In Praise of Second Themes by David Evan Thomas

By Barry Kempton

Today’s guest blog post is written by David Evan Thomas. David is a local composer and a former Schubert Club Composer in Residence. You’ll also see his name often in our An Die Musik program books as the program annotator. 

I heard a beautiful theme the other night. Accordo was playing Beethoven’s first Razumovsky Quartet, and cellist Ronald Thomas had just hummed the opening tune under gently motoring violin and viola. Then the humming stopped. The music stood up straight, and spoke.

Musical ideas are not a problem for a composer. They are all over the place. Say a name: there’s a musical idea in it. Listen to your office printer or your phone; they are spewing ideas, ideas as fleeting as that name you just forgot, or as indelible as “Santa Baby,” but potential material nonetheless. It’s harder to discern the good ideas. Those birds arrayed on the power lines across the alley don’t necessarily make a worthy theme for a tone poem. A theme is something worth noting, pondering, remembering. Old masters like Lassus built entire masses around familiar tunes like “The Armed Man” and “Western Wind.” I don’t think we know exactly why they did it. Was it a challenge? A sly wink? No matter; the themes are beacons in the polyphonic haze.

Second themes are important because they are unexpected. Perhaps the most familiar second theme is the lyrical tune in Schubert’s Unfinished. You know it:

“This is the symphony
that Schubert wrote but never finished….

It’s memorable, not just because it’s pretty, or because it walks away in mid-sentence, but because of what it follows. We don’t necessarily remember what it follows—a rather bleak, droopy melody. But we latch on to this second theme because it provides clarity, familiarity, even hope.

But back to Beethoven. The second theme of the first movement of Opus 59, No. 1 is memorable for its aspirations. (Listen to it here performed by Juilliard Quartet.) It opens like a flower, the violins ascending, the others falling to their lowest notes. Then what happens? We hear it an octave higher, and the transposition is so telling on stringed instruments. “If it’s beautiful, it needs to be heard twice,” Liszt said. That’s such a solid, time-honored principal, but it’s often forgotten, or taken beyond the literal to the point of insensibility.

Here’s another favorite second theme, from the finale of Beethoven’s first published piano trio (Listen to it here performed by the Beaux Arts Trio), played recently in the new Ordway Concert Hall by Wu Han and friends. It’s also aspirational, but less expected, because what surrounds it is tense, even grim. It’s the gift of a generous composer, not just one who gives you the unexpected, but one who gives you more than you expect.

It’s easy to lapse into a certain posture, especially when listening to unfamiliar music, to tell yourself: “well, that was tolerable,” or “it reminded me of…,” or “I’ll never have that ten minutes back.” But music, like food, or sunlight—or your grandchild—has the potential to leave you wanting more. The generous composer will offer that second helping. Think of it as dessert. And a meal without dessert is like Narnia under the White Witch: “always winter, and never Christmas.”

Image is an excerpt of a composition by David Evan Thomas.