The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 5: Movement III

The Mahler 5 Scherzo - only slightly less crazy than being chased by playing card in Wonderland.
The Mahler 5 Scherzo – only slightly less crazy than being chased by playing card in Wonderland.

We’re now into Part 2 of the symphony (which just consists of Movement III). This is the shift from darkness to light, before the happiness of Part 3 (the last two movements).

In the last post we talked about scherzos. And, now we come to the third movement of the Mahler 5, which I can only describe as one of the weirdest of all scherzos. In the Mahler 5, the Scherzo is almost the key movement in the whole piece. It shifts the tone from darkness to light, and it is a neat balance between the brass (which dominate the first two movements) and the strings (which dominate the last two movements). But, most of all, it’s one of the most interesting pieces of writing for multiple instruments ever composed. Not because it’s huge and spectacular – though it has its moments – but mainly because it gives every group of instruments (not to mention a few people who get to become soloists) a thorough workout.

The weird part is in its length (nearly 20 minutes – at least twice as long as a regular scherzo) and what Mahler does with the themes. Normally, we would expect the scherzo and trio to be a simple A B A pattern, or occasionally A B A B A. But my theory is – and there are a variety of different ways that you can break this movement up, so this may be just the way I hear it – that this would have sounded like a normal scherzo for the audience up until the second B. Right then, at the moment, where you think things are going along fairly normally, and we expect a repeat of the first B theme, Mahler grabs us and drags us down Alice’s rabbit-hole into a strange and bizarre orchestral world. (Well, technically, it’s probably a Development section, but I prefer to think of it as a bit of a psychedelic orchestral trip.)

So, if you can, try to imagine that you’re listening to a regular scherzo for the first five minutes, and see if you can get that feeling of weirdness when Mahler detours off on his own path.

I know it’s complicated enough following a scherzo and a trio, but what’s potentially more confusing is that the scherzo has its own little sections as well which divide it up. There’s what I’ll call a1, which is a fairly happy dance. And a2 is more about the rhythm. It uses a special technique known as “pedal point”, which is essentially where every second note in a stretch of notes is the same note. This repeated note then provides a very strong rhythm. If all of that makes no sense, then you can check out this YouTube video where a guy explains this concept on an electric guitar. Or you can feel free to ignore all that and just notice that section a2 is more rhythmic, and a bit more intense than the waltz.

Let’s begin!

Scherzo (A)

a1. (0:00) Starts with a boisterous, joyful waltz in sections. There’s a leading part for the French horn, and in some performances, they even let the main French horn player stand out the front while they play this movement.
a2. (0:41) Down to the strings who play that rhythmic pedal point I was telling you about, with the woodwinds tooting like toy trains over the top. It makes a contrast for all of 20 seconds and then …
a1. (1:02) Back to a cute version of the waltz on flutes, which ushers in the Disney on Ice version of the waltz. (Hey, look, if Kenneth Branagh can go from Henry V and Hamlet to Thor and Cinderalla, there is no reason a composer like Mahler has to be ultra-serious all the time.)
a2. (1:26) Pedal point again – all sounding a bit ominous.
a1. (1:54) Cutesy version again. Until the French horns call everything to a halt …

Trio 1 (B)

(2:25) This is a nice little Austrian dance called a ländler with a long-short-short rhythm. It’s a very, very Austrian type of dance (proved by the fact that it made it into The Sound of Music, of course). So this is what a normal trio sounds like. A bit Austrian and nostalgic (which is another regular feature of Mahler symphonies), but normal. But that’s the last time anything sounds normal in this movement. Have a listen to this …

Scherzo (A)

(3:25) Back to the scherzo. You probably get the drill now – big waltz then into the pedal point. But somehow something goes wrong when they go into the pedal point moment. It keeps going and they never make it back to the waltz …

Development Section aka Down the Rabbit-Hole

(4:36) Everything goes a bit woozy and we head into orchestral no-man’s land in the middle. You’ll hear hints of the Scherzo and the Trio, but broken down into some seriously cool orchestra effects. My favourites include:

  • (5:09) The epic horn-sound off over trembling strings (an effect mainly for string instruments known as tremolo) followed by a series of beautiful brass solos.
  • (6:47) The quiet-as-a-mouse pizzicato (plucked) bit for strings and awkward woodwinds. This sets everything up for the next part, when the strings resume their normal mode of playing, which now sounds incredibly beautiful after all the plucking.
  • (8:47) The trumpet solo here over the strings. The sound is just a scattering of solo instruments from various sections of the orchestra. We have somehow moved from orchestra music to chamber music.
  • (10:04) The Trio returns, livens everything up, and the symphony turns into cinematic chase music. It’s about to climax when all of a sudden …

