I did something rather stupid about halfway through the book. Knowing there was a movie of The Light Between Oceans, I had a look at Metascore, just to see what reviewers were making of the movie. And while I didn’t get any direct plot spoilers, I did see a quote from one reviewer that said, and I quote: ‘Just when the audience is gearing up for a powerfully tragic resolution of the kind that Thomas Hardy might have written, the movie veers off into Nicholas Sparks territory instead.’
Which all of a sudden ruined the book for me. Because I now spent the remainder of the story with the growing suspicion that this was going to have a Mushy Ending of some sorts that would take the edge off the story.
The result, of course, without giving away any plot points, is that the ending does land somewhere between the bleakly tragic and the tearfully mushy, but I’m not sure if that is how it is meant to feel or whether I ruined it for myself by checking out the cinema review and thus biased myself towards the ending.
Anyway, to talk about what it is – the story set-up is melodramatic and over-the-top in many respects, but works perfectly because of the attention to detail that Stedman gives us. A lighthouse keeper and his wife live on a remote island where they only see other people every three months. This is in the 1920s, so Tom is still suffering from the trauma of the war and Isabel is struggling with her several miscarriages. (In many ways, both of these tragedies are connected by the idea of the death of children before their time.)
One day, a boat arrives on the shore, bearing a dead man and a living baby. Rather than report the incident, they decide to keep the baby. There are various reasons for why they make this particular choice, all of which we readers can immediately sympathise with but – of course – this decision is to be the turning point that causes all the angst moving forward.
It’s a gripping story, and I got sucked right in, but I will confess I found the first half of the story more compelling. Here we find the back story for Tom and Isabel, the lighthouse couple, and also witness their moral struggle with whether they did the right thing, and the increasing seeds of guilt and untruth that creep in.
The second half of the book is a lot more plot-driven, due to the direction that the story takes. While this certainly goes by quickly, taking the focus off the two main characters like that seemed to lose a bit of the magic somehow.
But, look, these are small quibbles. It’s a great Australian tragedy. If it had been made 70 years ago as a black-and-white movie, it would have been considered one of the great weepies of all time. Bring your tissues if you’re going to read this one.
So just wanted to give all my readers a heads-up that now that I’ve finished blogging through the Mahler Symphonies, I have a couple of new projects on the go which you may be interested in.
However, because they are somewhat niche interests, I’m going to be writing about them in two completely separate blogs, both a little more targeted in who they’re designed to reach. Both of these have just started up and running, so jump over if either of them sound interesting:
It’s no secret to those who regularly read my pages here that I’m obsessed with the question of what the future will hold for the classical music world. Now that I’ve been mulling over the problem for a decade or so, ideas and theories are starting to come to me that I wanted to record down in print. (But which will hopefully provoke discussion as well!)
So, to that end, I have enterered the world of those people who set up their own website and you can find me over at:
For the first few months, I’ll be going through some ideas I have about why people like music and what that might point to in the future of classical music. I’d also like to use it as a site to share news and views about what’s going on around the world in terms of classical music audience-building.
2) The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read
But then, on a completely different note, I’m also co-blogging on possibly my most crazily ambitious feat yet – to blog chapter-by-chapter through the works of my favourite childhood author, Robin Jarvis. Unfortunately, Jarvis has been somewhat obscure in Australia (though it’s possible he’s a bit obscure everywhere!), but I’ve always had a soft-spot for his very British tales of small heroes, dark magic, incredible bravery and noble sacrifice.
If that sounds remotely appealing, we’re inviting Robin Jarvis fans and lovers of YA fiction who want to try something new to join in the fun over at:
If neither of those sound interesting, I do apologise! I may well do the odd blog post here and there on this blog on topics that don’t fit into either a “future of classical music” or “Robin Jarvis” category, but this blog will probably go somewhat quiet over the next little while. Thanks again for those who joined me in the Mahler tour!
The last in a series of posts about George Grove, the legendary classical music audience builder.
So in my last post about George Grove, I talked about my afternoon in the Royal College of Music and how George Grove’s Crystal Palace concerts turned out to be a canny mixture of education and crowd-pleasing fun (leaning towards the latter).
There is sometimes an (often unspoken) assumption in modern classical music circles that the secret to getting a big audience is to playing the music at a very high standard of excellence. But after those few hours spent in the Royal College, I’m going to be more emphatic: I don’t think we ever grew audiences that way.
Excellence Organisations vs Audience Organisations
I now have a new theory. I believe there are two types of classical music organisations – those that are focused around Excellence and those that are focused around Audiences. Surely that’s the same thing, you might be thinking? Not necessarily.
