Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sorry about the delay between movements – it’s all getting a little busy lately.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – The militaristic sound of the opening movement, sweeping all in its path. Movement II (old scheme) or III (revised scheme) – the scherzo, with its combination of the military sound and the off-kilter running of toddlers.

And now we come to the slow movement, which could either be in second or third place, depending on your preferred order of movements.

I have always found this movement to be incredibly moving, both by itself, and even more so as an oasis in the otherwise quite strident chaos of the other movements. There’s not a lot to describe, really, because it mainly consists of two main sound worlds- one in the major key and one in the minor key. (But even then, that’s the general idea – so the major key area might have an occasional dip into a minor key for a couple of seconds, etc. This is Mahler – nothing is ever set in concrete.) But in the course of about 15 minutes, it will take your ears to some pretty amazing places. By turns it is intimate, beautiful, vast, epic, sad. You name it, you can feel it coming off this movement. I’m a bit of a fan.

But have a listen and see what you think.

Major Key Section
(0:00) Starts slowly with a long song-like melody on the strings.
(1:45) Rocking flutes lead into an alternate melody on the woodwinds, very plaintive. (Mostly this is because Mahler uses, in this section, a woodwind instrument known as the Cor anglais – or English horn – which has a melancholy sound all of its own.)
(2:20) Awesome French horn solo, as the melody is passed around the orchestra. It fades out towards the end with the gentle rocking sound again. (3:41)

Minor Key Section
(4:38) An even more fragile moment, with very high strings. Mahler hints at the rocking sound from the major section. This completely intimate sound gradually leads into (5:23) an increasingly loud and passionate type of music.
(6:50) But then this transforms into a beautiful moment with Mahler’s mystical favourites – the cowbells.

Major Key Theme
(7:47) Back to the beginning again, but re-orchestrated.
(9:09) And then there is this bit – possibly one of my favourite Mahler moments of all time. The sound drops away to a woodwind chorale (an old classical music term which means they sound like a choir singing a hymn), with the cellos deep underneath, then a solo violin comes in. The mix of sounds is Absolutely. Amazing. No matter how many times I’ve heard it, it gets me every time. I’m not sure why I love it so much, but I think it’s because of the massive harmonic space between the orchestration – the mix of highs and lows with nothing in between. A bit later the French horns return and the theme continues and it’s all over.

Minor Key Theme
(10:52) Back to the minor key alternate melody sounding even more fragile. Again, that massive space between highs and lows. The orchestra soon fires up and this section works its way up to …

Major Key Theme
(13:09) … a stratospheric return of the opening theme. Totally epic.
(14:43) Dies out very, very quietly.

How awesome was that? And that absolutely transcendent slow movement then sets us up for the tragedy that is about to unfold in the final movement …

3 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Slow Movement

  1. Hello, Matthew! I am following your blog for some time and I must say I find it very interesting and inspiring. A year ago I started studying music theory on my own and I recently released my most complicated composition. I am looking forward to becoming a soundtrack composer, but I am also interested in composing contemporary classical music that stands on its own. I am still learning and improving my skills, but it’s kind of hard without a mentor. If you have some free time I would appreciate some professional critic of my work. You can listen to my composition here: Thank you!

    1. Hi Sorin!

      Life has been a bit nuts lately so I haven’t had a chance to reply to you yet. I would love to have a listen to your music and will get back to you in the next week or so.

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