The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 4

The Mahler symphonies fall into natural groupings in some respects (though all of them are different), and so you’ll often find that after you’ve listened to a few, that they sound similar to others.

So I find that 1, 2 and 3 are similar in their epic scope and sense of grandness, dealing with big themes and ideas. (And all with amazing endings that audiences love.)

Meanwhile, 5, 6 and 7 are purely orchestral – they don’t feature any choirs or voices, and Mahler is experimenting with how to mix different musical sound worlds together. They’re all quite different, but they share in common the complexity of their musical ideas.

Likewise, Das Lied von der Erde, and Symphonies 9 and 10 are more quiet, introverted works that deal with death and loss, clearly something weighing on Mahler’s mind towards the end of his life.

Which leaves 4 and 8. Symphony No 8 is the “Symphony of a Thousand”, a symphony that features a choir singing all the way through, and so, in a sense, is like a throwback to the glory days of the first three symphonies, while being even more over-the-top.

But the 4th symphony is a curious little enigma of a piece and I can’t think of any other Mahler symphony quite like it. Here are the things you’ll notice straight away:

  • The length – as in, the shortness of it (relative to Mahler, not relative to Mozart). Most Mahler symphonies clock in around the 75-minute mark on average, with some going even longer. (The Mahler 3 is about 1 hour 40 minutes.) But Symphony 4 is just under an hour.
  • It’s lightness of tone – if you’ve been inclined to think of classical music as primarily being beautiful, relaxing music, you’ve probably noticed that Mahler doesn’t fit that mold very well. Most of his music is loud, complex and frequently emotionally heavy-going (not necessarily a bad thing, but not good if you wanted something to chill out and do the ironing to). By contrast, the 4th symphony is much more delicate. We might almost go so far as to say “pretty”, at least relative to the other Mahler symphonies around it. This is somewhat of an illusion. As we dig in, you’ll find that the symphony is as solidly constructed as any of the others, it’s just designed to sound light.
  • It’s non-eventful ending. All Mahler’s early symphonies up till the 4th and continuing on in the 5, 6 and 7 all head towards massive climactic endings. By contrast, the 4th symphony, rather to everyone’s surprise, ends with a quiet song sung by a soprano. In actual fact, the big powerful stuff is in the 3rd movement, the slow movement of the work.

But the 4th movement, the song, is the key to the whole work. In this song, Mahler used the words of a poem (from a rather quirky collection of poems called The Boy’s Wonderhorn, of which I’ll have more to say another day) called “The Heavenly Life”. The poem describes heaven from the point of view of a child – and it’s mostly about the food!

Clearly, this poem intrigued Mahler, especially the concept of viewing something that is normally taken ultra-seriously (like heaven) through the eyes of a child (who is going to see things rather simply). So thus Symphony No. 4 itself (especially the first two movements) actually feels the most child-like of all his symphonies.

Not because it’s simpler music – it’s just as complex as any of the others. Not because it’s aimed for children – I don’t know how many kids of a very young age would sit through a 60-minute symphony. But there is something light and airy about it (maybe it’s the sleigh bells in the first movement) that suggest childhood.

It’s in four movements as follows:

Movement I – A light airy opening movement.

Movement II – A slightly creepy scherzo

Movement III – The first “serious” movement: an amazing slow movement, one of the most beautiful he ever wrote.

Movement IV – The “Heavenly Life” song sung by a soprano.

The recording I have selected is the very famous Cleveland Orchestra recording, conducted by George Szell. It’s a bit slower than some others, but he brings out the details beautifully (especially in the slow movement). I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement V

Who’s up for some obnoxiously cheerful brass and percussion? [Balkan brass band, photo by Marc Kjerland, sourced from Wikimedia Commons]
Where We’ve Been: A galloping 1st movement, a swaggering 2nd, a spooky 3rd and a schmaltzy 4th.

And this week, we end up at the finale of the Mahler 7, which is usually the movement that causes the most controversy. And the main reason for that, put bluntly, is that it’s far too happy. We’ve already spoken earlier about major and minor. Obviously, make a movement all minor and it can sound somewhat heavy or sad. But too much major can get to you as well, and that is what happens in this finale.

Technically, it is a kind of movement known as a rondo. In a rondo, a theme A, alternates with other different themes. So if the other themes were called Themes B, C and D, a rondo pattern would look like: A B A C A D A.

