Music and Mortality #3: COVID-19 Diary + Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord


A series of blog posts that combine my COVID-19 diary with music that faces up to the reality of death (in different ways). 

It’s been just short of three weeks since I decided to move my teams to working at home, a few days ahead of the general Stage 3 Lockdown we’re experiencing in Brisbane. I don’t know how you’re finding lockdown but in some ways, it feels like an extended Saturday. I’m at home, the kids are at home, I’m not wearing shoes, there’s a bit of stuff to be done on the computer and around the house, and if you look out the front window you see the odd neighbour out doing their stuff as well. There might be an apocalypse going on, but the suburbs still say sort of quiet.

Possibly for a lot of us, COVID-19 is something we’re experiencing through the news, which is only becoming more bleak. If it was Italy we were looking at in horror three weeks ago, now it’s New York.

What is surprising is how even in less than a month, the news is losing its shock value. The numbers of dead are, surprisingly quickly, getting to be something that you just accept and move on, without quite the cold grip of fear that it used to have even three weeks ago. Is this what it feels like once a war starts: we just accept that people are going to die and get used to it? I don’t know, but it’s disturbing in many ways. But perhaps the alternative – living in everlasting horror of the situation around the world – is unsustainable for our sanity as well.

While there has been the odd commentator in the media wondering whether this will be the end of religion (I’m pretty sure it’s doing just fine in these times, in case you were worried), what I’ve been most interested in this week is political discourse and the way it has caused problems but possibly what it might look like moving forward.

This has struck me with news from two places: America and Tasmania.

With regards to the American situation, it’s concerning. I have friends in America of various political stripes and I’m quite amazed that, despite the devastation that is happening in New York, there are still cries that lockdowns and stoppages are an outrage. There still seems to be an underlying political lens being used by many people: if you’re in favour of a lockdown and government handouts, you’re a liberal Democrat and if you are worried about the economy you’re a capitalist Republican. (I’m sure there’s more nuance to that, but hey, I live on the other side of the world.) All of which is compounded by a President who seems to be in one camp today and then switches to another the next day.

None of which strikes me as particularly heartening when lives are at stake.

So I’ve felt much more comfortable with my own country’s response (and my own state’s health department has been particularly outstanding in terms of communication to the public). While it may not go far enough for some people, it seems that, on the whole, medical advice is being listened to (even though it must be tricky, because the medical community is divided) and it seems also as if we’re making plans to get to the other side of this.

But the Tasmanian story I wanted to share that particularly caught me by surprise was an article on the ABC news about the premier of Tasmania, Peter Gutwein. The poor bloke only became Premier in January and unless he had some sort of crystal ball, I’m guessing he – like myself – was not thinking that three months later we’d all be in this sort of situation.

Whatever his plans for the year, he seems to have risen to the occasion. You can read the article for yourself, but the part that blew my mind was this:

“I think he’s doing a good job in really difficult circumstances,” Labor leader Rebecca White said.

“He’s demonstrated how much he cares for Tasmania and that he’s not afraid to make big decisions to keep our community safe, and we support him 100 per cent with all those difficult decisions because we know it helps to save lives.”

Greens leader Cassy O’Connor agreed.

“Like many Tasmanians, I have been impressed with Peter Gutwein’s capacity to lead at a really difficult time,” she said.

“He’s making extremely difficult decisions, communicating them clearly and he’s being inclusive of us and Labor, so there’s a sense of shared purpose and really working together for the people of Tasmania, which has got to be a positive.”

This is quite remarkable. One of the things that I have deplored about Australian politics for the last decade is this all-or-nothing approach the parties have to each other. All campaigning is based around the idea that “That guy is a dickhead. Everything he says is rubbish. Vote for me instead.” We seem to have a Parliament that just comes together to hurl insults at whatever the other side has done, regardless of any merit it might have.

So to see the leaders of the two other parties in Tasmania both saying that the guy from The Party We Love To Hate is including them in the decision-making process, consulting them and getting them onside, and they think he’s doing a great job – that is nothing less than miraculous in the Australian context. Maybe that kind of cooperativeness can only come about in a crisis, but it would be nice to see it continue.


