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3.5 Building on Identity through Fragmentary Repetition

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  • In Great Expectations, the orphan Pip released from his apprenticeship to his blacksmith stepfather and invited to a life of fortune in London. “I had scant luggage to take with me to London, for little of the little that I possessed was adapted to my new station.” Leaving behind most of his belongings gives Pip the freedom to be transformed. In music, the same objective is accomplished by fragmentary repetition. Fragmentary repetition enables music to evolve rapidly and flexibly.

    In fragmentary repetition, the composer takes only a segment of a musical idea and uses it to create new music. The following excerpts from Beethoven’s Sonata in E-Major, opus 109 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 demonstrate the expressive richness of fragmentary repetition.

    Let us remind ourselves of Beethoven’s theme:

    In the excerpts that follow, Beethoven uses the theme’s basic short-long motive to create a variety of new textures.

    Let us recall as well Shostakovich’s theme:

    Just like Beethoven, Shostakovich uses his basic motive in different contexts. In the first excerpt, the short-long motive is center stage in a passage of anguished intensity.

    In the second excerpt, the short-long motive anchors a soaring violin melody.

    The first movement of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished,” opens with a somber melody played by the cellos.

    In the passage that follows, Schubert dwells on the head motive of the theme: He stretches and compresses it and turns it upside down. By the end of the excerpt, he has twisted it quite out of shape: The motive’s rhythm is the same; but instead of rising and falling in a small arch, its contour plunges downwards.

    At the close of the movement, Schubert creates another passage out of the head motive. Because the head motive’s repetition is more unmoving and insistent, the mood is more resigned.

    The head motive of Arnold Schoenberg’s Fantasy for violin and piano is a repeated note.

    Throughout this work, Schoenberg plays the head motive at different speeds. Here is a slow version:

    Here is a rapid series of repeated notes.

    Finally, here is a more extended passage in which repeated notes are generously woven into the melodic fabric. This passage acts as a preparation for the transformed return of the primary theme.

    The following excerpt is not built from the head motive, but rather from a motive from the interior of the theme. The elaboration of this motive is interrupted twice by more complete statements of the theme.

    The first movement of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra introduces a fleet, agitated theme:

    The excerpt that follows features an interior motive of the theme:

    The theme of the Queen from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Suite from Le Coq d’Or is characterized by a gradually sinking contour:

    The following excerpts refer to the Queen using the falling contour of her theme

    The main theme of the fourth movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste has a “sawtooth” shape:

    Bartok later constructs a new, more poised theme that mimics the main theme’s zig-zag motion.

    The following two passages also allude to the main theme by echoing its contour.


    The melody begins with four equal, long values. Haydn extracts this rhythmic motive and uses it throughout the movement. In the following excerpts, the texture, harmony and melodic contour all are varied; the rhythmic pattern remains the unifying feature.

    The Finale of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 begins with a rousing theme:

    The theme’s head motive is as follows:

    Towards the end of the movement, Shostakovich strips away the melodic contour of the head motive, reducing it to its rhythm.


    In Philip Dick’s futuristic story Paycheck, an amnesia-stricken man retrieves an envelope he has left for himself. Inside is a strange collection of objects: “A ticket stub. A parcel receipt. A length of fine wire. Half a poker chip.. A bus token...” What do they have to do with his life? Gradually, he realizes that his younger self had seen into the future and planted these items to enable him to escape from ruthless pursuers. “ I must have looked ahead, seen what was coming. The SP (Security Police) picking me up. I must have seen that, and seen what a piece of thin wire and a bus token would do—if I had them with me at the exact moment.” From these bits and pieces, he reassembles his identity.

    Fragmentary repetition is to a listener what the bag of the possessions is to Dick’s protagonist: It refreshes the listener’s memory while driving the music forward and generating suspense.

    The Shift from Foreground to Background

    Protagonists are not always the center of attention; sometimes, they slip into the background. “It was pleasant and quiet, out there with the sails on the river passing beyond the earthwork...Whenever I watched the vessels standing out to sea with their white sails spread, I somehow thought of Miss Havisham and Estella; and whenever the light struck aslant, afar off, upon a cloud or sail or green hillside or water-line, it was the same.”

    Similarly, in music, one way to sustain musical material is by shifting it into a supporting role.

    Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 opens with a martial rhythm and an assertive theme introduced by the strings and brass.

    In the excerpt that follows, Mahler isolates a fragment of the theme:

    Played by plucked strings, the motivic fragment accompanies the woodwinds is an evocative passage.

    We recall the opening theme of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet, played by plucked strings.

    Midway through the movement, the theme recedes into the background: Slowed down and played only by one instrument, it accompanies a lyrical melody. Then, like someone rushing back into the room, the theme speeds up and gets louder, gradually returning to prominence.

    Is there any one factor that must be maintained to sustain musical identity? No. We have seen examples where the melody changed, the harmony changed, the rhythm changed, the instrumentation changed. Musical ideas are very malleable.

    The more aspects of the original material that are preserved, the stronger its identity is maintained. The fewer the aspects of the original material that are preserved or the more fragmentary the repetition, the farther the music moves away from its original form.

    Writers create complex characters by making their behavior multi-faceted and well motivated. Through dynamic repetition, composers are able to create musical personalities with a similar suppleness and depth.

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