Scherzo (A)

(11:11) The Scherzo comes back again, as if it’s never been away. You’ll notice that the orchestration is subtly different with lots of little extra details. But all our old friends are there – crazy woodwinds, pedal point rhythm, and Walt Disney.
(12:27) Big joyous finale, you would think that we’re almost done …
(13:04) But no, elements of the chase music creep in.
(13:19) Strange Scottish-sounding woodwind moment? (Can anybody think of a better description than that? It might be just me, but I always think bagpipes on this bit.) Is he starting another development?

Coda aka Extra Development

(14:12) No, it’s okay, we’re back to the waltz. Kind of. By this stage, everyone’s given up trying to guess where Mahler is going with this thing.
(14:50) A bit of the horn sound-off again. (Which might be a good moment to say that the horns are awesome in this Chailly recording, aren’t they? Not many recordings get such a gorgeous singing sound out of those instruments.)
(16:15) The woodwinds, sounding somewhat awkward, lead into a cautious winding-down segment. Is it all going to die out quietly?
(16:55) But no! Here are the final moments which really don’t need much more description than “they’re awesome”.

So there you go. If you thought that was a marvelous feat of orchestral brilliance, or if you just thought it was long and rambling and all over the shop – you’re probably right on both counts. But hopefully you found it interesting.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – What’s So Funny About Scherzos?

Possibly no Scherzos available in this joke shop. (Photo by Stephen McCulloch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
At the risk of front-end loading all the musical concepts into this one symphony, I thought it might be helpful before we venture into the third movement of the Mahler 5 just to talk a little bit about a word that’s really only heard within classical music circles (or Italian-speakers).

And that is a scherzo. Scherzo is simply the Italian word for “I joke” and I as I mentioned in an earlier post, it is a quirky movement which was faster than the slow movement but not as light and heavy as the first and last movements. But the best way to really get your head around a scherzo is to actually listen to a couple of them to get the idea of what they sound like. It will also give you an idea of just how insane the next movement of the Mahler 5 would have appeared to the audience of the day.

First off, years before there were scherzos, but composers were still cranking out four-movement symphonies, there used to be a fast first movement, a fast last movement and a slow movement (usually the second one) and the third movement would be a kind of dance called a “minuet”. Then, if you think of the minuet theme as Theme A, in the middle of a minuet movement, the composer would switch to a different theme (Theme B). And then when Theme B was finished, they’d go back to Theme A. So it has a simple A B A structure.

Now, at some early stage, the B theme was only played by three instruments, so it came to be known as the “Trio” section. The tradition about only using three instruments didn’t last very long, but the name stuck, and so the full name for a Minuet movement was a “Minuet and Trio” even though any number of instruments will play in the trio section. It’s nearly always the simplest movement to follow. You hear the minuet, then the trio, then back to the minuet. Sometimes they play the minuet through twice the first time then only once after the Trio, but overall it’s not too complicated.

Here’s a world-famous example of a minuet:

This is from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The minuet begins at (0:00:), the Trio kicks in at (0:35) and then back to the minuet at (1:19). Pretty straightforward.

However, by Beethoven’s day, the preferred version was to call it a scherzo, which meant that instead of being a light fluffy dance number, it could be a bit more raucous. (Or at least raucous for an early 19th century set.) But it still had the same pattern. Scherzo (Theme A), middle section called a Trio (Theme B), then back to the Scherzo.

Here’s an example of a very famous scherzo: the third movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (or Heroic) Symphony. The Beethoven 3 is all about heroism (originally he had Napoleon in mind when he wrote it) and so, in this movement, you can almost imagine mounted soldiers:

(0:00) It starts at a light canter, then heads up to a full gallop at (0:47). This scherzo theme repeats twice. The Trio arrives at (2:34). It’s a great moment for French horn players, and I always feel like the horn calls give it a military feel as well. Then at (3:59) the scherzo returns and we gallop to the finish..

You get the idea. Despite the name, scherzos are not super-funny, but they are kind of fun.

