I was reading through the full score of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 today to see how it's orchestrated and hopefully learn a few things from it.

This particular bar from the first movement interested me:

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Taking the oboe and clarinet parts, I reduced it to make it easier to follow (upward stems representing part 1, and downward stems being part 2):

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Is there any reason why Mahler chose to voice-lead in this way, with voice crossings? The same harmonies could also be voice-lead like this, for example:

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Or with the first clarinet sustaining a common note between the chords:

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My suspicion is that it avoids parallel fifths in the oboe parts, but I am still unsure as to why the clarinet parts was written the way they are. Moreover, if the transition between the chords is meant to be smooth (slurs), then is it not better to have the first clarinet sustaining the common tone?

Could someone help clarify the reasoning behind this?

  • 1
    This might be a somewhat lame way of technically avoiding parallel fifths in the oboe parts. (I'm not sure whether Mahler would still have felt bound by those traditional rules, though.) Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 20:56
  • Played on a keyboard, the first two would probably sound the same but the third would be different. On the original instruments, I expect that even the first two would sound different. It would be a subtle difference but there are plenty of those about. I like following the score when listening, it helps me notice and appreciate these points.
    – badjohn
    Commented Dec 24, 2017 at 10:44

1 Answer 1


I would suggest that the choice is textural. Mahler is getting the best of both worlds with the slurs' legato being spiced-up with the registeral change in the oboes -- alternatively, the registeral changes in the oboes being softened by the slurs. What one hears is not quite a slur. Compare the Mahler example with this one from Tchaikovsky (6th Symphony, 4th Mvt):

beginning of the movement:

Tchaikovsky: Symph 6 - m4 - openning


Tchaikovsky: Symph 6 - m4 - recap

Of course, one could argue that the effect is too arch to make an appreciable difference, but by the same token antiphonal violins is just as subtle an effect.

As for the "avoiding parallel 5ths" hypothesis: the sonority is intentionally bare in these chords, so there is no way to avoid the 5ths other than completely different part-writing.


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