Review: Beethoven’s Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide

Beethoven's Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide
Beethoven’s Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide by Terence O’Grady
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve got to say up front that this is a book written by a musicologist, and as a layperson, I always struggle with the fact that often – not always, but often – in such books, the most exciting aspects of the music seem to be the key changes.

In some ways, this is to be expected, because – after all – most of Beethoven’s early works were written in the classical music forms of Haydn and Mozart, where transitions between keys, tonics, dominants, sonata forms, etc. were largely what the game was about. But, unless you’re listening along with the music – and even then – it can make for somewhat of a dull read.

I should say, O’Grady started to warm up towards the end when he got into the famous opus 18 string quartets, and those six were a great way to finish the book, because they’re all amazing. But on the whole, especially because I’m not that well-up on music, sevenths and dominants and grace notes all started to blur into one.

But, given that it caused me to listen to nearly all of Beethoven’s early chamber music – much of which is beautiful stuff, even if not as game-changing as his famous works – I was grateful for the tour from O’Grady. If he ever wants to do some of the later chamber music, I’ll be happy to come back and have a read.

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The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement III

Chaos: That’s what I hear in the third movement of the Mahler 9. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the mixed emotions of a man facing up to death. Movement II was a strange collection of odd dances.

Now we reach the third movement, which – just to warn you upfront – is one of the most difficult and thorny things that Mahler ever composed. It’s the fastest movement in the whole ninth symphony and it’s a highly successful representation of chaos. Like the previous two movements, it consists of a several musical ideas that repeat, varied slightly each time. At the risk of being far too flippant with a serious piece, I think of the three themes as:

  • Counterpoint From Hell (and counterpoint, just as a reminder, is where you have multiple melody lines or tunes stacked on top of each other; it’s like listening to several tunes at the same time, but they all work together)
  • Squeaks of Doom (because there are some pretty obnoxious sounds coming from the woodwinds)
  • The Last Movement Hint, because it’s really a theme to set up the music that you’re going to hear in the last movement

Let’s get cracking.

(0:00) Theme 1 – Counterpoint From Hell (CFH). How do you even describe this? It’s a chugging melody, mostly in the strings, but every other instrument group interjects over the top with angular and harsh-sounding melodies of their own. Somebody said that Mahler threw in so many different instrumental lines here that you feel the music is dense and constricting, as if you can’t move. I’m inclined to agree.

(2:04) Theme 2 – Squeaks Of Doom (SOD). A slightly milder theme arrives at the two-minute mark, but it’s still somewhat strange. Squeaky woodwinds, strange melodic leaps. Nobody likes this stuff. (Well, I don’t, anyway!)

(3:25) Theme 1 – Back to CFH, now with more attitude from the brass and a really horrendous melody line on the woodwinds.

(4:57) Theme 2 – Back to SOD, but this time the French horns take the lead.

(6:32) There’s a big cymbal crash at this point because, with this much noise going on, why not?

(6:39) Theme 3. The trumpet plays a plaintive little tune. This will be transformed into the main theme of the last movement (which, if you kind of like it now, is truly breathtaking when you hear it later, so do come back!). But for now we’ll just call this one the Last Movement Hint (LMH) motif. It’s easy to spot. One long note, followed by four shorter ones. It ends up in a sad collapse at (8:37) with the strings whistling away like monstrous kettles.

(9:11) The LMH returns with a most obnoxious squeak from the oboes.

(9:55) Once more we hear that Last Movement Hint in a more beautiful version (however, more beautiful in the Viennese schmaltz style – it still sounds a bit chintzy – and listen for the collapse in the oboe at 10:22).

(10:33) Things start to pick up and we make a gradual transition.

(10:37) And BOOM! we’re back in Counterpoint From Hell territory again. It’s big, it’s oomphy and it’s in-your-face and it continues for the remaining three minutes.

(12:19) The last minute is particularly spectacular as we reach what one conductor described as “the rush over the cliff”.