In this particular rondo, the A theme, the one that keeps coming back is a huge feel-good brass tune that is not too bad the first time around, but after a while, starts to wear you down with its relentless happiness. (Thus why I refer to it as the Big Brass Rondo Theme below.) And thus the controversy – was Mahler really this happy and just wanted to write a really, really joyful movement? Is it, after all the night music, a return to daytime, a blaze of sunlight? Or is he kind of having a go at his detractors: “You don’t like my music? You want something chirpy and accessible? Well, how about you cop this 20 minutes of loud cheerful brass band music and see how you like that!”

Without further ado, let’s have a listen and you can make up your own mind:

(Track 1 – 0:00) Greatest solo timpani moment of all time, followed by the Big Brass Rondo Theme (BBRT) which, being the Rondo theme, will keep coming back all through the movement. It’s a bit of a rip-off of the overture to a Wagner opera called the Mastersingers of Nuremberg  (which you don’t need to know anything about at this stage except that it too is big and brassy). Did I mention that this BBRT is irritatingly brassy?

(Track 1 – 1:50) Alternate Theme B – A quirky little tune that starts on the woodwinds and then moves to the strings. Far too happy for its own good.

(Track 1 – 2:44) BBRT – in a shorter version.

(Track 2 – 0:00) Alternate Theme C – A fussy sort of thing. (Actually, it’s a speeded up version of the BBRT.) It reminds me a bit of Elgar’s 1st Pomp and Circumstance march, which also has a fussy bit for the strings before the big march theme (that everyone loves) kicks in. At the (0:10) mark, a little woodwind dance enters over the top of the twitch accompaniment. This woodwind dance is the main tune from Theme C, and it keeps coming back in weird forms later.

(Track 2 – 0:57) BBRT – shorter version.

(Track 2 – 1:57) Alternate Theme B – in a minor key version, with whatever that thing is that sounds like an egg whisk being tapped against a timpani. (Okay, okay, it’s not really an egg whisk. Its proper name is a rute and it looks something like this. And, look, probably if you tried substituting an egg whisk for a rute in this movement it would sound nothing like that anyway.) So let me just leave that sound and draw your attention to the cute little Disney tune on the woodwinds (2:23).

(Track 2 – 3:01) BBRT – shorter version. (Came out of nowhere, that one!)

(Track 2 – 3:20) Theme C – Fussy beginning again. Then the dance begins again in the woodwinds (3:44). Turns into a slightly weird solo violin piece with lots of trills (4:00). Does have a nice ending though (4:26). Timpanis back in again for a bit of a Turkish dance (5:00) – that’s what they called anything kind of loud with a lot of cymbals back in those days – which builds up into …

(Track 3 – 0:03) BBRT – A full-blown recap of the theme (so a long version, in other words) with lots of counterpoint. If you’re a bit sick of all this happy brass, unfortunately, we’re only halfway. It ends in a typical Mahler collapse  (1:09).

(Track 3 – 1:13) Theme B – Here we go with Theme B again. It’s even twitchier this time around. A bit of the old Mahler ice-skating sound.

(Track 3 – 2:41 ) BBRT – Shorter version with tubular bells!

(Track 4 – 0:00) Theme C – the Turkish dance version with cymbals which leads to a mini-climax (0:22) which sliiides and slows down into the little dance on the woodwinds which leads in turn to a quieter version of the Turkish dance.

(Track 4 – 2:00) BBRT – Now we’re up to a minor key version of the BBRT. And then, over the top of it comes the galloping idea (or motif, which is the correct term for a musical idea) from the 1st movement. (Which you all remember after a month and a bit right?). Everything becomes more harsh on the ears for just a little bit.

(Track 4 – 2:59) A moment of counterpoint where Theme C (or is it Theme B? I’m getting lost myself) gets layered over the top of the BBRT.

(Track 4 – 3:35) Theme C waltzes around a bit on the strings. Nobody has any idea where this piece is going … And then, just when it sounds like it’s going nowhere and is just going to happily dance in some light and fluffy fairyland for the rest of the night, out of the blue …

(Track 4 – 4:14) BBRT – Bells, a slide and we’re straight back into the ultra-recapitulation of the rondo theme. And, in a bit that even I like (I’m feeling a bit like the Mahler Grinch at the moment), right at the ending, there is a massive major key version of the original tenor horn theme from back at the beginning (5:49), bringing everything full circle.