The only other thing to know is that occasionally, there was a variation on the scherzo, where the Trio would come back again to make the movement a bit longer. (So A B A B A.) But, for the most part, for the listener of the day, it was a simple movement to follow, you knew what to expect, and you knew you’d be done in 10 minutes max. Until the scherzo of the Mahler 5 came along … But you can enjoy that in a few days.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 5: Movement II

A tower of elephants facing a Mahlerian collapse. [Photo courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons]
A tower of elephants facing a Mahlerian collapse. [Photo courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]
The next movement of the Mahler 5 is in sonata form [link to last blog post], which I described a little bit in the last blog post. But that’s really just the technical framework. What’s more interesting to notice is that this movement, in terms of emotional content, is like a mirror image of the first one.

The first movement was mostly calm and elegant with some stormy passages. This one, meanwhile, is mostly off-the-wall psycho with some calm patches. And then a big Star Wars ending. (You’ll see what I mean.)

Disastrous Elephants and Elegant Tweets

(0:00) Exposition – The first theme is totally out of control. I find it a cross between the soundtrack from an old disaster movie and a tower of elephants, swaying back and forth, about to fall over. But regardless of whether you hear the elephants, you can probably hear how it is a cousin of the stormy music from the first movement. Surprise, surprise, the music collapses at the end of the theme.

(1:21) The second theme is introduced by a very cool tweeting on the flutes and oboes, and starts on the low strings (cellos and double basses). It’s very elegant and also reminds us of the funeral march from the first movement. So you see how it feels like the first movement but in reverse? The Elegant Tweets theme contains some awesome sound effects here, like when the tweets pass to the violins, who pluck it out (2:32), the massive Chinese gong (the tam-tam) which you can just hear in the background (2:47, for example). Again, you’ll notice that thing that I mentioned about Mahler’s music being remarkably clear so that you can hear all the details along the way.

Development – Into and Out of Darkness

(3:38) Development – This begins with the Disastrous Elephants theme of the opening which makes you think for a brief moment that you have gone back to the beginning. But, no, even the idea of a repeat falls apart (4:10) – I know I keep using words like “collapse” and “fall apart”, but there’s almost no other way to describe it. The tune disappears, and all the instruments die out as if they’ve just given up on playing whatever they were playing.

(4:24) Then, out of the darkness (well, the aural darkness anyway), a very quiet new idea begins on the cellos. I’m never quite sure if it’s sad or hopeful or some other feeling. To me, it just sounds lost and, in the Chailly recording, so bare. But this has actually been a long lead-up to …

(5:40) … the various tweetings of our second theme again, the Elegant theme. But like the first theme, it doesn’t get very far. Within a few seconds, something ominous appears on the horizon, as if Dorothy’s hurricane is blowing through. It continues to build and we brace ourselves for another a massive moment of chaos …

But it’s a trick … instead …

A Familar March and a New One

(7:03) … what nobody saw coming was the return to the funeral march from Movement I. It’s a brilliant special effect. It hints at where we have been and makes the symphony feel less like a disconnected series of tunes. (And I’ll be honest, I love that funeral march and am quite happy to hear the tune one last time.)

(7:52) Then a new sort of strident march begins on the strings. If you listen carefully, it feels as if it’s working towards a big brass finale (and it was, at about 8:25), but then it collapses again just at the last minute … Are you feeling the frustration yet? This, people, is Mahler’s view of the world – just when you think life is about to get good, something else comes along and it all falls apart. The reality is (spoiler alert) that the symphony is going to end with a massive brass happy ending and somewhat like a good movie director, this is Mahler’s way of foreshadowing the end. But it’s a way off yet.

For now, the orchestra sweeps us off into a chaotic linking moment that eventually takes us back to …

Recapitulation – Back to the Beginning

(9:06) Recapitulation – The crazy Disastrous Elephants again. (By now, if Mahler has been playing his cards right, you should start to feel exhausted.) Notice that when you get to the repeat of the Elegant music (10:23), it now feels more chaotic, as if elements of the storm have crept across from the first theme into the second theme.

(11:15) Ends with a particularly stressful moment where the strings are trying to climb upwards, but there’s a harsh trombone melody bearing down on them. But then … just when you think you’re going to be stuck in this world of struggle forever (it is becoming more and more like a quicksand) …

In A Galaxy Far, Far Away

(12:08) BOOM! … The Star Wars moment! Who saw that coming? Out of the blue, Mahler brings in a majestic brass moment (which will come back in its full glory in the final movement). This kind of thing is known as a “Mahler breakthrough”, where the music doesn’t transform or gradually change into something majestic – instead the new changes bursts in. It’s like a hero breaking through a wall.