The overall effect is to leave you quite breathless …

But all that will change with the fourth movement. So see you soon for that one!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement II

Movement II is an increasingly raucous country dance. Perhaps something like The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Where We Have Been:  Movement I of the Mahler 9 was a massive trip through Mahler’s mixed emotions about death – peaceful farewells, heroic dreams of overcoming that die away to nothing, and ferocious inner turmoil. We arrived – but only just – at a moment of peace.

Which is then shattered by the next two movements, which can be somewhat grating – and, in fact, they’re deliberately constructed that way. One conductor I heard suggested that the middle two movements are where Mahler is testing the peace that he arrived at in the first movement to see if it can last. You might find that a helpful way to think about it.

Another way I like to explain it to myself is that he is looking over his life and realising how much of it is just meaningless and trivial grind. (And don’t we all have moments like that?) And so Movement II resembles the trivial and Movement III is most definitely the grind. But have a listen and see what you think.

The second movement, to listen to, is like a slightly crazy throw-back to the old minuets of the past (those early movements that later became scherzos), in that it features quite distinctive dance forms.

(0:00) Dance 1 – Who says that bassoons can’t be funny? It’s a fussy sort of dance that has the rest of the orchestra join in (0:18) to create a sort of big, galumphing country dance. (Or as Mahler says in his description: “Rather Clumsy and Very Coarse”.) It’s deliberately designed to sound unsophisticated and peasant. (Like the constant flicks on the French horns, as if they really only know how to play two notes.) It’s worth noting the little run-up that the bassoon begins with, because it recurs throughout the movement, almost indicating that the bassoon is going on a journey.

(2:33) Dance 2 – This is a much more vigorous thing that starts on the strings. It has a kind of strange, leaping quality to it. “DA. Da. Da-da.” (3:43) Especially fun is the raucous brass oom-pah that kicks in. (4:07) With a slightly cartoony effect, you can hear the little opening run-up from Dance 1, trying its best to keep up with the wildness of Dance 2. It reminds me of that bit in Fantasia where the little mushroom can’t keep up with the bigger mushrooms.

(5:10) Dance 3 – much mellower. But listen carefully, and you will note that it features the two-note Farewell motif from Movement 1, as a subtle nod to where we’ve been. (Lest you think Mahler has completely forgotten what this symphony is about.) (5:40) A positively cutesy moment in the middle with a ridiculous amount of trills.

(6:40) Dance 2. But it never quite gets back to the raucous brass part, which is a bit sad.

(8:01) Dance 3 again.

(9:44) Dance 1 again with even more woodwind silliness. This is also the chamber music bit because everything gets stripped down to just a few instruments.

(10:42) Things start to speed up and we sneakily segue into Dance 2. (11:50) Which gets more rude and brassy … because who doesn’t love cymbals?

(12:50) … until we somehow sneakily end up back in Dance 1 again. I can’t put my finger on how Mahler does it, but the dance just sounds a bit more worldly-wise. (14:18) It collapses in a strange little heap and then dies out in a strange nether-world somewhere in the region of a low bassoon and a French horn. (It’ll make sense when you hear it.)

(15:09) And then, like a determined little adventurer arriving home from a big day at town, but having learned a lot about life, the little Dance 1 ends gracefully and humorously.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement I

The first movement of the Mahler 9 feels like a tragic farewell. (Farewell by Heinrich Vogeler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The first movement is like a series of waves, alternating between three main sounds: a beautiful but melancholy lullaby (Mahler’s calm farewell to life), an aggravated tormented theme that shows his frustration at having to die and, most terrifying of all, a heroic ending to the aggravated theme that collapses – showing musically that no matter how brave you are or how hard you fight, we’re all going to die some day …

Wave 1

(0:00) The motif right at the beginning is important. It’s a bit like Morse code, a Long-Short few notes. Somebody has said (and it’s a great story if it’s true) that Mahler composed into his symphony the sound of his own faulty heartbeat. (Did I mention that he’d been diagnosed with a heart condition shortly before?) We’ll call this the Heartbeat motif anyway, just to identify it. This is then followed by (0:10) a tolling bell sound, low, low on the harp. We’ll call this the Bell motif. They both become important later on.