(And what a great SNAP! Abbado gives us on the last note in this recording.)

All right. There you go. The finale of the Mahler 7. Did you end up in the Love It camp or the Hate It camp?

And now that you’ve heard all the movements, what did you think of the symphony as a whole?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement IV (Night Music II)

Just when you thought you could get some sleep … Nocturnal Serenade, painted by Jan Steen, via Wikimedia Commons

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Tenor horns and galloping. Movement II – swaggering night procession. Movement III – Spooky witches’ sabbath.

Which brings us to the fourth movement, which is the slow movement of the symphony and it’s a total head-scratcher. We know Mahler is capable of creating some achingly beautiful slow movements when he wants to, but instead he opted for this strange piece that alternates between utter schmaltz and some slightly sinister moments.

Essentially (and the Night Music title is a giveaway of this), Mahler is creating his own version of the nocturnal “serenade”, where an enthusiastic person would stand in the streets at night and sing to his beloved, with a small band around him. (If you ever get a chance to see the opera The Barber of Seville, it opens with one of these serenades.) So if you imagine, as you listen to this, that the violin is a singer and the other instruments are his backing band, you’ll get a bit of the drift.

It is still a bit cheesy, though, but then again Mahler loved to put a bit of old Viennese nostalgia into most of his symphonies, and this is probably the movement that contains the most. (I do partly understand this. I have always loved this particular song by Air, just because that lazy trombone reminds me completely of the muzak that used to play in shopping centers when I was a boy in the 80s.)

I’ve heard this movement many times and I’m still not sure what to make of it, which means you’re just going to have to listen for yourself and see what you think about it.

(Track 1 – 0:00) Opening flourish on the violin, and then a small group of musicians (with special guest stars, the guitar and mandolin) play out a little love song. Pay attention to that violin flourish, because it signals a new “verse” of the love song each time it plays. This is a kind of chamber music (music for small ensembles), where different instruments get to take the lead, while the others switch to the background.

(Track 1 – 3:27) A little bit creepier here. A bit like a Spanish villain in an old 60s suspense film.

(Track 1 – 3:56) But only for a moment. The chirpies come back pretty quickly. The music continues on in this vein for the next few minutes …

(Track 2 – 0:00) An alternating middle section with a nice bit of solo work for the French horn. I like this middle section a bit better than the first half, but it’s still pretty naff. Notice also that it’s still very much the chamber music sound.

(Track 2 – 2:54) The opening serenade theme re-enters, a touch more quietly.

The movement has a bit of a climax at (5:14)

(6:22) Followed shortly after by a low-key ending which actually is genuinely beautiful. You just had to wait 10 minutes to get there …

Hmm … all right. I think after listening to it again, I can see some of the nostalgia that he was conjuring up (strange as it might be in this symphony) and I might even be starting to like it more. But what did you think?

See you next week for the most controversial symphony ending Mahler ever composed …

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement III (Shadowdance)

A Witches’ Sabbath, painted by Cornelis Saftleven (via Wikimedia Commons)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Epic orchestral movement with tenorhorn, galloping and a trip to another world in the middle. Movement II – The first “Night Music” movement, with a swaggering procession around the city.

While this third movement doesn’t have a specific “night music” title like movements II and IV (in fact, its title is “Shadowdance”), it’s very “spooky” music (in a fun sort of way – not in a scary way), and so immediately draws visions of Witches’ Sabbaths and Halloween and other such things.

It is also,the Scherzo of the symphony, which you might remember from earlier in the tour, is the word used to describe a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that’s definitely not the slow movement, but nor is it as big-sounding as the first and last movements.

Scherzos frequently alternate between two main musical ideas – the outer sections, known as the “Scherzo” sections, and a contrasting theme known as the “Trio” (even though, for the most part, more than three instruments are playing). Sometimes Trios only appear once in the middle, but in this case, Mahler brings the Trio back twice, but each time the themes re-appear, they’re using radically different instruments and sound, so if it sounds like completely new music rather than a repeat of earlier themes, that’s part of the way Mahler composes things.