Nowadays there are so many recordings floating around of any classical piece. (Who can even count how many complete sets of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies are in existence?) This is because classical music nerds, the connoisseurs, are so intimately familiar with the details of these works that they are always looking out for that interpretation or performance that is just that little bit better than any they have ever heard. They’re looking for the most perfect rendition, the one that gets an A+ while all the others get an A.
And this is what the classical music industry has thrived on for the last century. The existence of the connoisseurs. So a typical modern classical music company is built around the concept of drawing in the best conductors, the best musicians, the best ensembles, because they are performing for the connoisseurs, that audience who is knowledgeable enough to know the difference between the A performance and the A+ performance.
But for the person starting out with a vague interest in classical music – they have no such level of knowledge. This is why there were so many cheap and nasty CD labels selling classical CDs for $5 in bargain bins at supermarkets back in the 80s and 90s. To the average person, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the 1812 Overture is the same, regardless of who plays it.
So Excellence Organisations play to connoisseurs, strive for perfection, and the emphasis is geared towards performing a broad repertoire with prestigious musicians. However, by comparison, George Grove’s Crystal Palace series was an Audience Organisation. Perhaps by necessity of being run for a profit, it needed to be one, rather than any great desire by Grove. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And so Grove’s Audience Organisation was built around the audience: It had to be entertaining to reach a broad crowd. It had to include not just serious music, but also music the masses would respond to as well. It attempted to make the audience more sophisticated, definitely, but it always recognised that it had to get them in the door first before any of that could happen.
So what happened? Why did the Crystal Palace concerts die out after Grove died? Why don’t we see concerts like this any more? Why is nearly every classical music organisation today trying to be an Excellence Organisation with virtually no one trying to be an Audience Organisation?
My theory – and I’m now going out on a limb and completely speculating here – is that Grove, quite by accident, had stumbled on the magic formula for growing classical music audiences. If the concerts were just to please the crowds, it would have been like André Rieu – great fun for those who go, but not a bridge to the great classics. If it had been all serious and musicological, it would have been like a modern-day film appreciation class: great for the small number of people who like to educate themselves about culture, but not meaning a lot to the hordes thronging the multiplex. But George did both – he was an entertainer and an enthusiastic teacher and he taught the lay audiences of Britain to love classical music.
Like MasterChef for Classical Music
The closest thing to which I would compare George’s achievement would actually be MasterChef. Everyone who watches the show knows it’s manipulative, cheesy and aiming at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment. Its goal is to have you glued to the TV set every night for an hour. And yet, slowly but surely, as this cheesy little reality TV show has infiltrated the hearts and minds of Australia (and I’m sure other countries that have the show), what has happened? It has raised a generation of foodies. And that has a flow-on effect for the restaurant industry, for fine-dining experiences. There are more upmarket food experiences to be had in my city of Sydney than ever before. So a show that is built entirely around pleasing its audience is actually doing a service for food culture in Australia, more so than any fine dining guides or food reviewers were ever able to achieve before.
A Victim of His Own Success?
So why do we not see anything quite like the Crystal Palace series today? My theory is that Grove’s experiment was, in the end, a victim of its own success. By the end of the 19th century, as Grove’s life came to an end (he died in 1900), there were new Audience Organisations having a crack at the lay person. (The most famous of which were the Proms, which are still running to this day.) People were so keen to nerd up on classical music, that Grove was able to successfully put together and publish the Grove Dictionary of Music. (This is still in print but nowadays it’s a large multi-volume work that lurks in Conservatorium libraries. What has possibly been missed today is that the dictionary was intended, not for classical music students, but for the lay person to gain an understanding of classical music.)
Also, rather than head off to Europe to learn to play classical music, there were enough talented young musicians that a good music school was warranted in England. And so the Royal College of Music was established and has continued in operation ever since.
In short, classical music was such an in thing to do in London, that really nobody had to worry about trying to persuade people it was entertaining. The peer pressure did that work. Everyone was reading up on it, studying it, and going to as many concerts as they could. The ecosystem was well and truly set up. So in the early 20th century, you can see the extraordinary explosion of public orchestras setting up in London. The London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia, etc. If an orchestra could get its A+ conductors and musicians lined up, there was an audience willing to part with their money to hear them.
In short, classical music was now so much part of the popular culture, that it was carried along by its own momentum.
Also – and this would require a whole separate blog post – culture up until the 1960s was hereditary. You aimed to carry on the traditions and culture of your parents and grandparents, thus why many churches, to this day, sing the same old hymns from the 19th century and why many classical music audiences over the age of 70 can remember going to concerts with their parents and listening to classical music their entire lives. Why would you listen to anything else? It’s the best that culture can offer!
