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.


(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?

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

  1. Well, once again, a fascinating and inventive description Matt. The images you conjure up are terrific, and I am now adding them to my own when I listen to this extraordinary movement.

    I think for me this movement epitomises the symphony itself, with its constantly and abruptly changing moods, each breaking into each other before anything gets a chance to get a really firm footing. But your descriptions, and explaining how it all fits into the sonata form structure (sorry I haven’t yet commented on that post!) show that, despite what can on the surface seem like random chaos is, in fact, amazingly ordered. I think it’s one of Mahler’s many brilliant skills – taking those traditional classical forms, and playing around with them in such unexpected and creative ways.

    The section you describe as the Elegant Theme is not something I hear as elegant – which once again goes to show how diverse music, even as expressive as this, can be in the ways it impresses upon us. I find that theme forlorn and lonely, but still with all that ambiguity that Mahler does so well: hints of a dance (maybe that’s where the elegance lies), but more like the haunted memory of a dance, perhaps where the dance partner is no longer there, perhaps laid to rest in the funeral march of the first movement.

    I find that the more you listen to a movement like this, the more you being to feel its sense of structure, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. It’s a little like going into a building that has been designed by an expert, but very avant-garde, architect. It might look unfamiliar, even chaotic, with bits seemingly cobbled onto other bits with which they don’t seem to belong, and yet it all somehow holds together.

    One of the other things about this movement that I admire is the way, almost imperceptibly, it seems to build and build. Even though the bits fall apart and collapse, when they come back they seem to come back stronger and more determined. It’s like a war where the armies, though constantly being dealt horrendous blows from each other, regroup and reinforce their numbers.

    And the Star Wars moment is a stunner. But, as you point out, the storms and armies reappear. It seems everything here is every bit as weak and vulnerable as it is strong and defiant!

  2. Great to hear from you again, Ian. I should also add that I have found, over the years, in describing music, that definitely there are times when people will hear things differently than I will. So what might be elegant to me, might be different to somebody else.

    However, the interesting thing is, in the very act of saying, “I hear something in this music – listen to this bit”, even if I don’t hear the same thing, it makes me lean in closer, and that’s a great thing. In other words, despite the fact that we’ve some fairly objective ways to talk about music (it’s structure, tonality, etc), a subjective description always seems to speak to me more.

    Which means that it’s always fascinating to find what other people hear in music that I might not. And it’s in that way, that the world of music has opened up to me, as I’ve followed people’s recommendations and tried to hear their experience of music.

    But then again, isn’t that what music is, at it’s best? A shared human experience?

  3. In the week where a Star Wars trailer actually comes out, it’s hard not to be distracted by the differences between this and a John Williams piece, but I take your point. I wasn’t sure how I’d find the time to listen to this movement, but I thought I’d get started on it, and I was hooked in the first couple of minutes.

    I’m finding it’s too long between posts to have a clear sense of what happened in a previous movement (could be just me) – maybe some timecodes would be helpful for any flashbacks going forward?

    1. There are definitely differences but you should be able to hear (to some degree) how Williams has borrowed extensively from that sort of sound world (epic brass and strings) to create the world of Star Wars. It’s also the easiest point of reference to point out a big brass and strings moment because most people instantly know what that sounds like. As to a value judgement as to which theme sounds better, I’ll leave that up to the listener …

      Will take your point about timecodes for flashbacks.

  4. I am far from an authority on Star Wars, or its music, but I do understand what you mean, Matt, by the movie-like spectacle of that moment – like you say, it’s as if a hero is bursting through the wall (or through the time-space continuum, or whatever the heroes burst through in Star Wars).

    I, too, love hearing the images that music conjures up for people, especially when they’re different to the images it conjures up for me. It helps broaden my own experience, even of music (like this) that I have come to know and love so much over the years.

    In fact that’s something that I have learned in approaching all music really – and it’s only over the past six or so years that I have really begun to do this – and that’s to never really dismiss any music as ‘bad’, or even as something I don’t like, until I have at least heard it described by the people who love it. It’s amazing what I have discovered in music that I never thought I would appreciate. Which, of course, is exactly what you’re saying, too/

    With Mahler, though, the ground for making those discoveries is just so infinitely fertile. Whether it’s a tower of elephants about to tumble down, or a chasm opening up in the centre of the universe, there’s always something new to find.

    Looking forward to reading what the Third Movement yields for you!

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