The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement III

This image by Moritz von Schwind of a group of animals having a funeral procession for a hunter was possibly the inspiration for the third movement of the Mahler 1.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Atmospheric nature sounds, trumpet and bird calls, happy song about walking, and a bit of drama at the end. Movement II – All dancing all the way.

Now, from what I’ve been able to gather, audiences at the first performance of this symphony really liked the piece up until now. The first two movements went down well, and there also used to be an additional extra movement in second place called Blumine which Mahler later cut out. (We’ll have a listen to that in another blog post.)

Then this movement begins and apparently the crowd went a bit frosty. We’re not exactly sure why, but my speculation is that it’s the strangeness of the elements that are combined in this movement. (And the next movement is even more off the charts.) And it’s also possible that they objected to the use of Klezmer music in the movement as well, thus giving the movement a distinctly Jewish feel to it that is quite different from the more generally Austrian sound so far in the symphony.

That’s the controversy. To listen to nowadays, though, this movement is really quite awesome. It’s creepy and beautiful all at the same time. Mahler has said that the reason for the strangeness is because he was inspired in this music by the picture at the top of this post. It’s a bizarre image, full of irony and contradictions. For starters, you have all the forest animals conducting the hunter to his grave, weeping profusely – not really something you’d expect the forest animals to be doing. In addition, if you look on the far right, you have a small band of cats playing music and singing as if it’s a bit of a jaunty procession as well.

It’s these mix of contradictions that are all thrown into this movement. So without further ado, let’s have a listen.

(0:00) Slow drumbeat, then the double bass with a quiet minor-key song. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all heard the major-key version of it at some time. For the Germans of the time, it was “Brüder Martin”, for the French “Frère Jacques” or most of us in Australia would know it as “I Hear Thunder“. Gradually works its way up from the lowest instruments to the higher ones. It’s melancholy, but in a very quirky way. (Just like the picture, really.)

(1:20) A leaping counter-melody in the woodwinds over the top.

(2:40) The Klezmer music. Crazy, isn’t it? It shouldn’t work so well, but it does.

(3:34) Even more upbeat tavern-style music before dying out.

(5:48) Beautiful middle section. This is also another Mahler song called “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”, which came from a collection of four songs written by Mahler called Songs of a Wayfarer. (The song used in the first movement about walking through the fields also came from this set, so if you wanted to track it down to listen to an example of Mahler’s songs, you’d probably enjoy it.)

(8:08) Back to more of the outer section material – funeral march, Klezmer, etc. – which carries us through to the end.

I can vaguely understand the audience’s initial outrage, but surely we can all agree nowadays that this is a beautiful piece of music?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement II

Who’s up for a bit of country dancing? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a mix of atmosphere and chirpy songs with a bit of drama at the end.
And now, in the second movement, which is the scherzo of the symphony, Mahler pays homage to that very famous Austrian dance style, the ländler. This movement is probably the most straightforward of all Mahler movement in any of his symphonies. (At least if you’re trying to write about it.) It doesn’t necessarily carry any double meanings, it’s not tricky to follow – it’s just a Scherzo theme with a Trio theme in the middle and both of them are about the joy of dance.
So here we go.
(0:00) The Scherzo is a slightly clod-hopping but enthusiastic country dance. But don’t be fooled. Even though the dance itself might be simple, the orchestral colours are amazing. Muted trumpets, big bursts of timpani playing, swirling strings, pizzicato (plucked strings). Crank it loud, people. Your neighbours could do with the happiness anyway.
(2:52) The Trio is a much smoother, more Viennese affair. I could see Andre Rieu programming this bit into one of his concerts.
(5:43) Then back to the Scherzo, this time in a shorter version.
See, how much fun was that?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement I

I have no idea if this was the kind of field that Mahler was talking about when he wrote the song about walking in the fields that features in this symphony. But it’s a nice picture, don’t you think? (Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

This movement is more or less in sonata form, but I find the most interesting part of the whole thing is the unique sound world that Mahler creates with his orchestra. When most other composers would be thinking about melodies and harmonies at the beginning, Mahler focuses in on sound effects to set the scene … It’s amazing. Have a listen.