(Track 1 – 0:00) Dodgy-sounding bumps on the timpani, flighty woodwinds, single horn notes. A weird, weird opening to this one … But it easily conjures up images of ghosts and old-school Witches’ Sabbaths. (This Abbado recording is particularly fun in that area, because if you listen to the woodwinds, rather than coming out with the beautiful, smooth tones we would expect, they play with awkward squawks and howls). Continues in this vein for the next couple of minutes.

(Track 2 – 0:00) The Trio starts on the oboe, and at first it sounds like it’s going to be a nice contrast to the Scherzo, but gradually it gets strange as well. Finally it climaxes with two massive cymbal clashes (1:14), which to the audience of Mahler’s day would be instantly recognised as a rather crazy nod to Johann Strauss and his Viennese waltzes, before dying out.

(Track 3 – 0:00) Begins again, but varied. Lots of creepy pizzicato (plucked strings) in this bit (it really is a dance of shadows!), including a part where everything stops with a massive crack! (1:47).

(Track 3 – 2:04) Trio again, but this time with a big oom-pah-pah accompaniment from the brass (again, giving it a slightly trashy Viennese feel).

(Track 3 – 2:37) All this craziness gradually dies away, ending with the shifty sound of the original timpani.

So there you go – maybe the background music to your next Halloween party?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement II (Night Music I)

Rembrandt’s massive painting, The Nightwatch

Where We’ve Been: The Mahler 7 is a dramatic arc with movements that mirror each other. So we’ve heard the first movement, which is loud and epic, as is the fifth movement when we get to it. Movements II and IV are both called Nachtmusik (“Night Music”) by Mahler, so we’re about to hear Night Music I.

You might think that with a name like that, this movement might be about nighttime stillness and quiet. Actually, no. While you do get a bit of that with the fourth movement (which acts as the slow movement of the symphony), in this second movement, it’s actually quite noisy.

The story goes that Mahler was inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Nightwatch, which you can see above. The painting shows a group of local militia heading out on a night patrol (though apparently I was just reading there’s now some scholarly debate as to whether the painting – which was never originally called The Nightwatch – is actually meant to show night time at all, or whether it was just dark-coloured. But let’s just keep pretending that it’s night time for the purpose of this music.) As well as all the militia types, you’ve got a bunch of extra randoms, like the guy on the side with the drum, and the little girl amongst the crowd. In other words, it’s quite possible, that parading around town at night with the local militia was a rather exciting thing to do in the evenings back before you had the latest season of Game of Thrones to download.

I think the idea that Mahler has latched onto in this movement is the idea of a procession. The movement marches along in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner and moves through a series of rather up-beat episodes. I don’t know exactly why – I think it’s the whole self-important swagger that infects the music – but this has always been one of my favourite Mahler movements in this symphony.

Let’s have a listen:

Here are the various episodes, as I hear them:

Horn Calls (aka The Steampunk Machine Fires Up)
(Track 1 – 0:00) Long, sonorous calls on the horns, echoes from the woodwinds, bird calls, you name it, but it’s definitely a type of call. It also reminds me of  one of those machines from steampunk movies or stories – a vast machine made of of tiny little cogs and wheels that all have to whirr and line up before the machine can start moving (or in this case, before the orchestra can start marching).

An interesting feature – perhaps in a nerdy sort of way – is the group of notes that climaxes this section (1:27). It has a group of notes (a chord, if you want to be more particular) that are in the major key, but then slide down to the minor key, as if the chord is dying out. This is a bit of a nod to a very similar (and much more dramatic) use of the same effect that got used in the Mahler 6. In that symphony, it was a major feature of the work. In this one, it’s more like a little in-joke that points to the Mahler 6. But well worth pointing out on a guided tour (particularly if you’ve heard the Mahler 6 a few times). And if you haven’t, no worries, the procession is about to start.

The Drunk Procession
(Track 1 – 1:31) A grand, amusingly pompous march begins, like everybody’s had a couple of pints and begun marching up the street. (Also, have a listen for the awesome sound of the violin players thwacking their strings with the back of their bows. Very cool stuff.) The march eventually quietens down to just a low mutter – like there’s one drunk who has got a bit further to walk home than the others. The accompaniment to the quiet bit is plucked strings (or pizzicato, if you remember from the Mahler 5), then the band comes back to the march again, with an even more grandiose sound than before. I love the self-importance of the whole thing.

