if you look at the end of the video (maybe around 13:58) where the choir joins in, you might once again get a sense that you have heard this somewhere else. Maybe the Choral Fantasy, written specifically for this concert as a large-scale celebration of art, with chorus, piano and orchestra (the main features of the evening) all singing together, saying joyful and uplifting words in German… maybe this rather simple theme served as inspiration for something much more grandiose later…?


Of course, otherwise I would not have written this post. And, of course, I’m talking about the Ninth.

Figure 4. Beethoven Symphony №9, movement four.

Even the chord progression from the coda of the Choral fantasy makes an appearance in the final section of the fourth movement of the Ninth! While I have read no one pointing out the relationship between the motif in the Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, it is somewhat recognised that the latter might have been some sort of incubator for the “Ode an die Freude” theme in the Ninth.

If this three-part evolution of a motif from the 1805 Piano Concerto through the 1808 Choral Fantasy to the world-famous theme of the 9th Symphony in 1825 doesn’t already make you feel a little excited and elevated and just generally more appreciative of existence (which you should not confuse with the similar feelings arisen by the 9th Symphony that you left playing in the background) then… don’t worry, because there is more.


The 9th Symphony became extremely famous and influential and for a while classical-style symphonies were often characterised as mere afterthoughts, which I remember a quote about, but I couldn’t find from whom, so be satisfied with the fact that Wikipedia says a guy named Mark Bonds says so. In lieu of aesthetically admirable symphonies, people occupied themselves with other things, I guess, like symphonic poems, Wagner, colonialism and the Communist Manifesto.

But then Brahms came along and he was heralded as an heir to Beethoven, and (anecdotally) was so anxious about writing a symphony, expected by everyone to measure up to those of the grand predecessor, that he worked on it for twenty-one years. It turned out to be quite good though (by 1876), and it has a really nice theme in the final movement:

Figure 5. Brahms Symphony №1, movement 4

As it was even confirmed by the composer, this was a direct reference to Beethoven’s 9th. But what does it mean? My favourite interpretation stems from looking at the larger structure of the fourth movement.

slow introduction — A — B — A with development — B with development — return of introduction material, coda

It has been variously analysed as a sonata form with a development integrated into the recapitulation or — relevant here — as a truncated rondo form. We have a theme (the Beethoven theme, A) stated, then returning after the end of the exposition, which is followed by an elaborated restatement of the transition and the secondary theme. We would expect the Beethovenian theme to return in the end… but it doesn’t. It is instead replaced by material from the introduction.

As a book I read sneakily in the Cambridge University Press bookstore but don’t remember the title of said, this can be interpreted as some sort of symbolic turning away from Beethoven. A young Brahms, in the shadow of Beethoven (see the ominous banging at the very beginning of the symphony) sets out to write a symphony, and after two decades, he re-confronts the Master and waves goodbye to him to embrace his own musical world — one that is arguably less revolutionary, more reserved, more introverted and conservative.

Of course we can only speculate, but this explanation makes me happy if I think about it. However, the journey of the theme is still not over.


Figure 6. Mahler Symphony №3, movement one.

Oh yes.

I remember watching the anime “Legends of the Galactic Heroes” with some friends. This music starts almost every episode, with a narrator voice explaining the backstory that was too costly to animate. I did not even know this was Mahler at the time, but I was just getting familiar with Brahms’ First, so I noticed the similarity. The rythm is identical, but Mahler shuffled up the notes a bit and put the phrase from C major (oh those sul G violins…) to D minor (oh those horns!) When I finally discovered the magic of Mahler and first opened Symphony №3 it made me very excited to realise: ah, you are the LotGH theme.

And finally, I could google my confusion. Why did Mahler steal a theme from Brahms and then make it the central motif of the first third of his grand symphony, seemingly nothing to do in style with Brahms or Beethoven? And the internet gave me various interpretations, from simply acknowledging the homage (boring) to elaborate philosophical musings (yes please.)

To interpret this quote, we must understand the position Mahler’s Third occupies in the story of the symphonic genre. Beethoven, at the dawn of the romantic era, was the one that crystallised the symphony as the aesthetic pinnacle of instrumental music, as not something mass produced (see Mozart with 41, Haydn with 100+ entries in the genre and so on), but as something a composer writes a few in one’s lifetime (usually up to 9 before dying), and shows the highest heights of one’s artistic achievement. Brahms was the eptiome of high romanticism that celebrated and carried on this symphonic paradigm. Mahler was the end of it.

Beethoven’s Ninth was a monumental work of new lengths (each movement as long as the average Haydn symphony), instrumentation (snare drum, triangle, a choir) and form (a recapitulation of material in the fourth movement from the previous movements). Brahms alluded to this symphony, but then did something else with his own: synthesised the emotional intensity of romanticism with the reserved spirit of the pre-Beethoven classical, and in the final reprise of his rondo-finale, replaced the expected Beethovenian theme with his own (a contemplative, spiritual horn call and chorale).

Enter Mahler, who, at the end of the romantic era, before the cultural turning away from the paradigm started by Beethoven, once again recalls this theme symbolic of high culture, of watershed moments in the history of the symphony, and uses it to kick-start his own vision of symphony-as-a-world, symphonies of new harmonies, new scales and forms. He conjures the Brahmsian world that he’s going to tear apart. In this act of necromancy Beethoven implicitly becomes the symbol of the early romantic, Brahms of the high romantic, and Mahler of the new, brave, but dark late romantic, tied together with a thread running from the giggling scales of the Fourth Concerto to the breathtaking depths of love in the Third Symphony’s finale.

Now isn’t that quite nice.




Political theory student (LSE), geographer (Cambridge). Interested in political economy, geographies of knowledge and classical music.

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Gábor Csontos

Gábor Csontos

Political theory student (LSE), geographer (Cambridge). Interested in political economy, geographies of knowledge and classical music.

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