Coda

(13:23) Coda – The storm rapidly reappears, interrupting the Star Wars bit. It’s the most chaotic appearance of the Elephants theme yet but it falls apart in the end, as if the rain has cleared up.

(14:12) The second theme, the Elegant theme, does reappear for a brief moment (mainly the tweeting flutes part), but in a very small form, almost as if it’s a small chamber music ensemble playing, not a full-blown orchestra. And it all dies out with a whimper, rather than a big bang.

All in all, a very strange and unsettling movement. As far as I’m aware, back in its day, audiences had never heard anything quite so musically violent and I’m not sure that it was immensely popular for a long while. But what did you think of it?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – An Interlude About Sonata Form

Sonata Form Diagram (The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sonata Form Diagram (The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I was writing the description for this week’s movement, I found a need to explain the idea of sonata form (at least in a very, very, simple way). So I hope you’ll forgive me for covering some technical stuff, which I’ll get out of the way up front, but which will hopefully be helpful as the tour progresses.

Letting The Music Speak For Itself

I’ve found in listening to classical music over the years, that the really, really great pieces of classical music, are so all-round awesome to listen to, you don’t need to know anything about how the music works or what the composer is trying to do. These tend to be the big pieces that make their way onto the many “Top 20 Great Classical Favourites” CDs that are out there. (Did I just say CDs? I’m showing my age …)

However, I’ve also found a large number of classical music works in the middle which make a whole lot more sense when you know something about the structure of the piece and of the movements. It gives you an idea what the composer was trying to with the music. So let me introduce you to the well-kept secret of the classical music world – sonata form.

Why Has This Movement Been Going For 10 Minutes?

For years, coming to the music, as a relative amateur, I had often wondered why some classical music would go on for ages with no real logic as to where the music was going. Was it just 10 minutes of random music slotted together until the composer was sick of the tunes and moved on to the next one? Apparently, not quite.

One day, I discovered that a lot of music in the 19th century used fairly distinct structures. So in a sense, classical music is a bit like architecture. In the same way, that most buildings share the common elements of having a floor, walls, windows and a roof, classical music also has different forms that composers would use as a basic template. Every composer would do something different with the template, but it meant that the audience of the day (who knew a lot more about musical structure than the average person does nowadays) would have an idea what to expect. The modern equivalent would be that we know most songs have a verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure, and so when we listen to new songs, we’re listening out for that repeated section which we know is the “chorus”. It’s subconscious, but the reason that your mind latches on to some music and not others has a lot to do with how quickly your brain can work out the music’s “pattern” and match it against other patterns.

Sonata Form

When I first heard about sonata form, my first thought was, “No wonder I could never understand what was going on in classical music! Who would ever guess this structure if nobody ever told you about it?” And so, because I’m a nice guy, just so you don’t have to pore over some obscure textbook (or, worse yet, give up listening to the music), here is sonata form, in the simplest possible way that I’ve been able to get my head around it. Sonata form is a way of structuring a piece of music to turn it from a random bunch of tunes into something a bit longer – a sort of musical adventure, if you like.

It’s in three broad parts:

1) The Exposition is the opening section and here the composer sets up his main themes that he will use in the symphony.

2) The Development section is where the composer breaks those themes down and uses little bits of them and combines them in interesting ways. In many respects, this is the journey part of the adventure because you never know how far the composer is going to take his themes and how many things he can do with them in this middle section.

3) The Recapitulation is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a big moment, where we come full circle back to the main themes of the Exposition. This is usually easy to pick if you’re paying attention because it just sounds like the music has started again.

There are a couple of optional extras that a composer can throw in at the beginning and end as well if they want to make things go for a bit longer:

a) An Introduction – some extra stuff at the beginning of the movement before the exposition begins properly

b) A Coda, which is where the composer wraps things up. Sometimes Codas just take the themes you know and finish them off neatly, but every now and again, composers with a sense of adventure (Beethoven, for example) like to take you on a whole new adventure at the end just when you thought everything was finishing.