(0:25) Theme 1 begins. This is the Lullaby. Listen to it’s two-note falling motif. It’s like a combination of the “Ewig, ewig” from Das Lied, or you could also hear it as a two syllable “Leb wohl” (German for farewell). I like to think of it as the Farewell motif. Either way, you can feel that it’s a goodbye. The emphasis is on beautiful-sounding strings in this part.

(2:05) Theme 2 begins. The Aggravated Theme. Still string-heavy to begin with but angsty stuff. Morphs into:

(3:05) The Heroic Theme that fails.

Wave 2

(3:20) Theme 1 again. Much richer and fuller. The brass and woodwinds start to play a larger role here and the music has a grand sweep to much of it.

(5:33) The Aggravated Theme skips straight to the Heroic Ending part. It journeys on in all its magnificence, still giving us hope that maybe this time … ? But, no, it collapses into silence …

(6:43) … and out of the silence come the Heartbeat and the Bell motifs, but now sounding sinister and nasty, on muted trumpets, timpanis and other unpleasant instrument combinations. Notice also that the two-note descending Farewell motif is also present, but it too sounds harsh on that muted trumpet. This snarky-sounding section gradually morphs …

(8:30) … into a hypnotic, woozy section on strings which repeats over and over, while gradually rising. In this symphony, probably more than any other, Mahler takes us to some truly strange places.

Wave 3

(9:01) It then transforms into a gentle, Viennese waltz. This plays as a counterpoint above Theme 1 (meaning that they are two separate tunes layered on top of each other), which is now performed on the horns. The lullaby continues on for a while.

(10:14) The agitated sound breaks through, heralded by some trumpet fanfares on the way. It all gets very big and brassy. I personally find it very exhausting to listen to (too much piccolo maybe?) but then I can’t help wondering, maybe that’s the effect that Mahler wanted this music to have on his listeners? To feel the exhaustion of being stuck in his head?

(11:23) You feel like the fanfare is almost going to make it … but within seconds (11:36) it’s all collapsed in a heap again.

(11:46) Everything goes woozy – murmuring woodwinds that sound as if they’re losing it.

(12:00) So the struggle starts again in a really heavy cello section. Something is trying to rise up out of the strings, but never quite making it. It’s just all-round depressing. It’s very contrapuntal (lots of that counterpoint I mentioned a minute ago), with lots of moving parts, which give you a feeling of complexity that traps you. Like a maze with the walls moving around you or an endless snowy landscape.

(13:17) Almost gets triumphant again in the brass. But, again, not quite. Dies out in misery and meanders into no man’s land. Never has muted brass sounded so nasty, almost as if it’s throwing the fanfare music back in Mahler’s face.

(14:39) Another woozy rise in the strings, similar to the end of the second wave. Listen and you’ll hear the Farewell motif come in on the horns towards the end.

Wave 4

(15:33) As you’re probably used to with Mahler by now, there is usually a chamber-music version of his themes somewhere in the middle of a movement, and this is no exception. Light strings, flute, French horns play us the Lullaby.

(16:27) The Heroic music pushes back in with a trumpet solo on top of the stormy waters of the strings.

(17:48) MASSIVE collapse. The Heartbeat motif, huge and domineering on the trombones. The Harp motif, beaten out on the timpanis. The music then turns into a bitter funeral march. (After all, it’s not a Mahler symphony without a funeral march, is it?) Listen to the awesome sound of the tubular bells at (19:04).

Wave 5

(19:32) Back to the Farewell Lullaby music.

(20:44) The theme builds up and becomes more romantic and lush.

(21:19) But still collapses into the Aggravated sound world for a few seconds, before dropping into a chamber music no man’s land of flutes and distant French horns. It’s a strange little moment that almost doesn’t fit, but there are so many changes of mood in this movement, we’ve come to expect almost anything.