But in today’s day and age, we don’t think like that. At least for the last 40 years, the goal as soon as we hit our teenage years was to discover music that sounded as obnoxiously differently from our parents’ music as humanly possible. But side by side with this generational shift amongst the masses, something else had happened in classical music circles – we possibly lost sight of how to make people love classical music.
Everybody has been competing in the Excellence space for so long, no one is really sure how to do the Audience-building thing any more. And the reality is, it’s much harder to do now than it ever was. It will look different for every generation, because audiences are always looking for something new and exciting. By the time Grove died, classical music was so popular and the Crystal Palace wasn’t the new and exciting venue that it used to be, that his series of concerts just died out. Unlike the Excellence Organisations, which just need to be excellence, Audience Organisations need to be constantly evolving because the audience is evolving.
To build an audience today for classical music – and it’s something that is desperately needed – will require a whole new set of different tricks. I suspect it might need to involve a larger role for film music, which is the most common orchestral music still listened to by laypeople. But no one is entirely sure.
But more pressing even than the mix of music is this question: where are our George Groves today? Where are people who can speak the ordinary language of laypeople, and yet draw them into a greater knowledge of the classical music art form? Where are people so enthusiastic for classical music, that their enthusiasm infects a whole city? (And in this day and age of the internet, one person’s enthusiasm could spread across the globe.)
I’d like to be optimistic, but as the classical music industry faces an uncertain future, I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to return to the Audience focus fast enough to stem the tide of the ageing audience. But there are glimmers of hope. For instance, this young orchestra, the Melbourne Philharmonia Project, popped up in an article I was reading earlier this year. They talk about wanting to create “an orchestral experience which was aimed at not the 7 per cent that listen to classic music but the other 93 per cent”. Now that right there is the language of an Audience Organisation. I’d like to think that if enough groups like this appear, following in the footsteps of George Grove (even if we unfortunately just think of him as the guy with the multi-volume music dictionary named after him), maybe collectively we all might be able to make a difference.
After all, if George Grove could change my life and open up the world of classical music to me, why couldn’t the same happen to plenty of other people out there if we gave it a try?
Movement IV was the moving song “Primeval Light”, sung by a soul desperate to get to God.
And now comes the most extraordinary finale I’ve ever heard. Here we go …
(0:00) The fifth movement begins (without a pause) with an almighty crash as the orchestral scream from the end of the third movement returns. Gradually, the orchestra dies away. From here on, like a circling procession, we will hear various themes that return again and again throughout the movement.
(1:47) The first major theme we hear is played by the trumpets. We’ll call this Last Trumpet, because it’s meant to sound like the trumpets on the final day. These trumpets are be placed offstage around the concert hall, and will (in an ideal performance) echo from the four corners of the room in true surround sound fashion. Some phenomenal-sounding harp stuff here as well.
(3:20) The next theme to enter is the hymn tune Aufersteh’n itself. (Which you might remember was the hymn that Mahler heard at a funeral that inspired this finale.) It’s in a simple version that is played first by the winds, and then by the brass, and accompanied by plucking strings. It is followed by a more majestic sounding tune on the brass. The horns start to take over, as the plucking accompaniment switches to the flutes. Like an ancient creaking machine, this tune winds down.
(5:45) Then a new theme begins with two-note sighs on the woodwinds, with agitated string vibrations underneath. For reasons that will be clear when the choir enters, this is the “O Believe” Theme. It sounds agitated, panicked. It builds in intensity and then dies out.
(7:08) The hymn tune returns. This time, it is played by the brass, sounding like a large choir. They begin quietly, again with plucking underneath. But they build in power and volume, until with a loud drum roll and a mighty cymbal crash, a majestic new theme enters. (8:44) With fluttering flutes, soaring trumpets and repeated cymbal crashes, this new theme soars to the sky. To me, it’s like the Star Wars theme, only 10 times better. (I know, controversial.) For a brief instant, Mahler gives us a glimpse of life beyond death. However, this music dies away again. (Mahler often does this – he’ll give a foreshadowing of what is to come before he gets there.)
(10:46) Out of the silence, comes an astonishing sound – a massive (and I mean massive) couple of drumrolls usher in the next section. The drum rolls, Mahler said, are meant to represent the shaking of the earth, as the graves of the dead are burst asunder.
(11:53) Following this, the orchestra begins a huge majestic march. You may not be able to pick it, but this is another variation on the hymn tune. It picks up, bravely going where the heroic march from the first movement could not. As the march grows in intensity, large bells (like church bells almost) start to toll.