And that’s it. Sonata form. You’ll see it in action in the next movement of the Mahler 5, when we get back to the tour in a couple of days.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler Symphony No 5 – Movement I

Because the only thing better than a grand funeral procession is a giant bird on your coffin ... By Cornell University Library [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Because the only thing better than a grand funeral procession is a giant bird on your coffin … By Cornell University Library [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve got to confess right up front that I’m not a huge fan of the Mahler 5. I find it a bit all over the shop and the ending is far too chirpy for my liking. However, I love this movement and the first minute or so could possibly be my favourite opening moment of all time in a classical music work.

The movement itself is basically broken up into two types of music that keep alternating (I say basically, because Mahler is such an innovator with the orchestra that any time one of his tunes comes back, it’s always played in a different way, or with different instruments, so he rarely ever repeats himself note for note.) There’s a Section A, which is a grand funeral march and a Section B which varies in intensity, but is much more chaotic and less-ordered than Section A. They both get introduced by a distinctive military fanfare on the trumpet.

So, off we go, let’s fire up Spotify:

(0:00) Section A – It starts with a solo trumpet playing a military call, and then strutting out for a bold march. It’s like an old-fashioned 19th century army setting off for war. (In fact, the main reason I picked this rendition of the symphony by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly conducting is because the trumpeter in this case, Peter Masseurs, just rips into the trumpet solo with an incredible sense of boldness and drama.)

(0:29) What happens next is hair-raising. The orchestra enters with a massive bang, and everyone starts to march and then (0:42) one note seems to go the wrong way, and it sounds (to me, at least) as if the floor has dropped out from underneath the music. The orchestra slides down to a low, low note and a funeral march begins. This is the first example of what I call The Mahler Collapse.

To explain The Mahler Collapse – you know how, when you listen to a lot of classical music from the 19th century, one of the first impressions you get is how perfect everything sounds? Everything is either beautiful or heroic, everything comes together nicely at the end. Everything has been ultra-well-thought out by the composer. Well, into the middle of this idea of perfection comes Mahler, who will have the orchestra playing a type of tune that his audience would be familiar with (a march, in this case), and then all of a sudden have it break apart musically. Of course, this is all planned, but to an audience (especially the audiences that would have heard this music back in the early 20th century) it really would sound as if the perfect little world that they expected from classical music was crumbling around their ears. In effect, Mahler is saying, the world is not a perfect place, why should our music be?

(1:13) But to get back to it. The main part of Section A is the funeral march. I love how smooth this section is. By leading off with the cellos, it just reminds me of some upper-class funeral procession making its way through the streets of Vienna in the late 19th century, complete with black horses and carriages.

(2:09) Section A repeated, but re-orchestrated to sound even more epic (and also to make the collapse more spectacular). Then back to the march again, but you can hear all sorts of new details in it (like the military band boom-ching on the cymbals and drums). For me a highlight is at (4:05) where the woodwinds take over the funeral march. I don’t know why, I just always find it strangely beautiful.

(5:11) Section B – This opens with the same trumpet call, so for a split second, you think you’re in for another repeat of the funeral march, but instead the music heads off in a completely different direction. It’s quite wild – for me, it sounds like a lone trumpeter playing on the deck of a small ship being buffeted by wild seas. It’s part of the genius of Mahler that even though the music is completely calculated and planned out to the nth degree, it sounds as if it’s spontaneous – as if the music has gotten out of control, swept the orchestra away with it and that no conductor in the world can hold it all together. The section ends, as you might expect it, in collapse.

From here on in, it’s just a repeat of the two themes: Section A with its heroic trumpet that collapses into a funeral march and Section B with its stormy, wild sound. Each time completely different from the last time, but immediately recognisable. So I don’t need to really say much more, but the timings are:

(6:58) Section A again. Notice how drawn out the collapse section is before the funeral march begins.

(9:44) Section B – Just for something completely different, the trumpet call that marks the change of sections is now played on just the timpanis (for the rest of us, massive drums) alone. You’ll notice it’s also not quite as wild as the first time. (Maybe more dramatic than wild?) It ends in – you guessed it – a massive collapse (11:22) and then …

(11:53) The Coda. (Jargon break: Coda is a fairly common term in the classical music world. It’s simply the name for the ending of a movement.) This consists of some clever repetitions of the military fanfare that gives you the impression that the music is disappearing into the distance (perhaps like a Viennese 19th century funeral that has turned the corner out of your street and headed on?).