(0:00) Long, static introduction. Some have said this is the sound of Mahler’s childhood – high strings for the wind, bird calls, the sound of a military base in the background (the trumpet calls) and mysterious two-note upwards motifs  on the woodwinds, and then an even more mysterious descending motif in the flutes.

(1:41) Bit of a French horn moment.

(2:27) Steadily growing cello melody. This rises up (ominously) and turns into …

(3:08) An orchestral version of a song Mahler wrote called “I went out this morning into the fields”. The wordless song strolls merrily along, getting steadily louder and more enthusiastic.

Now, at this point, I have to apologise to any Mahler purists that follow this blog. In nearly every other recording out there, there would be a complete repeat of the song. Apart from the Mahler 6, this is the only known literal repeat in a Mahler symphony, where he asks the orchestra to play the same part over exactly the same. In every other symphony, even if he was repeating a theme, he would always vary it. After all, no experience in life is ever exactly the same as a previous one, is it?

However, perhaps because this was a live recording, Rafael Kubelik (who definitely played the repeat on his more famous recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label) has decided to make a liar of me. He’s skipped the repeat and gone straight into the Development section. Hey, at least we’ll be finished quicker.


(5:10) Back to the sound world of the intro. High strings, cuckoos, etc. It feels as if time is standing still.

(6:48) The mysterious descending motif comes back again mixed with a stealthy climb on the low end of the harp. (May I say, this is probably the best I’ve ever heard this section.)

(8:00) A powerful brass theme enters – but very quietly.


(8:28) This quickly morphs into a return of the song.


(10:17) The music starts to get more agitated, until some spectacularly dark-sounding chords (10:34) arrive on the strings, accompanied by a much closer and louder brass fanfare. Things look pretty grim …

(11:24) … until a classic example of a Mahler breakthrough occurs. Most composers work out musical transitions to logically move the music from one theme to the next. But Mahler, right here in his first symphony, developed his own way of doing things. Instead of a transition, the other theme (in this case, a spectacular brass cavalry call that leads to a loud, joyful recap of the song) bursts out of nowhere – like it’s broken through a wall – into the dark sound world, dispelling the cobwebs and taking us all the way to the end. The movement ends with a bit of a playful joke with the timpanist and then we’re done.

It’s a strange mix – an atmospheric intro, a cheery song and a dramatic brass finale, but you’ve been listening to enough Mahler with me to know that the man likes to throw in everything.

What did you think?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 1

71ckucssngl-_sl1400_First off, to all my readers out there, Happy New Year! After the rather dark ending of the Mahler 6 which rounded off 2015 for us, you might be happy to know that we’re starting 2016 on a much more joyful note with Mahler’s first symphony.

Hopefully, this is where blogging about the symphonies out of order will start to pay off, because from here on in, the remaining symphonies (and we’ve still got left the 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9) are all huge, moving, and exhilarating pieces of orchestral music. All of these are what I call “money’s-worth” pieces of orchestral music – i.e. if you went to hear them live, they would be almost guaranteed to be a spectacular orchestral concert that will sound better live than any CD recording you have. Huge orchestras, massive walls of sound. If that’s what you want from an orchestra (and many people do), then you’re going to get it in these last ones. (Except maybe the 9, but we’ll talk about that when we come to it.)

But coming up directly next, we have Mahler’s first symphony, one of the most audacious first attempts at a symphony ever attempted. It must be a tricky business for any composer to decide what their first large orchestral work is going to sound like, but I’m not sure anyone ever approached it with the boldness that Mahler did when he created this symphony.

The least you need to know with this piece is that when he first wrote it, Mahler gave it the nickname of “Titan”, named after a (now pretty obscure) German novel of the time called Titan. Thankfully, Mahler dropped that title after the first couple of performances, otherwise I would have to try to explain how the music fits in with the book. But now I don’t.

Another bit of useful pub trivia about the Mahler 1 is that it used to have five movements when it was first created. But Mahler decided that one of the movements (a lovely slow movement with a nice trumpet part) was a bit redundant, and so cut it back to the much more classical four-movement structure that we’re used to. However, a few CDs might throw in the extra movement as a bonus at the end, if you’re lucky.