(13:24) However, as with all things in life, in Mahler symphonies, no plan succeeds easily without a struggle. At the height of the march, minor key discordant music starts to enter, and the march struggles as it is being swamped by this new music, especially by obnoxious three-note taunts which come from the other instruments. Despite this, the march bravely struggles on, almost reaching its climax . . .
(14:42) . . . but no! A massive CRASH on the tam-tam blows the whole orchestra to smithereens. Like animals running scared, all the instruments just play frightened versions of the march as everything dies into nothingness.
(15:06) Again darkness. Out of this new darkness, we hear the “O Believe” theme again, on the brass. The strings enter with a new theme, a worried string melody. But, even worse, offstage, we hear the sound of a demonic brass ensemble. Sounding like a circus band gone crazy, the offstage brass gets louder and louder . . .
(16:43) . . . and then onstage, we reach the final struggle. A furious brass theme enters, battling higher and higher, getting more and more worked up. It climaxes, again in another tam-tam crash, and another dissolving wave of sound from the orchestra.
(17:33) But this time . . . this time . . . from the darkness that follows, we hear a change in the air. We realise that this time, death has been defeated. The strings gently play a lyrical melody, while the orchestra gradually calms down. Now, there is an air of expectation in the air. What will happen next?
(19:02) Again, we hear the brass calling from the four corners of the room, sounding like the last trumpet. Following this, a lone flute circles around, sounding like a bird. Mahler’s sister described this as “the Bird of Death, hovering above the graves” uttering a last drawn-out cry.
And then, in one of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful moments in all music, the choir enters.
They sing the first two verses of the Aufersteh’n hymn that Mahler heard at von Bülow’s funeral. (But with new music by Mahler.) At the end of each verse, you will hear the female soloist break away from the main choir and soar above it. (In the first verse, it is the soprano, in the second verse, the alto.) After each verse, there is an orchestral interlude, painting a picture of a heavenly life after death.
(21:53) Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh’! Unsterblich Leben! wird, der dich rief, dir geben!
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
(26:07) Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät! Der Herr der Ernte geht und sammelt Garben uns ein, die starben!
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
(30:12) After this, the alto and then the soprano enter with the “O Believe” tune, and this time, the words are actually sung. Interestingly, these words are not from the original hymn. Mahler wrote them himself and, in them, he answers the questions that he asked in the first movement. Death is not the end. You were not born in vain. Your suffering was not for nothing.
Alto: O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube: Es geht dir nichts verloren! Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt! Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten!
Soprano: O glaube: Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
(31:42) Then, in almost a hushed whisper, the choir enters again, intoning the mysteries of life. We are born, and we die. But what dies, rises again! With a loud proclamation, the male singers tell us to “Prepare to live!”
Was entstanden ist, das muß vergehen! Was vergangen, auferstehen! Hör auf zu beben! Bereite dich zu leben!
What was created
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
(33:33) Then, as the movement heads into its final minutes, the two soloists sing an ecstatic duet, rejoicing that death has been conquered. After this, the chorus starts to sing about how they shall soar upwards to the light. The music builds to soaring new heights. Mahler was never comfortable with the concept of a last judgment, and so carefully selected the words so that all people who have died rise again and go to God. And it’s almost impossible not to catch Mahler’s vision while you’re listening to his music.
Soloists: O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! Dir bin ich entrungen! O Tod! Du Allbezwinger! Nun bist du bezwungen! Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen, In heißem Liebesstreben, Werd’ ich entschweben Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
Chorus: Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen, Werd’ ich entschweben Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen! Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
(35:53) And then . . . in what is, without doubt, one of the greatest moments in all musical history . . . when you think things couldn’t possibly get any more spectacular . . . the choir thunders out the hymn tune at full volume, accompanied by the orchestra, and now also an organ. We can’t see it with our eyes, but in our ears and minds, the sky is full of the resurrected dead, shining as they fly to God.
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu! Was du geschlagen, zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!
(37:30) The symphony finishes with a rousing orchestral close, and in the final moments of the piece, two tam-tams (a high and a low one) crash out waves of majestic sound, over and over again, as one of the greatest symphonies of all time comes to a close.
Well, I don’t know about you, but that always feels like the Mount Everest of music to me. Maybe there’s something out there that is more jaw-dropping and inspiring, but I haven’t come across it yet.
Thus ends the Mahler 2, and also the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour. I do hope you’ve enjoyed the last year or so, journeying through the Mahler symphonies. If there’s an orchestra near where you live playing some Mahler live, I highly recommend getting along to hear it. Spectacular as it might sound on a good hi-fi or set of headphones, no recording can capture the intensity of a Mahler symphony heard live.
