The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 6

So for our next stop on the tour, we’re returning to the “middle” group of symphonies (the 5, 6 and 7) and the last one that we haven’t yet listened to – the tragic and epic Symphony No 6.

You’ll be familiar with its style after having heard 5 and 7 – big, dense orchestrations, no choirs or singers or anything peripheral. It’s not quiet and introverted like the later ones, and it contains all sorts of music.

However, it is unusual amongst all the Mahler symphonies, because it contains (spoiler alert!) the only really solid unhappy ending. Mahler symphonies either end in huge explosions of sound (especially the ones we have coming up to listen to!) or find peace and acceptance and fade out, like Das Lied von der Erde and Symphonies 9 and 10.

But in some ways, the Mahler 6 is a different beast to the 5 and 7. Both of those symphonies had devastation and blackness, but it was also offset with beauty and uproarious celebration in the end. There’s none of that here. In fact, what I hear – and what some other commentators have noticed as well – is the sound of war and battle. The first and last movements have a persistent marching motif (i.e. a musical idea) that keeps returning over and over.

But, look, they say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Here is probably the best visual description that I could give you of the Mahler 6. Below is a clip from the Russian film of War and Peace, made in the late 60s in Russia. (Not to be confused with the American version with Audrey Hepburn made in the 50s.)

The scene is the battle of Schöngrabern and the Russian army is fighting against the French army, led by Napoleon. There are no subtitles in this clip, but that doesn’t matter too much. The Russians march from left to right. The French are either marching straight towards the camera or they go from right to left, so that’s how you tell them apart. But have a watch and then I’ll come back with some comments. (Note, due to restrictions, you’ll have to pop over to YouTube to watch this; it won’t play on my blog.)

BTW, the whole film – which runs for about seven hours – is completely worth watching. But what is striking about this particular clip is the way the sound and the visuals collide. We have the swirling mist at the beginning that suddenly clears to reveal thousands of French soldiers marching down the hill. In a similar way, there is a swirling misty feel at the beginning of the final movement to the Mahler 6, before a similar onslaught begins.

Likewise, there is the striking drumbeat to which the Russians march. It is relentless, driving the forces ever onwards, even though for many soldiers, it will mean certain death. There is the clash of music, the Russian music mixing with the rather chirpy tune of the French as they march. And, as the individual soldiers on the ground move, arcing over the top of them are the cannonballs, landing and causing such savage devastation among the forces.

I have always found that this sort of imagery comes to my head when I hear the Mahler 6.  Obviously, Mahler was dead long before this Russian film came out, so there is no indication that this was what he was thinking of, but it certainly provides a good analogy to the kinds of sound you will hear. (And, speculating wildly here, maybe Sergei Bondarchuk, the director of War and Peace, was influenced in his visual style by listening to the Mahler 6?)

However, one final inspiration which I can’t help but think also featured in this symphony was a song that Mahler composed in 1899. (The Symphony No. 6 itself was composed in 1903-04.) The song was based on another one of the old Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn) poems that Mahler drew on so much in his early symphonies. (You’ll remember that one of those poems appeared as the final movement of Symphony No. 4.)

This particular song is called “Revelge” (Reveille), and tells the tale of a regiment of soldiers marching to their death. They all die, but then the drummer-boy leads them in one last ghostly march. It too has a relentless marching element to it. This rendition is pretty bad video quality, but it has subtitles, and it’s sung by the always-awesome Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so it’s worth watching:

I think you’ll hear clearly elements of this song all through the movements of this symphony.

Speaking of movements, no introduction to the Mahler  6 would be complete without a bit of a spiel on which order the movements are in. (There’s a fierce debate that rages about this one.)  But this will take a bit of time to explain, so I’ll leave that to the next blog post.

Let me say to finish this one that the recording we’ll listen to is the always brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra, being conducted by the legendary Georg Solti. Solti’s box set of Mahler symphonies (everything except Das Lied and the Mahler 10) was the first box of Mahler symphonies I ever owned and listened to. Solti is not my favourite for a lot of them, but he opened my ears to the symphonies and if there’s one thing that Solti likes to do in a recording, it’s have an aggressive, sharp sound. It sometimes lacks subtlety, but for something like the Mahler 6, which has an awful lot of sharpness and aggression, it works really well. So that’s the one we’ll listen to over the next few weeks.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement V

Screenshot 2015-10-16 at 7.53.20 AM
“To live for you! To die for you!” and “Almschi!” – scribbled notes by Mahler on the final page of his Symphony No 10.