So hopefully you caught these main ideas:

1. The balance between formal, beautiful music that classical music audiences love and harsh, wild, emotional music – I find it’s like the struggle between the order that we try to bring to life and the craziness that so often interrupts it. Maybe, in our slightly more cynical age, this is why Mahler’s music is becoming more appealing, because we feel more strongly that chaos lurking just beneath the order.

2. The idea of music collapsing. Listen to Beethoven, and he nearly always gets where he’s trying to go. Mahler writes music that sounds like it’s going somewhere that then falls apart into disorder.

But more importantly: did you enjoy it? Epic and beautiful? A bit too miserable for your tastes? I’d love to know what you thought.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler Symphony No 5 – Introduction

Mahler Symphony 5

I had originally planned to jump straight into Movement I of the Mahler 5 but the introductory couple of paragraphs I intended to write blew out to a blog post on its own. So this is the introduction to the symphony itself. Movement I will be up in a couple of days.

Overly Short Historical Introduction

You don’t need a lot of background to listen to this music, but to give you an idea of how old it is, this symphony was first performed in 1904, and was written over the previous two years by Mahler on his holidays. Mahler, at the time, was director of the Vienna Court Opera, and was more famous as a conductor than anything else. He would spend most of the year conducting operas, but when the opera season was on break, in summer, he would sit down and start composing his massive symphonies.

Clarity of Sound

Knowing that Mahler was a conductor helps explain the way Mahler wrote music for orchestra. I don’t claim to be an expert on conducting, but a good conductor has an ear for what kind of sounds can be made by particular instruments, how those different sounds combine an how to get a good balance of sound. And Mahler seemed to have an extraordinary ear for it, because in almost any of his movements, one of the first striking features worth pointing out on a guided tour is how clearly each instrument’s voice stands out.
This doesn’t always happen in writing for orchestra. In a lot of music, the instruments blur together to form a sound more like a large choir. But not so with Mahler. At nearly any point, you can listen and pick out what each group of instruments is doing. The end result is that the music sounds incredibly rich and complex (in a good way), because layer upon layer of sound is added in to form the whole. It’s like looking at the inside of a clock – you can see each cog and wheel moving but all of those individual pieces add up to the movement of the clock hands.

Three-Course Symphonies

Now, while I don’t want to get super-technical straight out of the gate, it is also worth knowing something about movements in a symphony and what audiences expected. Most works of classical music from the 19th century (and especially symphonies) are broken into sections called movements. The easiest way to think of this is like courses in a meal.
Most three-course meals have an entrée, a main and a dessert. But what is entertaining for the diner (and hopefully for the chef) is that there is an infinite variety of types of entrées, mains and desserts. But nonetheless, we kind of know what type of food would count as a main, compared with a dessert. So while we know each course will vary depending on the restaurant and chef, nonetheless, we can have a certain expectation of what we expect the food to taste like.
Movements in symphonies in the 19th century worked in largely the same way. By the time Mahler came along, the audience generally expected that a symphony would have four movements:
1) A fast movement to start with
2) A slow movement (to calm things down and contrast with the first movement)
3) A quirky movement called a scherzo (Italian for “joke”) which was faster, but still a bit light and not as heavy as the first and last movements
4) A fast movement to end with
Movements 2) and 3) can often be swapped around, but generally those four movements were what an audience expected to get from a symphony by the end of the 19th century.

Four Plus One

However, the Mahler 5 – just to be different – has five movements. There are a couple of ways you can think about it. In one sense, you could call it a regular four-movement symphony with a bonus funeral march thrown in at the beginning. But most people, and Mahler himself, describe it as being in three parts.
Part 1 contains the first two movements – Movement I, one of the most elegant funeral marches ever created and Movement II, a wild, chaotic whirlwind of emotion with just a hint of the Light Side at the end. Essentially, these two movements form the Dark Side of the symphony, the heavy stuff, the bad beginning.
Part 2 is the Scherzo in the middle – the longest Scherzo ever written, and it’s the hinge or the fulcrum, as David Hurwitz puts it, that tips the mood balance of the piece from dark to light.
Part 3 is the last two movements. It is the Light Side, the beautiful stuff, the happy ending.
Overall, the symphony is not particularly about anything, but there are some musical ideas in this symphony that pop up in nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies. But I’ll point them out as we go. See you in a few days!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Why Out Of Order?