After this, I’ll be coming back with one last blog post about George Grove to complete my thoughts on that fascinating Victorian gentleman. And then I have a couple of new blog projects launching shortly which you may be interested in as well. Thanks again!
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a vast and terrifying picture of death. Movement II – a nostalgic dance. Movement III – a slinky swirl of clarinets, looking at the chaos of life.
And now a moment of stillness and beauty …
In this fourth movement, Mahler returns again to the folksongs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, this time with a song called Urlicht. It is a very simple song, sung by an alto, where she sings about wanting to get to Heaven. She asks, in a fairly simple naive way, that God will give her a little light to show her the way.
“Urlicht” – German Text
O Röschen rot! Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein! Je lieber möcht ich im Himmel sein. Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg: Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen. Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott! Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben, Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
“Primeval Light” – English Translation
O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
I’ve always loved the brass moment early in the movement after the opening line. It reminds me of slow military brass laments. I could imagine this being used on Memorial Day or a similar type of remembrance ceremonies. Whatever the setting, the music is utterly moving.
In a way, this song is attempting to be an answer to the death and devastation that we have heard in the first movement. However, it is pretty obvious that this song is far too light to be the ending of this symphony, and doesn’t really balance things out. As if to make that point, the fifth movement blasts in, fury raging from the opening seconds. But we’ll come back to that in our next post!
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – the devastating portrait of death. Movement II – a nostalgic look into the past with a gentle dance. And now for a bit of quirky humour.
The last three movements are to be played one after the other without a break, so apologies that splitting this over three blog posts somewhat breaks that momentum!
This third movement is the scherzo of the symphony. A scherzo (Italian for “joke”) is generally a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that lets the composer write something that is fast, but not necessarily as big and grand as the first and last movements. As you’ve heard in his other symphonies, if you’ve been following along, Mahler liked to use the third movement to express irony or satire and this one is a perfect example of that.
At the time when this symphony was composed, and in the years before it, Mahler was a great fan of a collection of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Two of these poems make an appearance in one form or another in this Second Symphony. The first one to appear is a song called “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fish”).
The original poem is a rather cynical little tale about St Anthony who gives up preaching to his congregation because they don’t listen to him. So he goes down to the river and preaches to the fish. The fish are highly interested in his sermon and gather around to listen, but as soon as it’s over, they go back to being their same old selves and don’t pay any attention to what they heard . . . Mahler set this poem to music shortly before this symphony was completed for voice and orchestra and then decided that he liked his tune so much, he’d use it again in this symphony.
(0:00) With a opening “ba-bum” from the timpanis – which shocks a live audience every time, coming after the quiet ending of Movement II – the opening theme (the Anthony song) begins. This has some very elaborate instrument choices, with all sorts of strange sounds coming from all over the place. (For instance, listen out for the rute – a bundle of sticks which they beat against the side of the drums to make a clicking sound.)
Most of the opening tune is dominated by the woodwinds, playing all sorts of slinky, slidy melodies. In the original song, this represents the movements of the scaly, slithery fish, but in this symphony, it serves as a larger metaphor . . . In this movement, Mahler is telling us that life is often chaotic and endless.
(4:09) However, as we’ve seen, even in the middle of chaos, there is beauty. After a few minutes, the song theme gets interrupted by a loud brass section, and soon we hear a wonderful interlude: (5:10) over a billowing harp accompaniment, a trumpet quartet sings out a gorgeous melody. To me, it really is one of the most beautiful moments in the symphony.
(6:39) Alas, however, it ends, and the music starts getting more discordant, as if it’s lost its bearings and doesn’t know where to go. The slinky song tune starts up again.
(8:54) Again, a few minutes later, a loud brass section interrupts and for a minute, we think we might be lucky enough to hear the trumpet quartet again. But no . . . it’s far worse.
(9:14) The orchestra lets out a scream. The chaos of life is too much, and we hear it. The scream almost collapses the orchestral sound in on itself and the music wanders into a strange ethereal sound world on the other side of it. However, this new sound that comes from the orchestra after the scream has a hint of the fifth movement, and it gives us a glimpse of eternity – of a life beyond this one on earth.
(10:51) But then the slinky St Anthony song returns again, and the scherzo closes as it began.
If you liked that movement and you’re open to trying things strange and new, the Italian composer Luciana Berio used it in the third movement of a work of his called the Sinfonia, which features an orchestra and singers who don’t actually sing (they often speak, shout or whisper instead) all thrown in a strange post-modern mix. Have a listen on YouTube if you’re interested. It’s a trippy experience!
Movement I was a massive and terrifying portrait of death.
