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.

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7 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler Symphony No 5 – Movement I

  1. Not sure my laptop speakers are up to the task.

    It was helpful having your timed notes to refer back to, and the collapse metaphor, and pointers/reminders on structure were helpful too.

    I’m hoping to build up a knowledge of these symphonies over time, so it’s a bit early to be measuring my experiences yet…

  2. A great explanation Matt. I hadn’t thought of hose massive, jolting gear changes as “the Mahler Collapse” before, but it’s a very apt description and I think probably there are more of them, at more levels, in this symphony than in anything else Mahler wrote. In some ways the whole Symphony is one massive Mahler Collapse, which maybe is why the final movement seems so out of place for you – but we’ll discuss and debate that in a few weeks!!

    I agree with you that this movement must surely have one of the most wonderful openings of any symphony. I have a few recordings of it, but there is one in particular – Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic – where that huge crash you speak of near the beginning is just sensational. It’s a great passage, especially on that recording, for testing out speakers – that solitary trumpet giving way to the full force of a huge orchestra. And the way the notes just seem to keep plummeting down to further and further depths. When I first began to listen to this music, each time I would be surprised by how that music just kept going down and down and down. “Can he really take us any further into the pits of darkness?”

    One of the other things I love about this movement – and it happens in a quite a few of Mahler’s other symphonies, too – is that he starts things off with a funeral march. That’s a pretty daring thing, when you think about it. Whose funeral is it? It could be everyone’s and no one’s. The Unknown Human, perhaps. It’s like death has become, for Mahler, the starting point, not the end point. Each of his symphonies that starts with a funeral march takes us off into a different direction from their grim beginnings.

    The passage you describe as being like a lone trumpeter on a small ship being buffeted by wild seas speaks a bit differently to me – although I do love that image now that you’ve suggested it. To me it’s like a wild, raging anguish in the face of loss and loneliness, and perhaps a sense of despair at a meaningless life.

    And on a slightly more trivial note – I sometimes wonder what the pressure must be like on the trumpeter playing in that movement. The part is so exposed, and so critical. You’d probably lose your place in the music world forever if you fluffed it!

  3. Great to hear from you both. Dave, definitely, Mahler warrants at least a good set of earphones, but I will admit, Mahler’s music on recording will always be hard pressed to cope with the live experience. There’s something about the full frequency of the sound, the bass rumbles, the huge crashes – it’s like watching a film on a small TV in mono sound, sometimes, when you realise it was actually shot with IMAX cameras. Still, no matter where you hear it, the hugeness of the world is hard to miss.

    Also loved your thoughts, Ian, about the funeral march. Who’s funeral is it? I’ve never been entirely sure, but it does definitely seem in the world of Mahler that you can’t acknowledge life without acknowledging death.

    See you next week.

  4. I’m glad that cafedave mentioned his speakers. When I first listened to the movement from my cell phone, I thought, “Oh boy, this is going to be painful.” The music didn’t appeal to me at all. But after thinking of Dave’s comment, I picked up the CD from the library. When I finally played it a week later in my car and even better, on the stereo at home, it was a completely different experience! I turned up the music and felt like I was on the street watching the funeral procession, it was so much richer and soulful.

    For the first time ever, I finally understood what my husband was talking about when he insisted on splurging on high quality speakers. I’m glad he did.

    Anyway, I loved the piece, and I thought it was interesting that Mahler began with a strong trumpet and ended the piece with a quiet woodwind. Maybe a flute?

  5. Hi Laura, glad to have you along for the tour. Definitely, Mahler is one of those cases where the better the sound equipment you use, the more you’ll get out of it. That said, no matter what equipment you have, nothing can quite equal the epicness of hearing a Mahler symphony live. If you have an orchestra nearby and they’re performing a Mahler symphony, I highly recommend picking up a ticket. The live experience is amazing.

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