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“Doc Talk”/Class Lesson 4/27/2020

“DOC TALK”/CLASS LESSON – Monday, April 27, 2020





  1.   Robert Schumann
  2.   Anton Dvorak
  3.   Richard Strauss
  4.   Felix Mendelssohn
  5.   Camille Saint-Saens
  6.   Ludwig Van Beethoven
  7.   Fryderyk Chopin
  8.   Franz Schubert
  9.   Franz Joseph Haydn
  10. Johann Sebastian Bach
  11. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  12. Antonio Vivaldi

13.George Frederick Handel

  1. Johannes Brahms
  2. Gustav Mahler
  3. Gioacchino Rossini
  4. Charles Ives
  5. Peter Tchaikovsky
  6. Richard Wagner
  7. Dmitri Shostakovich


TODAY’S LESSON: Aaron Copland’s 3 planes of music-listening; Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6,” first movement, exposition


According to Aaron Copland—in his book “What to Listen for in Music”—we all listen to music on 3 planes:  1) the sensuous plane, 2) the expressive plane, and 3) the musical plane.

The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the sound itself—this is the sensuous plane.  It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking…we just absent-mindedly “bathe” in the sound.  We go off to our “happy place” while simply enjoying the sounds of the music.

The second plane, the expressive plane, concerns itself with the “extra-musical” meaning behind the notes.  It seeks to answer to the following questions: “What is this music/theme/part of a song about?” and “How does this music make me feel?”  The cool thing about this plane is that it will vary from person to person and from performance to performance depending on one’s mood.  That is what is so great about a work of art!

The third plane, the musical plane, is the most elusive because one needs to have some background in music to listen on this level.  One must be aware of melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre (tone color/instrumentation), and form to listen on this plane.

In truth, musicians listen to music on ALL THREE PLANES nearly simultaneously.  They may perceive a beautiful melodic line, with poignant harmony, rising and falling with apt dynamic expression; enjoying the serene way the line makes them feel while being in awe of the rich sounds of an ensemble.  According to Copland, “you can deepen your understanding of music only by being a more conscious and aware listener—not someone who is just listening, but someone who is listening for something.”

Allow me an analogy to meeting someone.  On the “sensuous plane” you are only aware of their appearance; on the “expressive plane” you are only aware of their personality; and on the “musical plane” you are only aware of their virtues– most deeply held beliefs which shape all their behaviors.  In truth, your enjoyment of a given person probably exists on all 3 planes in some form.


Now let’s apply these 3 listening planes to the exposition of one of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies!

Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6,” – first movement/exposition

Brief background:

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an Austrian composer who lived during the last ½ of the romantic-era and is famous for his 9 completed symphonies which are very lengthy and call for the full strength of the modern orchestra.  Beethoven and Mahler are “cut from the same cloth”—Beethoven’s symphonies “opened the door” to the music of the romantic era while Mahler’s symphonies provided the final “fireworks” to end the era.  In another words, the two composers stand as “bookends” of this beloved era.

Like Beethoven, Mahler poured his heart into his symphonies—each was written for a specific purpose.  Furthermore, although each work can be interpreted as “absolute music” (with no extra-musical program), each symphony was influenced by well-known images/thoughts/concepts expressed by the composer!

Mahler wrote his Sixth Symphony (1904-05) during the happiest time of his life—both personally and professionally.  He was happily married, had a healthy daughter, and was director of the prestigious Vienna Opera.  After doing quite a bit of listening and research into this work, I have come to my own conclusion that this work is autobiographical—Mahler is illustrating his life as he is experiencing it through music.

The first movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is in “sonata form.”  This is the most popular form since 1750 and comprises three main parts:  Exposition, Development, Recapitulation or A-B-A for short.  In the Exposition, usually 2 main themes are “exposed.”  They are usually very contrasting in style, the first theme being very rhythmic and the second more legato (smooth).  In the Development, the 2 themes are manipulated by changes of interval, key, instrumentation, texture.  You can usually identify the themes in the development but let’s just say they are placed in a washing machine and are really tumbled around.  The composer is doodling with all sorts of ways he can transform these ideas into different statements.  He/she may also introduce a new idea in the development section just as a fruit tree will eventually produce a piece of fruit.

In the Recapitulation (or Recap for short), the 2 themes return in a form very similar to the Exposition (but with some differences, mainly the 2nd theme is usually in the key of the 1st theme).  You get the feeling of a “return” or “refrain” thus the A-B-A form.


Today we are going to explore the EXPOSITION of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6.”


Excerpt 1:  Main Theme (Theme A):  image of Mahler himself, his professional status and success, his intensity, his love of marches, his drive to excel.  The music is uplifting, strong, energized and martial (Mahler LOVED marches).  Note the solid key of a minor, the unusual number of leaps in the theme—many are huge:  ascending 10ths, 11ths, 13ths!   This may be an accurate portrayal of Mahler’s mood swings from exultation to depression.

Excerpt 2:  Bridge material; “death rhythm” in the timpani followed by the “major-minor motto” in the oboes and trumpets, followed by a chorale in the upper woodwinds accompanied by theme A motifs in the strings (pizzicato).  This represents Mahler’s turn from his outer image to the interior workings of his mind—which are always obsessed with death and eternal life.

Excerpt 3:  Second Theme (Theme B):  image of Mahler’s wife, Alma.  Sweeping, lyric, beautiful melody with surging rises and falls.  Note the key of F Major…a much happier theme than the first.

Excerpt 4:  Episode between 2 statements of Theme B… light, cute, dancelike…a portrayal of his young daughter!  Note the use of the triangle, the march-like rhythm, and the leaps in the melody (like father, like daughter!).


After repeating the second theme (Theme B), Mahler closes out the exposition with a suddenly slower, more reflective/romantic statement of Theme B and then he REPEATS THE ENTIRE EXPOSITION!  He actually uses a repeat sign!

Although the exposition in sonata-form movements in the classical period were often literally repeated (so the listener can get the themes in his/her head), this practice was usually discontinued in the romantic-era as the movements became so much longer.  But Mahler chose to repeat!  Hmmm…

Tomorrow, we will explore the DEVELOPMENT section of this wonderful work and the ways that Mahler manipulates the ideas/themes that he has stated in the exposition and how he even introduces NEW MATERIAL!



1) Listen to the exposition of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6” several times.  I have provided a link to the famous Leonard Bernstein performance with the Vienna Philharmonic.  Note how many new things you hear with each listening.  Ask yourself what “plane” you listening-in (sensuous, expressive, musical).

2) Listen to the beginning (exposition) of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and see if you can discover the 2 main themes of the exposition.  Then ask yourself what plane you are listening-in.




Dr. Jerry Markoch, Director of Bands

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