And now …
Mahler asked that there be a five minute pause between the first and second movement of this symphony. (Not every conductor will do this, however, especially if the concert is being recorded for broadcast.) The main reason for this pause is quite simply that this movement sounds nothing like the one before it. It’s not just the fact that this is the slow movement of the symphony. It’s almost as if we’ve started listening to another symphony entirely. . . at first glance. What is happening in this movement is that Mahler, after confronting us with death in the first movement, is now taking a nostalgic look back at the past, and reminding us of the “good old days”. The way he does this is to bring in the music of a ländler (an old Austrian dance).
The movement is in five sections, which are pretty easy to distinguish from one another:
(0:00) Section 1 is the first appearance of the dance. Just like a glorious waltz from a 30s movie, it sweeps in very delicately with lots of sliding strings and Viennese charm.
(2:04) Section 2 is a rather agitated-sounding theme that completely contrasts with the laid-back charm of the dance.
(3:50) Section 3 is a more elaborate return of the dance.
(5:58) Section 4 is the agitated theme again, but this time it enters in loudly, casting a dark shadow over everything.
(8:27) Section 5, however, brings us out the other side. The dance returns, but this time the strings play pizzicato (plucked), making it the most delicate moment in the whole symphony. Very gently, the movement winds to a close, ending with three plucks like the first movement. But where those plucks were ominous, these plucks are charming and graceful.
This first movement, if you remember from the last post, started life as Mahler’s Funeral Rites music. I can’t think of many other classical pieces that assaults its listeners like this one does …
(0:00) The whole thing begins with a tense vibration (a tremolo) on the violins . Under that, the low strings play an urgent theme. Like a vast thunderstorm, this music continues, growing in power and violence, as more and more instruments enter. Throughout it all, however, the low strings never stop playing. It climaxes in a mighty brass crash (2:40), which dies away on the woodwinds.
(3:09) A more gentle theme tries to enter on the violins, but the low strings are still hinting at trouble underneath and gradually this new gentle theme gets hijacked, and (4:19) we return to the tremolo of the opening.
(4:51) Then soon a military march emerges. It has a vaguely heroic sound, but it too gets hijacked, this time by the brass, which drag the whole theme down in a noisy passage of crashing cymbals and drum rolls. Everything becomes quiet again, and we wait to see what has happened in the aftermath . . .
(5:53) With the low strings providing the beat, a new march emerges – a funeral march. It is very quiet, with the woodwinds singing in a lonely desolate manner over the top. Also listen out for the harps which come in right at the end of the march. They play a kind of tolling sound, like a bell.
(7:05) And then, while the tolling continues, the strings again attempt the gentle theme. And this time it works! Gently soaring, and then moving into the brass and the woodwinds, we move into a miraculous passage of delicate beauty, like an oasis in the middle of a storm. One of the joys of listening to Mahler’s music, is that even in the middle of the worst circumstances, there will be flashes of beauty. (Like life, really.O
(9:15) Gradually, however, the music starts to change. It’s still quiet, but it gradually morphs into another quiet funereal tune. (10:36) Then after that, the brass enters, and we head into another loud passage. As earlier, a heroic military march tries to win the day. But it gets stifled again, this time in an even more chaotic passage. (11:27) With crashing cymbals and pounding drums, the whole music literally seems to sink into the floor.
(11:47) But then, the gentle music starts again. However, it’s only the harps and flutes this time, so it sounds very small and vulnerable, when we consider the kind of devastation it has to match. More instruments join in, and the music comes to a happy little ending of its own.
(12:55) But we start to hear trouble brooding. With a crash, the opening urgent theme begins again on the low strings. This time, however, the music sounds even darker.
(13:20) Another funeral march begins, again with low strings providing the rhythm, and lonely woodwinds singing over the top. (14:25) As the music builds, the brass play a tune that sounds vaguely like an anthem of some sort. (This is actually – spoiler alert – a small hint of the music that the choir will sing at the end of the symphony.) The first four notes of this tune would have also been famous to its listeners – those four notes opened a famous Gregorian chant from the 13th century, the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath – have a listen here to the original) and ever since then, composers had been borrowing those four notes any time the wanted to drop a hint about the Day of Judgement. All of which just adds to the weight of this movement, right?
(14:48) Triumphantly, the music swells up, again attempting to be heroic. Again, it gets taken over by a whirl of cymbals, discordant notes and pounding drums. Horrible brass take over, rushing the music along to the most horrendous climax imaginable:
(16:20) A hideous chord (group of notes), made up of as many clashing notes as possible, plays over and over. Musically it is like being hit hit over the head with a sledge hammer and it’s meant to leave an audience cringing in their seats. Unlike our traditional Western concept of death, where we sanitise things, Mahler presents us with death in all its devastation and horror.
