I’m quite sure many musicians will disagree with this post.
One of the dogmas handed down from musical generation to generation is that the motive is a musical element of the utmost primacy, and that motivic manipulation/development is where all the cleverness in composition lies. It’s promulgated by musicians at every level, from complete amateurs right up to figures like John Adams. Adams praises Beethoven for “taking [a] minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.” He cites the ubiquity, in the fifth symphony, of the four-note “short-short-short-long” motive as evidence of this.
I used to subscribe to this idea. It’s hard not to when everyone around you is boggling at the “stone soup” Bach created by using, over and over, one rhythmic/melodic module. But I think Bach and Beethoven would be the first to admit that this is not what makes their music great. I tried very hard in my first couple years of composition lessons to create “intellectual” music. I thought this meant doing all sorts of things to motives: augmentation, diminution, inversion, reharmonization, etc. The results were generally not compelling. I had been neglecting what Schenker called the background. Motivic manipulation is like a final layer of varnish, or a ribbon on a package. It certainly plays some part in generating attractiveness or interest, but most of the work went into creating the piece of furniture or the contents of the package.
Motives are extremely elastic. They can be stretched and draped in almost infinite ways over a harmonic scaffold. The true test of great composition lies in creating coherent and organic harmonic architecture. Schenker complained that music theorists and historians of his day were making too much of the fact that Haydn generally wrote monothematic sonata-allegro movements while most other classical composers used two themes to achieve a sonata-allegro form. Those theorists had struck on the least important and most superficial characteristic in their attempts to explain how sonata-allegro form is achieved. Themes and motives are low-hanging fruit, from an analytical perspective. It’s easy to point at all the variations of a given motive. It’s more difficult to perceive the harmonic entities at work in the background.
None of this is to say, as I admitted above, that motivic manipulation is totally unimportant. But we shouldn’t give it the primacy in the composer’s arsenal it currently enjoys.