Apologies: Sorry for the gap between movements. I was on holidays. But here we go with the finale of the Symphony 10 …

Where We’ve Been: The 10th symphony is a symmetrical arc structure, so Movement I was a long slow movement, Movement II was a chaotic dance, Movement III was the quirky Purgatorio in the middle, Movement IV mirrored Movement II and so was also a chaotic Scherzo-type movement.

And, finally, Movement V mirrors Movement I. It’s another long, slow (but certainly not boring) movement. Again, it features an epic struggle, with calm resolution at the end, but this time with a much greater air of finality.

With regard to its structure, the easiest way to understand this one is to see it as a rather violent clash between two themes. After a rather extraordinary introduction, Theme I enters, which is absolutely beautiful, but it soon gets ruined by the dreaded “ha-HA-ha” motif (or musical idea) which has cropped up a few times in earlier movements. The “ha-HA-ha” motif takes over and becomes its own theme, which I’ve called Theme II. This then leads, via a few twists and turns, to another repeat of the horrific 9-tone-chord which we heard about in Movement I. But once the music gets through the crisis, finally we get peace.

(0:00) The sharp drumbeat that we heard at the end of Movement IV opens the fifth movement. (Some people believe that perhaps Mahler’s intention was just to have one drumbeat and that the fifth movement would then follow on seamlessly from the fourth, but most recordings – which split the movements into two tracks, of course – have two separate drumbeats.)  This is immediately followed by a string of low notes on the tuba rising darkly upwards.

(0:26) Within seconds, the “ha-HA-ha” motif has appeared, sounding ominous. It grows in strength and flocks in clusters, kind of like the creepy gathering of crows and seagulls from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Theme 1
(1:59) So it’s quite a relief when Theme 1 arrives with a gorgeous flute solo, with some nice harp moments underneath.
(3:12) All this is made even more beautiful with the arrival of the violins. This moment is so peaceful that it almost feels like this could be the finale. But Mahler is not going to let us enjoy peace that easily … It carries on building until it reaches a great climax at around (5:16). But at (5:25), shockingly, the drumbeat and the “ha-HA-ha” invade and the climax is ruined.

Theme II
(6:28) Now, a quicker second theme begins, slightly light and fluffy (which is surprising, considering that it’s build around the “ha-HA-ha”). If you have sharp ears, you might hear some bits that sound like the Purgatorio third movement and the big slow-down at the end is actually similar to the fourth movement. (Don’t worry if you don’t hear all these similarities. It took me quite a few listens to hear them all, and a lot of it is dependent on how easily you can remember themes and sounds from earlier movements. It’s enough to know that a) Mahler is tying everything together in this last movement and also that b) the more you listen to his symphonies, the more details you will hear.)

Theme I
(8:37) A blah version of the slow first theme, sounding really exhausted and tired on the brass, with the “ha-HA-has” flitting around like a swarm of mosquitoes.
(9:38) A slight moment of peace, and a beautiful trumpet solo.

The Crisis
(10:15) Theme II comes back again but soon collapses into the dreaded 9-tone-chord from the first movement, a truly diabolical sound, especially, with the “ha-HA-has”.

(11:30) A repeat of the unison viola theme from Movement I, this time on the French horns. Truly bleak part of the symphony. But the worst is over and the trial is behind us.

A Long Coda
(12:27) Theme I comes back, even more beautiful than ever. The rest of the movement is essentially one glorious coda, becoming more and more transcendent and strong. (18:22) In the Barshai version, the music returns one final time to the chamber music sound of just a few instruments, which is a really nice touch. (You don’t hear that in every version.)

In the sheet music that we have, near the end of the movement, we can see that Mahler scribbled “To Live For You! To Die For You!” (see picture above) and a little bit below that …

(20:o8) … at this moment, where the music does a solitary flare-up out of the quietness, he wrote his wife Alma’s nickname, “Almschi!” We know that their marriage was in serious trouble this by stage, and Alma was in love with Walter Gropius, the famous architect. So knowing this when you hear the music makes things even more poignant as the curtain closes on this, Mahler’s final symphony.

I find it a very simple yet moving ending, and I always come away feeling like I’ve had a cathartic moment at the end of the symphony. So I hope you enjoyed it as well. I think the biggest difficulty that the Symphony No 10 is up against (apart from all the issues to do with whether you should perform it and which version to use) is simply that Mahler’s 9th Symphony is also a symphony that begins and ends with two long slow movements and is also about turmoil, farewells and peaceful acceptance. And, if I had to pick, the No 9 does it better.