(22:33) The full strings come back and lead up to another big climax, complete with ringing bells. Is the heroic sound finally going to win?

(23:24) But no, everything just sort of fades as if it’s going into nothing …


(23:41) … but then, miraculously, we move into a beautiful coda. It’s bizarre, because normally you would expect Mahler to have a massive climax, but there was no build-up to this. And I think that’s the point. For Mahler, to struggle and try to overcome, leads to nothing. (Which is why the music has kept collapsing until now.) But when he finally gives up and accepts the situation (that he is going to die), then and only then is he able to find peace.

(25:17) The Viennese waltz returns, this time in a version that is genuinely peaceful, with solo violin and distant French horns. This might sound like it’s all a bit Johann Strauss, but it is a really beautiful orchestral moment. The farewell two-note motif repeats over and over again, until finally it hangs on the first syllable … suspended in space, followed by a single note on the flute.

We’ve achieved a sense of peace – but can it last?

Apologies if that movement was a bit of a long, hard struggle – but then, if you’ve ever been in a place of grief and anger and had trouble moving beyond it, this does rather sound like what that feels like, doesn’t it?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 9

If you’re still following along, we are down to the final three Mahler symphonies and because I’ve been tackling them out of order, you’ll know these are my favourites. While I like various bits and pieces of the other symphonies we’ve heard, these three are absolutely some of the greatest orchestral pieces of music ever written and an amazing experience. (Especially if you can hear them live!)

So we turn now to Mahler’s haunting Symphony No 9, the last complete symphony that he ever wrote. If you remember, the Mahler 10 was completed melodically – as in, he wrote down the main tunes – but was never fully orchestrated. The Mahler 9, however, was fully written and scored for orchestra but he died before he could hear it performed. Despite that, it works amazingly well. I’m always staggered that composers could just be so intimately familiar with the sound of different instruments that they could write it down, hearing in their head what it would sound like, and then – lo and behold – it all turns out to work in real life.

In terms of its sound and theme, if you’ve been listening to the other symphonies on this tour, it fits in very well with Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde because it is about the same thing – dealing with death, saying farewell to life, etc. But, for my money, the Mahler 9 easily outstrips the other two in terms of raw emotional power. It feels like this is Mahler, knowing he is going to die, looking death in the face and expressing all the emotions that go with it. It feels, in short, like a last symphony. (And given that Dvořák, Bruckner, Schubert and Beethoven all hit nine symphonies and then died, 9th symphonies always seem to have a special flavour to them.)

It consists of four movements, but unlike regular symphonies, the first and fourth movements are slow movements (and massive slow movements at that) and the two middle movements are the fast ones. So there’s nothing really resembling the epic fast opening or closing movement that you would get in a Brahms or Beethoven symphony. So why this unusual structure? Well, it really gives him a chance to express philosophical ideas without using words.

Movement I starts out as a gentle farewell to life and turns into a massive life-and-death struggle against mortality. Movement II is an increasingly crazy dance. Movement III is a harsh, chaotic scherzo. Both of these seem to be looking at life and seeing chaos and meaninglessness. And then, finally, Movement IV – one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written – expresses a calm and resignation in the face of death and contains one of the most astonishing musical representations of dying ever composed.

For the recording, I’m showcasing a beautiful performance done by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who I am privileged to currently work for), conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 8: Part 2

Goethe’s Faust, which provided the text for Part 2 of the Mahler 8.

Again, apologies for the long break between posts. I decided to try training to run for our most famous fun-run in Sydney, the City2Surf, and it took a lot more spare time than I thought. So it has been difficult to find writing time the last few months, thus leaving this awkward gap between movements of this Mahler symphony.

But the great thing is, Part 2 of the Mahler 8 always sounds awesome, no matter how long it’s been since you listened to the first part, so let’s dive back in.

Where We’ve Been:  In Part 1, Mahler took the old Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus and transformed it into a massively large and massively loud piece of choral music for choir and orchestra.