The Tchaikovsky Ballet
(Track 2 – 0:00) Chirpy, dancing music. Sounds a bit like The Nutcracker, but you’ll notice that it’s just a variant on the drunk procession music. For fans of lesser-used percussion instruments, it does feature a bit of triangle action along the way.

Horn Calls
(Track 2 – 1:50) Back again, with an echo from muted trumpets. But then all of a sudden … what the heck is this? Cowbells? (But sadly no Christopher Walken.)

While they sound a bit strange to us today, Mahler often liked to use cowbells to create an other-wordly – almost transcendent – atmosphere, as if we’ve temporarily left the earth behind to enter into a higher plane.

All of this leads into some dubious minor key mutterings of the theme by the brass and the woodwinds, almost like the orchestra can’t remember who’s supposed to be leading the parade. (Mahler often likes to compose music to sound as if it’s coming apart at the seams a little bit.)

Subdued Drunk Procession
(Track 2 -2:56) Begins again, with muted trumpets. Also a bit more quiet this time, like they’re sneaking past the cranky neighbours who might hear them.

Luminous Moment
(Track 2 – 3:53) Ah, a luminous moment in the middle of a movement! It must be a Mahler symphony! Harp pluckings, high strings, fairy trills. It is still a variant on the march, but it’s like we’ve stumbled into somewhere magical, with the emphasis on the woodwinds. This turns back into the vast steampunk machine firing up (4:51) from the opening, leading back to the dying major-minor slide (5:11).

Schmaltzy Café Dance
(Track 2 – 5:18) Low-key version of the dance. Is it only me that thinks it sounds a bit like a tango in a dingy Spanish tavern? Ends with a hint of the Luminous Moment harps (6:22), until there’s a duel (6:39) between a strident trumpet (“Play the march again!”) and some nervous woodwinds. (“Are you sure? We might wake somebody up…”)

The Drunk Procession
(Track 3 – 0:00) This is better! All the band comes back for one last no-holds-barred version of the procession. Sounds like the end of Peter and the Wolf. Starts to get a bit counterpointy (i.e. lots of melody lines playing simultaneously) towards the end as the parade disappears over the hill.

The Tchaikovsky Ballet
(Track 4 – 0:00) Dancing flowers again. And not just the triangle – there’s a cute-sounding glockenspiel in there with just three notes. (0:50) And the cowbell. The percussion section are run off their feet!

Subdued Drunk Procession
(Track 4 – 1:30) The quieter minor-key version of the march. Our drunk band is disappearing into the distance.

Horn Calls
(Track 4 – 2:41) The calls build up to the dying major-minor slide, but this time it’s to close the movement quietly. It begins as it ends, but with an ominous tam-tam stroke and a mysterious pluck of the harp.

And there you have it, a bizarre, wondrous and grand nocturnal march. Did you enjoy it?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Jargon Interlude: Major and Minor

We haven’t had a bit of musical jargon for a while, but I thought it might be useful at this point to introduce the concept of major and minor keys. Very briefly, most Western music is written in a key. There are a variety of fairly technical ways to explain it, but the way I like to think about it is the group of notes that you’re using to construct your melodies. So, for instance, the most famous key is C major, which – if you’re on a piano – uses all the white notes and none of the black notes.

But there are a whole range of keys that composers can use, and certainly in classical music, most of the time a movement will move through several different keys over the course of the music (which is designed to keep things moving).

It’s this careful decision of which notes you use (and which ones you don’t) that have been allowing musicians to construct tunes for the last few centuries. Play a note that’s not in the key you’re using and it sounds like a clash. Play a note that is part of the key, and it all blends together perfectly. While our ears have slightly adjusted to what notes we’ll allow to mix together, for the most part, it doesn’t look like the concept of music being in a particular key is going to go away in a particular hurry.

One of the interesting thing about keys, though, is that they split into major and minor. It’s a total generalisation and you can always find exceptions to this, but for the most part, major keys sound bright and cheery and minor keys tend to have a more melancholy sound. But they’re never far away from each other. Just change a few of the notes and you can transform one particular key from the major into the minor.

The best simple example of this that I’ve found is this YouTube video in which the song starts in the major key, goes into the minor key and then back to major again, accompanied by some dramatic shifts in weather …

Got the idea? I’ll make a mention of it at a couple of spots in the next Mahler 7 movement (and it will also come back in many, many other movements on the tour as well, so it’s useful to know about).