But, when you get a chance to hear it in isolation from the 9 (and not straight after – thus the reason I’ve been tackling this Guided Tour out of numerical order), it still has a lot to say. I am very glad that Alma decided not to destroy it.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement IV

A firefighter’s funeral inspired the ending of the fourth movement of the Mahler 10. (Photo by dbking, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been:  Movement I – A slow movement of melancholy that arrives at some peace, but only after a huge struggle. Movement II – a clash between nostalgia and chaos. Movement III – the strange repetitive world of the Purgatorio.

And that brings us to Movement IV, which is the companion piece to Movement II. So expect more dancing, more chaos. Apparently, another comment that Mahler wrote on the score is “The Devil is dancing with me”. That might go somewhere to explaining this movement and also remind us of the incredibly strange second movement of the Mahler 4, which was based around the idea of Death playing the fiddle.

This movement is a Scherzo, so it features two sections – a Scherzo and a Trio, which alternate with one another. I like to think that the Scherzo represents the chaos of life’s troubles and the Trio represents the trivial ways we ignore that hard side of life. And like all trivia, it takes your mind off things for only a short while before real life interrupts again. I may be stretching things, but if you listen, the Trio, lovely as it is, always seems to come back in smaller and smaller doses, sounding more trivial with each return, while meanwhile the Scherzo theme is becoming wilder and more chaotic. But have a listen and see what you think:

(0:00) Scherzo: Nasty waltz – angular string sound, obnoxious woodwinds and annoying brass. (Okay, I might be being a bit harsh here, but it’s meant to be unsettling.)

(1:13) In this next stretch, gentle moments interrupt – but only for a bit. Things quickly get back to even more irritating and discordant than before.

(2:20) Trio: Quite beautiful and Barshai has really nailed Mahler’s “chamber music” feel in this section …

(2:59) Scherzo: … to set it off against the full orchestral force of the scherzo part.(3:33) I quite like this bit here where the strings get caught in a worried little rut.

(3:59) Before the brass sweep in …

(4:10) … and then everything drops back to a Viennese café for a moment.

(4:19) Then ramped back up. It’s a totally ear-catching moment.

(4:42) The Trio part again, but it’s a different melody than last time. But it has the same light, carefree feel. Listen carefully to a brief blink-and-you-miss it three-note “ha-HA-ha” sound from the trumpet. (4:49) (This goes on to play a big role in the final movement.) Eventually this Trio gets agitated again. (There’s not a whole lot of easing of agitation in this movement.)

(5:34) There’s a little bit of a dreamy moment at the centre here where you can almost escape the chaos.

(6:01) Scherzo: Then back to the mad waltz. This is pretty much the pattern for the rest of the movement – the waltz will get more and more chaotic, have a mini-climax, which will die down to the very simple Trio dance sound. But this never lasts very long before getting swept back into the noisier scherzo sound.

(7:42) Like here: the Trio returns again but then at (8:06), the “ha-HA-ha” motif barges in quite loudly and shatters the peace.

(8:19) Things then turn truly weird, with a strange, limping moment on a solo violin and guitar (8:19), which is actually a transition back into a slightly more quiet version of the Scherzo. There are too many of these moments to describe, where Mahler has an astonishing lurch of tone and Barshai has used some really unusual combos of instruments to make them stand out. One can only wonder how Mahler would have orchestrated them himself if he’d gotten to it.

(9:24) Like this comic sliding trombone that Barshai puts in here, which briefly hints at the Trio theme for a moment. It quickly gets interrupted by a huge discord, with the “ha-HA-ha” right behind it. (9:36) Then everything collapses. I haven’t heard another recording that really makes this movement so weird, which is part of the debate about completing someone else’s symphony. Has Barshai overstepped the mark with the craziness or  is he onto something? I’ll let you decide. (Myself, I think that even if it’s not Mahler’s original vision, it’s amazing what he’s done with it.)

(10:30) The music dies out with a bizarre discussion between cymbals, timpani and woodwinds with a nasty drumbeat right at the end which brings everything to a grim ending.

Mahler’s wife, Alma, tells the story of this finale and its strange drumbeat. When they were living in New York, they heard a noise outside the window and looked out to see a funeral procession for a firefighter who had been killed while fighting a blaze. The public were gathered, speeches were made, but the only thing which could be heard from the Mahlers’ window was the muffled beat of the drum that accompanied the funeral procession. It moved Mahler to tears, this simple funeral ceremony, and so he then used the drumbeat at the end of this movement (and it also opens the fifth movement) with instructions that it should be played “completely muted”.

And if you’re a bit overwhelmed by all this chaos and are desperate for things to settle down and peace to return, then you’re not alone – this is exactly where the final movement will take us, as it makes one last struggle for peace and meaning.