(16:47) When this is over, Mahler returns to the music of the opening. So the urgent strings enter again. Everything’s a bit shorter than the first time, but we hear all the familiar parts we know: the brass climax (18:10), and the gentle oasis music (18:36). This time, however, there is an edge of sadness to the oasis music which wasn’t there the first time. It’s as if, confronted with the fact of death, the music now has a sad outlook on life.
Mahler himself said that in this movement he was looking down into an empty grave and asking the questions: “What’s the point of life? Why are we even born if all we’re going to do is die? What’s the meaning of it all?” (Remember these questions: they become important later.)
(21:24) The gentle theme leads into another funeral march again – very slow, solemn and quiet. It builds up to one last climax from the full orchestra again. (Listen out for the tam-tam – a huge gong – which lets out a massive sound at this climax.)
(23:40) The music dies away into a lonely and bleak passage. At the very end, a trumpet sounds out one last note, which for a split second sounds like it might be triumphant. But it quickly turns sour and with a rush, the orchestra plays a descending scale, and ends with three low plucks on the strings, “like dirt being thrown on a coffin” as one conductor described it.
For several years after I first heard it, it was the Twin Towers I would see in my head during this movement, because that seemed to fit the devastating sound world Mahler constructs. Other people might hear different things. But whatever your experience of it, this is the darkness that is waiting to be overcome in the final movement – overcome by resurrection.
But first, the music takes an unusual detour – which you will hear when we come back for the second movement. See you soon!
So here we are – one last Mahler Symphony left. There are lots of debates over which is the “best” Mahler symphony and it’s a highly personal choice. But this one is my personal favourite, and there are some statistics to indicate that I’m not alone. A few years ago, Australia’s ABC Classic FM radio station (not to be confused with the UK’s Classic FM) had a Classic 100 Symphony survey. Listeners voted for their favourite symphony and then the radio station played selections from each of the top 100 symphonies over eight days in a big countdown from 100 to 1.
While there was no Mahler in the top 10 (he’s less mainstream in some ways), he had nine featured in the countdown. (Das Lied von der Erde was one of them, Symphony No. 7 was not. Poor old Mahler 7. It just never wins any popularity contests.) And the one that got the highest up the list? In 14th place, the Mahler 2, the “Resurrection” symphony. So until someone comes up with a more far-reaching poll, I’m declaring the Mahler 2 the most popular of the Mahler symphonies!
This symphony is also personal to me because it particularly pushed me to move into the classical music industry. I remember first hearing it in 2002 and being absolutely moved and exhilarated by it. I think it was some combo of its themes of resurrection and life after death, contrasted with the kind of world we were now living in post 9/11.
But as I listened to it more and more, the music reinforced the power of live music. While there are some fantastic recordings of the Mahler 2, as you hear it, you can’t help be struck by the thought that no matter how good it sounds on CD, it would sound 10 times better in a live performance. (And now that I’ve been to four performances of the Mahler 2 live, I can confirm that this is true.) The thought came to me, If a day ever comes where you can’t hear this stuff live, then we will have lost something from our culture. And that was the catalyst. From then on, I was desperate to work in the classical music industry, doing something to keep live music alive and I’m still here nine years later …
But back to the symphony.
The story behind the Second is rather unusual. It started with a dream. Mahler dreamed one night that he was laid out on a funeral bier, surrounded by flowers. It was that image which inspired him to write a devastating piece of orchestral music called Funeral Rites (Totenfeier). The story goes that he took it round to show the famous conductor, Hans von Bülow, and played it for him on the piano. Hans told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t even consider it music. It was too modern, too challenging, too harsh. (Which was pretty rough given that Hans conducted lots of Wagner, known as the most modern composer around.)
Depressed by this reaction, Mahler put the piece aside for a long while. However, he knew in his mind that it was the opening of a great symphony (it later became the first movement of the Mahler 2). But he didn’t know how to finish the piece. After writing an opening of such heaviness, how do you find an ending that can match it or balance it out?
In the end, the finale came to him in a rather ironic way. Hans von Bülow died, and it was at his funeral that Mahler first heard the hymn Aufersteh’n (Resurrection), being sung by a boys’ choir. “Like a thunderbolt”, to use his words, the theme he needed to end his symphony was found. And thus was born the astonishing “Resurrection” symphony of Gustav Mahler.
The symphony consists of five movements:
Movement I is the original funeral rites, one of the most devastating pieces of music ever written.
Movement II is a nostalgic look back at the dances of Mahler’s past.
Movement III is a quirky orchestral adaptation of a song that Mahler wrote a couple of years before.