Structurally, it works like this:

  • Movement I – an atmospheric opening featuring bird-calls and military trumpets, leads into a jaunty song, revamped for orchestra.
  • Movement II – an old-school Viennese Ländler (a dance, for those of you who haven’t yet seen Sound of Music).
  • Movement III – one of the quirkiest slow movements ever created.
  • Movement IV – a massive struggle between darkness and triumph.

Musically, it’s one of the greatest mash-ups of style ever created in the 19th century. It’s a strange mixture of classical music, folk songs, Jewish music, howling discordance and epic triumph.

It’s not my favourite, but I find it’s great fun if you don’t have the patience for the really long Mahler symphonies and/or you’re a huge fan of John Williams.

And for a recording, I struggled with this one, because I’ve never quite heard a recording that 100% sells the piece to me. (Except for a live performance I saw a couple of years ago with Donald Runnicles conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, one of the most exhilarating live concerts I’ve ever attended. Sadly, that was not recorded.)

But after Googling around a bit, I’ve heard great things about Rafael Kubelik’s version with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was a recording of a live concert from 1979, so we’ll give that one a try and see how we go …

See you soon for Movement I!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: Movement IV

Another scene from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. It’s this kind of carnage that I hear in my head when I listen to the epic finale of the Mahler 6.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Crushing militaristic movement that ended in victory. Scherzo – A cross between the military sound and a plaintive toddling music. The slow movement – a moving and melancholy piece of orchestral beauty.

And now we come to the fourth movement. I’ll be up front – I always find this movement somewhat of a struggle to listen to all the way through. (In fact, it took me a long time to warm to the Sixth Symphony in general.) I think it’s a combination of the length (half an hour!) and the grinding nature of the music – it puts us well back into the military sound world of the opening movement.

But if you can get through it,  it’s an astonishing piece of music. Listening to this movement is like watching a devastating war film. It’s violent, tragic and everything ends badly. If you’re in the mood for it, it’s one of the most spectacular things that Mahler ever wrote.

So you’ve got a feel for where it is going, it’s roughly in sonata form, so there is an exposition section, a development section and a recapitulation section. However, these sections are quite long, so you could be forgiven for getting lost in the middle of everything. Each section opens with a mysterious swirling intro before the real action kicks in.

You’ll also hear the return of the major/minor seal idea which we first heard in the opening movement of the symphony  (this is the chord that starts out in major and then slides into minor, reinforcing the idea of an inescapable fate).

Finally, the most noticeable and spectacular part of this movement is without doubt, the hammer. Mahler originally wrote in the movement three moments where a massive hammer blow rings out. He wanted it to be huge and cracking, but not resonating and metallic like a drum. So to achieve this effect, most performances use something like a large wooden box and a giant sledgehammer to get the effect. Something like this guy:

However, after the premiere, which featured these three hammer blows, Mahler apparently got a bit superstitious and decided to cut it down from three hammer blows of fate to two. (Though as always with these stories, the truth is probably more complex.) But Solti here – always keen to make a big noise – has all three. I’ll point them out as we go along.

Let’s get into it!

Exposition – Intro
(0:00) The opening is like a cloud of dust with a dark sunlight somewhere behind it. Listen out for the decaying major/minor chord, and the military drumbeat (0:24). This part is slower and mostly quiet, but it introduces some of the ideas that are to become important in the main part of the movement, like the three-note repeated pattern on the tuba (0:44). Cowbells at (1:33).

(1:55) The French horn plays a quiet version of the main theme, which gets interrupted by a spooky tremolo (that shimmering sound on the violins, which came to be a favourite for scary movies in the 30s and 40s). Essentially, you’re listening to a chamber ensemble version of the hell that is about to be unleashed in the exposition. At (2:44), the low woodwinds play a chorale (a song-like section that sounds like it’s written for a choir) that is also going to be important later on. It’s blown to hell by the decaying chord and the drumbeat (3:30). Another build-up and then the chord again.