Now, using the same forces, he jumps several centuries ahead, to the famous tragic play, Faust, by probably Germany’s most famous writer of all time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust tells the story of Dr Faust, who makes a bargain with the devil. Goethe wrote the play in two parts and the text here comes from the very end of Faust, Part Two. In this scene (which I’ll warn you, is rather dense and complex in terms of the metaphysical ideas it’s trying to deal with), Faust – obviously having gotten out of his deal with the devil – is transformed and drawn up to Heaven.

Where it ties in with the first one is that Mahler is interested in the idea of the transformation of the soul. So many of the same melodies that were used to sing about the Holy Spirit’s transformation will appear again in this part.

The structure on this part is long but pretty straight-forward. Matching the words (and I would recommend following along with the words while you listen, which you can find over at, the music is a step-by-step ascension, moving from the anchorites (a bit like monks or druids) up to the Virgin Mary herself as Faust is drawn towards the divine. So musically this transforms into a grand sweep from a quiet, mysterious orchestral opening all the way up to one of the biggest noises in classical music history.

I’ll be honest, there are a few moments in the middle where I sometimes wish he’d hurry up, but if the destination is worth the journey, then I hope you can be patient. (And it’s hard to skip anything because the music is all continuous.)

CD 2

(Track 1) A mysterious, Haunting Theme. After the huge noise and clamour of Part 1, this is a great break. This Part is essentially a long sweep upwards from the earth to heaven, and so this quiet music at the beginning is the most earth-bound of the music we hear, and serves as an introduction to the holy hermits who are to come. It’s all pizzicato (plucked strings), tremolos (the atmospheric trembling sound the violins make) and woodwind solos, with a distinctive three-note motif (i.e. musical idea) at the beginning, followed by a climb, that repeats all the way through.

(5:12) Reaches a great little climax, before turning back into the tip-toeing quiet version again.

(Track 2) Passionate string moment. But this turns into a more intense version of the slow prelude.

(2:31) Just for a break, out of nowhere, the flutes play a gentle little chorale. This will come back sung by the young angels further along in the piece, so it’s a little bit of Mahler foreshadowing.

(Track 3) Back to the Haunting Theme.

(0:24) Entrance of the hushed choir. These are the anchorites, the holy hermits, singing about how nature (the rocks, forests, even tame lions!) are honouring “the sacred place, Refuge of Grace and Love”. It’s a great moment where you know Mahler has huge musical forces, but chooses to only use them sparingly. (Perhaps like a tame lion padding silently around us?) Amazing highlight moment for the woodwinds, which play two long drawn-out notes. The choir’s melody is simply a choral version of everything we’ve heard so far.

(Track 4) Next is the Pater Ecstaticus, sung by the baritone. According to the notes, the Ecstatic Father is having an out-of-body experience of love (unlike the anchorites), so his music soars up and down. He sings of

“The splendor of the most enduring
Essence of Eternal Love.”

(Track 5) An angular-sounding aria (solo) from the bass as the Pater Profundis. In this particular case (and it may just be the translation that makes it more awkward), love is a difficult spiky thing that roars around like a torrent and causes the Pater Profundis to have “bewildered thoughts”. It’s all over the shop tonally, but occasionally gets back to a snatch of melody that is familiar to us, as if he is grasping an occasional bit of peace in the midst of chaos.

(4:21) Another orchestral interlude. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, this is the big Love theme that the symphony is going to finish with.

(Track 6) Then into some cute angelic children’s choir music. (These are the angels and the “blessed boys”, hovering ever higher with Faust’s soul). You’ll notice hints of Part 1 in this bit as well (assuming you can still remember it).

(Track 7) More angels – the “Younger Angels” this time. They also sing of how they have rescued Faust’s soul from Satan and the evil ones, who retreated in the face of Love. Delicate with an enthusiastic flute accompaniment burbling underneath.

(Track 8) Things take a darker turn in this track, with a weird violin solo filling in the gaps as the More Perfect Angels sing of “an Earth’s residue that are difficult to bear”. Perhaps these are parts of Faust’s earthly nature that are difficult to shake off? (I might need some help from a German-speaker on this one!) But what does become clear is that once the alto comes in (1:21), things became beautiful and the tension disappears from the music.

