A Guided Tour of the Mahler Symphonies – An Introduction

"Now, if you follow me and keep your eyes peeled, I'll point out the extremely rare Blumine movement of the Mahler 1 ..." (Picture by By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Tour guide and the group  Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
“Now, follow me and keep your eyes peeled, and I’ll point out the extremely rare Blumine movement of the Mahler 1 …” (Picture by By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Tour guide and the group Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
A few years ago, just for the fun of it, I did a project called the One-Year War and Peace where I blogged my way through War and Peace chapter by chapter. While it was a manic schedule of reading and writing – I’m pretty sure I wrote some incoherent rubbish on a lot of days, it was quite rewarding. So I thought it would be fun to try something like that again.

But this time, in the field of classical music. And, in particular, the Mahler Symphonies. So I’m pleased to announce that starting in April, I’m going to attempt to write a blog post each week, that talks about what’s happening in a particular movement of a Mahler symphony.

[Quick jargon interruption: A symphony is simply a piece of music written for orchestra. Because they tend to be a bit long, they’re often broken into sections called movements. Easiest way to think of it is that if a symphony were a sit-down dinner, the movements would be the courses. Movements sound completely different from each other in terms of length, speed and feel – in the same way that entrées are a different kettle of fish from dessert – but they all form a nice overall package.]

Why Mahler symphonies? Well, I think it’s simply because years and years ago when I worked in the private sector, I had just enough money in my tax refund one year to let me buy a box of CDs. A friend of mine whom I’ve since lost touch with (but who was a mad trombonist) had tipped me off that the Mahler symphonies were the most amazing music of all time. I’d never heard them, so I bought a box set of Mahler symphonies out of curiosity.

It took me a while to adjust to Mahler’s sound world (and it varies from symphony to symphony as well) but it caught my ear enough that for the next year and a half, I don’t think there was a day went by where I didn’t have a Mahler CD in my Discman (which gives you an idea of how long ago that was …). It wasn’t necessarily because it was super-catchy. It was more just that every time I listened, I heard something new. It was music to be explored.

Not only that, I was so blown away by Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 that I decided that if a day ever came where you couldn’t go and hear this music live, that would be a tragedy. So with no arts experience to speak of, I found a way to leave the private sector and I have worked in the classical music world ever since. So I completely blame this career move on the Mahler 2.

So I think the time has come to share these symphonies with whichever of my friends might be interested – and perhaps the wider world.

I’ve calculated that this will take approximately a year, because if you count all ten Mahler symphonies plus Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) and if you count Symphony No 8 as just having two very long movements, you end up with a very pleasing number of 50 movements all up.

I should say at the beginning that I’m somewhat terrified of writing about classical music, because while there are many amateur classical music enthusiasts out there (of which I would happily count myself amongst the ranks), you don’t tend to find so much amateur writing about classical music in the same way that you do about film. Any old person who knows how to operate the remote control on a DVD player can (and often does) sit down to crank out their thoughts on this movie or that movie, whether Inception is better than The Dark Knight, etc.

But bring that over to the realm of classical music, and we all clam up a bit. Perhaps this is because, for a long time now, people who get their writing published about classical music tend to be musicologists who Know Their Stuff. And I love musicologists, but often how they write about music can be a long way from the way an amateur might hear and think about the music. (Or at least this amateur.)

So a musicologist might hear “a shift to a remote key that would have confused the ears of listeners of 1847, etc”. Meanwhile, I just thought it was “that epic-sounding bit on the trumpets”. I am slightly exaggerating, because I have grown over the years to admire the dark arts of musicologists. They have an uncanny ability to listen to a half hour piece of music not simply as a Random Collection of Tunes That Go On For A Very Long Time (which, for a long time, was how I classified most classical music) but rather as A Beautifully Structured Piece of Art. And that sort of insight has shed light on many interesting and useful things for me over the year.

But, in my own writing, as I am not a master of the aforementioned dark arts, I will probably lean more towards just pointing out the epic-sounding bits on the trumpets. But if, every now and again, I explain a bit of musical theory or at least the structure of some of the movements, it will be due to somebody else who’s done all the research for me and taken me on their own guided tour (albeit one that might have been more dry than I would have liked).

So, to explain how this will all work:

1) Every week I’ll try to post up a link to the movement of the week from Spotify. (The whole point being so that you can have a listen too. After all, no point just believing what I say about it. Hear it for yourself!)

2) I’ll provide my own little pointers of things worth listening out for, with timings so that you can know where you’re up to in that track. (“e.g listen out at the (4:21) mark for an epic-sounding bit on the trumpets”). Not everybody likes this, but if I’m reading a description of music, a) I like to read it while I’m listening to the music and b) I hate it when I can’t tell what bit I’m supposed to be up to in the description. Thus, I find timings really good. But obviously only if you listen to the version that I’ve synced it to. But hopefully you’ll cope with it all.

3) I will work through each symphony in the order of its movements (which does actually involve a bit of a debate when it comes to the Mahler Symphony No. 6, but we’ll come to that in time), but I’m not working through the symphonies in chronological order. (As to why that is, more on that next week.)

So all you have to do is add me to your RSS feed or subscribe via email and then ever week, you can fire up your Spotify player of choice, join me for anywhere between 5 and 35 minutes a week, and we’re on our way. I can’t guarantee it will change your life in the same way it changed mine, but it’ll take your ears to some pretty awesome places.