Exposition – Main Section
(4:44) A scurrying repeated pattern kicks off the exposition. (And a repeated pattern like that is called an ostinato, without which we’d have no Dark Knight soundtracks, which are almost completely ostinato from beginning to end.)  I love this opening. It’s so dramatic, as little three-note motifs from all over the orchestra converge in a massive march. I can’t help but think of a platoon being mobilised, especially once the military drumbeat arrives.

I love the epic horn theme (5:55) that soars over everything here. The theme starts to become more triumphant, as if Mahler’s army is winning whatever battle they are in. (7:00) But then everything collapses in decay.

(7:18) Over fluttering flutes, the chorale theme enters, now in a quiet version, which leads to a big sweeping romantic theme. (This is a very similar exposition to the first movement, you might have noticed – militaristic sound, leading to a big sweeping second theme.) Big build up, which suddenly collapses …

(8:23) … back to the twilight world of the opening. Tuba, cowbells, quiet hints of the main themes. The march tries to start but doesn’t take off.
(10:29) A wonderful, glittering version of the hopeful theme, with luscious runs on the harp and every other bit of Romantic-era glory you can think of. A build-up to a grand finale again, the same way the exposition ended. This time, it sounds more hopeful that the music might make its breakthrough and reach a glorious ending. But …
(11:55) ENORMOUS hammer blow shatters the theme to pieces and we’re straight back into the battle. Clearly the war is not over yet.
(12:34) One more try to be hopeful.
(13:20) The troops starts to gallop once more.

(13:37) Now we’re well and truly back in the thick of things. You’ll hear the sound of the rute (a bunch of sticks used by the percussion that causes that distinctive clicking sound).
(15:20) Chorale-like moment of beauty, before the climb begins up the hill towards glory. But again …
(16:01) SECOND ENORMOUS HAMMER BLOW! It’s like a shock-wave to the orchestra, because the music goes spiraling back into battle action again, but this time with an even grimmer edge to it. You start to feel that our heroes might not win this war.

Recapitulation – Introduction
(16:50) Introductory swirling music again. Decaying chord, drumbeat, tuba, cowbells. You know the drill by now. Continues on for several minutes in a chamber music fashion – only a small group of instruments.
(19:57) Build-up to a beautiful, loud brass version of the chorale.
(20:16) Climbing, struggling music, which leads to …

Recapitulation – Main Section
(21:01) The military battle music again. Absolutely spectacular. Constant tussling from many of the instruments sounding like foot soldiers on the ground, while long, arcing melodies trace back and forth over the top like the arcing of cannon balls over the battlefield. That said, by this stage, we’ve been listening to this for more than 20 minutes, so you may find that you feel more exhausted than exhilarated by this movement. I can’t prove it, but I’ve sometimes wondered whether Mahler wrote the movement this long to provoke a sense of exhaustion in the listener.
(23:17) Heading to the more Romantic part of the theme, but it sounds a bit old and tired after the long battle.
(24:23) Beautiful climb to the summit. It this were a typical Mahler symphony, this would be where good triumphs over evil …

(24:45) … but instead, a huge drumbeat smashes down and we head back to the swirling mists of the introduction. And then, at the (25:08) mark Mahler throws in his third hammer blow.  The nasty thing about it is that it occurs, not at the climax where we switch over to the coda, but a few seconds later where the music has quieted, as if you’ve been hit while you’re already down.

(25:30) Doleful brass calls. Whatever this war was about, our side has lost.
(27:03) To cap it all off, Mahler hits us over the head with the decaying chord and the drumbeat. An absolutely devastating way to close a symphony.

And there you have it – the tragic finale of the Mahler 6, the only really unhappy ending in Mahler’s collection of symphonies. What did you think?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Slow Movement

Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sorry about the delay between movements – it’s all getting a little busy lately.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – The militaristic sound of the opening movement, sweeping all in its path. Movement II (old scheme) or III (revised scheme) – the scherzo, with its combination of the military sound and the off-kilter running of toddlers.

And now we come to the slow movement, which could either be in second or third place, depending on your preferred order of movements.