Movement IV is a short five-minute piece sung by alto called “Primal Light”. It’s five minutes of pure beauty.
Movement V is the resurrection, one of the most incredible stretches of music ever composed with a massive choral climax.
There are many good recordings out there of this one. In fact, it’s a piece that is, on the whole, so good that even a lame performance is still going to sound fairly awesome. But the one I’ve landed on is the 1988 CD by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. It’s a lot slower than some of the others, but Lenny turns this into an unmatched epic experience. Also, after hearing it, if you want to own your own box set of Mahler symphonies, you can go pick up the complete Bernstein box set for a bargain price nowadays. (It used to be freakishly expensive back in the day.)
Movement I – What the Rocks and Mountains Told Me: a vast struggle between summer and winter
Movement II – What the Flowers Tell Me: a light, airy dance of the flowers in the field
Movement III – What the Animals Tell Me: a wild rumpus
Movement IV – What Man Tells Me: a haunting moment of stillness
Movement V – What the Angels Tell Me: an angelic children’s choir
And now we are at the top of Mahler’s chain of creation. And what is it like? Well, I think it is a love-it-or-hate-it movement. Some of you may find it a bit slow and anti-climactic after all the orchestral brilliance on the way up the chain. However, for me, it remains the most majestic slow movement of all time. This is what slow movements were invented for. To slow time down and to create an atmosphere of beauty that simply can’t be rushed.
Tune-wise, this movement is rather simple. I hummed the main theme many times to my kids when they were babies, just because it has the simplicity and comfort of a lullaby, but also something more powerful as well. The closest I can come to explaining it is that somehow Mahler is trying to portray Love as something much bigger than romantic love. This is Divine Love – God, in other words – and the sound of God is vast, majestic, beautiful and overcomes all obstacles.
The movement is built as a series of parts, each one like a wave. It starts with a beautiful major-key melody, which gradually descends into crisis but eventually overcomes in the end.
So find yourself a quiet place to be undisturbed for half an hour – and a good set of headphones – and immerse yourself.
(CD2, Track 4, 0:00) Nothing but the strings, barely getting above a whisper. They play a looooong melody that stretches out and soars.
(Track 5, 0:00) A new type of theme; a chorale (i.e. you can imagine it being sung by a four-part choir). Again, still all on strings, still deathly quiet. But it marks a transition from the major key into the minor key. At the (0:48) mark, starting with the oboe and then the horns, the other instruments finally make themselves known. I find it breathtaking.
(2:14) The first minor-key interlude. Anguished tremolos (those shimmering repeated notes on the strings), with a mournful descending motif on the horns. But the struggle hasn’t yet broken out in full force.
(Track 6, 0:00) Transition – Back to the opening theme, but now tinged with sadness. Becomes more miserable.
(1:59) At this point, the theme returns as we first heard it, but this time on the winds, with strings underneath.
(3:35) The chorale – this time on French horns, with a solo violin underneath. Quite haunting. Becomes gradually darker.
(Track 7, 0:00) At this point, things start to get more emotionally intense, leading to the first big climax of the movement. The build-up to it is extraordinary and it explodes at (3:09). Completely awe-inspiring passage of music (and I have never heard anyone do it with as much power as Litton and the Dallas Symphony). Also note how, at its most triumphant moment, Mahler brings back the dreaded winter winds from the first movement. (3:33)
(Track 8, 0:00) Back to the strings,as in the beginning, but varied again. Builds to a huge brass climax. (1:57)
Which is quickly followed by another massive collapse. (2:14) It’s quite devastating after the beauty of the opening, but this is the last struggle. Love has broken through and on the other side of this last patch of turmoil is the greatest moment of all.
(Track 9, 0:00) It begins with a lone flute over glistening strings, ushering in the final repeat of the main theme. But even though we know the tune, this rendition is amazing – it’s played by a quartet of trumpets, with horns providing harmony. But they’re playing quietly – which is what makes it so beautiful. (It’s also incredibly difficult for the musicians. I was chatting with a French horn player recently who said that this was his favourite piece of music – but that it was the hardest piece there was, there was nothing harder. I’ll take his word for it.)
I never fail to get cold shivers at this moment. For me, it will probably always be my favourite brass moment of all time.
The music continues and swells to a massively loud recap of the theme for the full orchestra, followed by the mother of all codas. All I can say is, this is the music I want played at my funeral.
Thus ends the mighty Mahler 3, one of the most moving and ambitious pieces of orchestral music ever created. I say “one of”, of course, because fantastic as this one is, there is one more Mahler symphony left on our tour. And that symphony, the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony is – never mind comparing it with other pieces of music – one of the greatest pieces of art ever created.