(Track 9) Now we have a bit of a trio with The Younger Angels, more Blessed Boys and a character called Doctor Marianus. All of them are shaking off the last parts of earthliness from Faust’s soul and getting excited. This reminds me a lot, in tone, of the Mahler 4 – that childlike view of heaven that Mahler liked, where everything sounds almost like a game in the school playground. (A very innocent heavenly playground, of course, in case that gives the wrong connotations.)

Hang in there if all these angels are starting to get tedious – some people love this stretch, others struggle a bit. But things will pick up.

(Track 10) The enthusiastic Doctor Marianus and his choir, who usher in the Virgin Mary. (The Marianus means that he is a doctor, or teacher, of Mary.) But we have to wait a bit longer before we get to hear from Mary (the Mater Gloriosa) herself.

(Track 11) This is the moment when the Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary) soars into view, which is why we are treated to a beautiful orchestral interlude on harp and strings, before the choir (and later a female soloist) enter quietly and beautifully, asking Mary to listen to their pleading.

(Track 12) The next three women are penitent women (women who have committed great sins and have repented and been forgiven). They give hope to Faust that he will be forgiven as he ascends higher. You might recognise a lot of the themes. First up is the Magna Peccatrix (or Mary Magdalene) making reference to the washing of Jesus’ feet with perfume.

(Track 13) Then we have the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well. Her solo is much more solemn but ends with an outpouring of orchestral joy.

(Track 14) Last up of the three is Maria Aegyptica, or Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents.

(1:22) Then all three of them join in a trio offering hope that if they can be saved, so can Faust. The orchestration is very light (this is the chamber music part of the symphony).

(Track 15) In this track, Gretchen herself (or the Penitent One) calls for Mary to approach. Oddly enough, it starts a bit playful (mandolins?).

(Track 16) The Blessed Boys again, encouraging Faust to leave behind this life and become heavenly. (You may have noticed, BTW, that Faust himself never sings in this section. He is the centre of the transformation that is happening, but it is the other characters that sing about it.) And we are almost at the point of transformation. Gretchen sings (2:05):

See, how he is set free
From the old enfolding of earthly bonds.
Out of ethereal garments
The early force of youth appears!

But all her music in this section is taken from the tunes that we know from Part 1, where we heard about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is perhaps a loose connection between the two pieces – but it was enough for Mahler and he cements the connection with his music.

(3:12) And then the music slows down and becomes beautiful at the moment when Mary floats into view.

Track 17

To sing two lines. (Yes, all that for two lines!)

Come! Elevate yourself to higher spheres!
If he perceives you, he shall follow you.

The one time I saw this live, they put the soprano up in the organ loft to set her apart from everyone else and in every recording, there is always something other-wordly about this moment.

(1:27) Now this is where things get really good. Doctor Marianus comes back again with his awesome tenor solo that leads into the finale. He calls “all you, frail penitents” to “look up to the redeeming sight that gratefully recreates you to a blessed fate!”For my money, the best bit in the whole symphony is the massive vocal leap that he makes on “bleibe gnädig (keep being merciful)”. (2:59) His voice soars into the sky, and calls down the whole choir who reiterate his words to “look up”.

(6:05) Long orchestral interlude, which will make you think of vast night skies filled with stars and then …

(Track 18) … whisper quiet, the choir comes in one last time with this verse.

All things transitory
Are only symbols;
What is insufficient,
Here becomes an event;
The indescribable
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
Pulls us upwards.

That last part about the “eternal feminine” is an interesting philosophical concept in its own right which was popular in Goethe’s day (you can read about it on Wikipedia) but also got a bit of coin in our own day thanks to The Da Vinci Code, which made it part of its conspiracy theory.

But you’ll more likely be captured by the music, which is a huge, majestic climb to the finish. It’s vast, it’s over-the-top, it’s like floating in space. It’s the Mahler 8. It always brings the house down in the end.