My daughter's Famous Five collection - she absolutely insists on ordering it alphabetically by title rather than by volume number ...
My daughter’s Famous Five collection – she absolutely insists on ordering it alphabetically by title rather than by volume number …

It took some years for this concept to click with me as a child, but I finally worked out one day that if I ate the vegetables on the plate and then the meat, it would always mean that the ending of the meal was more enjoyable than the beginning. (Maybe it was one too many evenings stuck at the table half an hour later with nothing but peas on my plate.)

So, in the interests of saving the best for last, I’m attacking the Mahler symphonies in our guided tour out of order. This may not require any further justification than that, but those who know me know that I’m normally quite into numbers and sequences (e.g. I love reading an author’s works in chronological order, I can’t cope with coming in halfway through a movie trilogy and don’t even expect me to join you for Season 3 of a TV show) – so why break with the plan now?

With some symphonies, if I was going to listen to all of them, I would start with the composer’s first symphony and work my way up. It really pays off in the nine Beethoven symphonies, for instance. You can hear how each symphony got a little bit more elaborate than the last, watch how the composer was growing in his powers.

But I very quickly ditched that approach for Mahler symphonies. I think it’s because I still remember listening to them for the first time (when I worked through the Georg Solti box set in chronological order). However, I found that the first three symphonies (especially 2 and 3) were so spectacular, that I had a hard time listening to the rest from No. 4 onwards, because I’d always be comparing them (unfavourably) with his earlier symphonies.

Which is actually probably not all that surprising. I think Mahler knew, when he composed those earlier symphonies, that he was reaching heights of grandeur and spectacle that broke new ground in terms of what symphonies could do. Also, the earlier symphonies had some sort of program (in other words, they are music about something, like the idea of resurrection). So they’re slightly easier to understand, because when you know what the symphonies are about, they’re pretty enjoyable. In fact, they become rather like an early precursor to film music, and who doesn’t love a good movie soundtrack?

But something like Symphony No. 5 or Symphony No. 7, for instance, is far more difficult to pin down and work out what it’s about. It’s pure music. So I personally find the later Mahler symphonies tougher to listen to.

And look, maybe it’s a personal thing and depends on the answer to this question: what type of music do you like? Maybe it says something about me, but I love the grand, the spectacular, the spiritual and the emotional. And so, for me, I find that the Mahler 2 and 3 are pretty much top of my list.

The fascinating thing is that as I have spoken to various Mahler fans over the years, there is not a clearly defined favourite. Everyone has a different favourite and would rank them differently. There are definitely a lot of people who have had the same experience that I had with the Mahler 2, but then again, there are plenty of people who vote the Symphony No 5 as their favourite. Conductors have been known to rave about Das Lied von der Erde. (I believe it was the conductor Jascha Horenstein who is attributed as saying, shortly before he died, “one of the saddest things about leaving this world is not hearing Das Lied von der Erde ever again”. That story is courtesy of Deryk Barker’s lengthy article where he picks his favourite Mahler recordings.)

I also had a work colleague who thought the second movement of Symphony No. 1 was the most awesome thing he’d ever heard. (He was a violinist, that might have had something to do with it.)

But this is my list and so, to end with my favourite, I’m saving the Mahler 2 for last. And I’ve picked the Mahler 5 to begin with because I find it’s the perfect in-between symphony of Mahler. It leans backwards to the epicness of the first four, but it also leans forward to the new world of orchestral adventures that he was going to compose in the future. In other words, if you like the Mahler 5, you’ll probably like all of Mahler’s symphonies to some degree. But it’s not necessarily the case that people who like the later ones like the earlier one and vice versa.

But I guess we’ll soon find out, won’t we? We’ll begin with Movement I of the Mahler 5 next week, and I’ll look forward to you joining me.

Quick word of thanks in advance. While the descriptions of the Mahler symphonies that I’ll be posting are my own take on what I hear, nonetheless, it is always helpful to have other people point out what Mahler was trying to achieve or why he structured his music a certain way. To that end, I must credit two very helpful books, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies by Constantin Floros, a fairly dense and technical book (at least for this layperson) that was nonetheless helpful in explaining what Mahler was trying to do. And I would recommend to most people the awesomely-titled The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual by David Hurwitz, which is a rare book that manages to get in-depth into explaining classical music, while not assuming that the reader is a fully-educated music student. In fact, as long as you’re willing to expand your horizons, you can read it as a total newcomer to the genre, which is pretty awesome.