I have always found this movement to be incredibly moving, both by itself, and even more so as an oasis in the otherwise quite strident chaos of the other movements. There’s not a lot to describe, really, because it mainly consists of two main sound worlds- one in the major key and one in the minor key. (But even then, that’s the general idea – so the major key area might have an occasional dip into a minor key for a couple of seconds, etc. This is Mahler – nothing is ever set in concrete.) But in the course of about 15 minutes, it will take your ears to some pretty amazing places. By turns it is intimate, beautiful, vast, epic, sad. You name it, you can feel it coming off this movement. I’m a bit of a fan.

But have a listen and see what you think.

Major Key Section
(0:00) Starts slowly with a long song-like melody on the strings.
(1:45) Rocking flutes lead into an alternate melody on the woodwinds, very plaintive. (Mostly this is because Mahler uses, in this section, a woodwind instrument known as the Cor anglais – or English horn – which has a melancholy sound all of its own.)
(2:20) Awesome French horn solo, as the melody is passed around the orchestra. It fades out towards the end with the gentle rocking sound again. (3:41)

Minor Key Section
(4:38) An even more fragile moment, with very high strings. Mahler hints at the rocking sound from the major section. This completely intimate sound gradually leads into (5:23) an increasingly loud and passionate type of music.
(6:50) But then this transforms into a beautiful moment with Mahler’s mystical favourites – the cowbells.

Major Key Theme
(7:47) Back to the beginning again, but re-orchestrated.
(9:09) And then there is this bit – possibly one of my favourite Mahler moments of all time. The sound drops away to a woodwind chorale (an old classical music term which means they sound like a choir singing a hymn), with the cellos deep underneath, then a solo violin comes in. The mix of sounds is Absolutely. Amazing. No matter how many times I’ve heard it, it gets me every time. I’m not sure why I love it so much, but I think it’s because of the massive harmonic space between the orchestration – the mix of highs and lows with nothing in between. A bit later the French horns return and the theme continues and it’s all over.

Minor Key Theme
(10:52) Back to the minor key alternate melody sounding even more fragile. Again, that massive space between highs and lows. The orchestra soon fires up and this section works its way up to …

Major Key Theme
(13:09) … a stratospheric return of the opening theme. Totally epic.
(14:43) Dies out very, very quietly.

How awesome was that? And that absolutely transcendent slow movement then sets us up for the tragedy that is about to unfold in the final movement …

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Scherzo Movement

Mahler’s wife, Alma, described the Trio of this movement as “the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand”. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a powerful opening movement that contrasts a marching militaristic sound with a sweeping romantic second theme. We felt as though we had won the battle, but not sure if we were going to win the war.

Now, at this point, you would either head into the slow movement (if you’re part of the raft of modern scholars who follow the slow movement/scherzo order) as the second movement. Or, if you follow a lot of older recordings and my personal preference, this scherzo movement follows next.

(0:00) The scherzo is in the military style we’re familiar with from the first movement.

(0:56) Note the strange little off-kilter interlude here. This theme will turn into the Trio in a minute. The Scherzo continues on in a creepy way. Finishes with the decaying Major/Minor Seal (1:54) from the first movement.

(2:06) The Trio is a strange innocent-sounding thing with a rhythm that is all over the shop. Alma Mahler once described this arrhythmic sound as children playing and “staggering through the sand”. Given that one of Mahler’s daughters had died, this would make it quite a tragic sound to create with music. (Though scholars, of course, debate whether this is really what he intended.) Either way, the innocence of the Trio is a stunning contrast with the ominous sound of the Scherzo.

(4:33) The Scherzo starts again with the incredible sound of a mocking brass section, followed by a Halloweenish skeleton dance, and then back to the full-blown marching sound. (Notice the creepy xylophone again back from the first movement.) Listen out also for the Major/Minor Seal.

(7:04) Hesitating woodwinds introduce the Trio again, this time sounding even more innocent.

(9:23) The Scherzo, now starting to sound less monstrous and almost a bit comical. (I think of a cranky duck when I hear this music, but I’m pretty sure that’s my own impression, not Mahler’s …)

(10:57) The movement fades out with the sound of the toddlers, but listen in the background and you can hear that decaying Major/Minor chord, repeated over and over again from about (11:51) onward. Again, we are reminded of that tragic inevitability of fate that’s never too far away.