But enough about politics. Here’s this week’s song about death, in this case “The Lord Chord”.

It’s possible that the song would be nowhere near as memorable to me if it wasn’t for the circumstances under which I heard it, but can’t we say that for all the music that is memorable to us? In April of 2016, my father passed away while we were on a family holiday in London. It was a surreal experience. We were able to finish the trip, but in order to make Dad’s funeral, we had to fly home to Sydney on a Saturday and then travel to Brisbane for his funeral early that week. There was no time to get over jet lag, let alone really process it.

The funeral week passed in a bit of a blur and then I was straight back into work. As anyone who works in the arts in Australia knows, the middle of the year is always the busiest for a marketer because you’re preparing for next year’s season, so it really wasn’t until several months later in September 2016 that I was able to escape with my family for a seaside holiday and finally stopped.

During this holiday, I decided to listen to an album of songs by Harry Secombe, the Welsh belting tenor (mostly only remembered for The Goon Show nowadays and his turn as Mr Bumble on Oliver!). My Mum had a few of his songs on tape when I was a kid, so mostly for nostalgic reasons I started having a listen.

One thing led to another and I stumbled across his rendition of “The Lost Chord” written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). As I said, I had vaguely heard this song in the past but not paid close attention to it until now. But this time around it almost instantly moved me to tears nearly every time I listened to it (and I got quite hooked!). In hindsight, I believe that maybe it was the first time in six months I’d had a proper chance to grieve and this song was tapping into this.

Before you hit play and think, “What is this?”, let me give a quick preamble. It’s a diabolically old-fashioned sort of song. There are plenty of good reasons why nobody has heard of it nowadays. It was based on poem written in 1858 by a woman named Adelaide Anne Procter. The poet describes how she (it’s always a woman in the postcard pictures – see above for an example) was sitting one night at the organ feeling “weary and ill at ease”. As she was playing random tunes, “I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen”.

The poem goes on to describe how this one chord was like the ultimate piece of music. “It quieted pain and sorrow, like love overcoming strife; it seemed the harmonious echo from our discordant life.”

But there’s a sting in the tale – the chord dies away and the poet is never able to find it again. “I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine.” And so the only hope for the poet is that when she dies, “It may be that death’s bright angel / Will speak in that chord again / It may be that only in Heav’n / I shall hear that grand Amen.”

The poem obviously had some popularity, but those words were destined to become famous when Arthur Sullivan set it to music in 1877. Tragically, he finally hit upon the tune that worked when his brother Fred was dying. He finished it five days before Fred passed away, which just adds an extra layer of poignancy to the whole thing.

In many respects, it’s a cleverly designed song. It rolls along with mostly the same tune for each verse but throws in unexpected surprises. For instance, when the words speak of the chord “like the sound of a great Amen”, the music moves into an ancient type of harmony used in old church music, giving the line an other-wordly spiritual sound. Also, that harmony is never used again in the song, adding to that feeling of “you can hear it once but never again”. When the singer talks about seeking in vain for the lost chord, the music moves into the minor key, creating a sense of anxiety and loss about the whole thing. But it also sets us up for the return to a majestic major key in the huge final lines about “death’s bright angel”.

It went on to become the biggest-selling song (which is in terms of sheet music, no recordings!) in the 1870s and 1880s. Every major singer worth their salt in the first half of the 20th century had a bash at it. Brass bands still seem to like having it in their repertoire.

But, eventually – and this is the irony of the whole thing – like the majestic chord that it describes, the song started to fade out from public consciousness.

Maybe there are just too many points of disconnect between the 1800s and now. After all, who can still play an organ? After so many world wars and no end of strife in mind, do we really believe – even those of us in the arts – that any piece of music can bring world peace? In today’s less religious age, are sentiments of life after death – or even singing about death at all – going to resonate as much? (And because the song is not particularly Christian as such, it hasn’t been passed on from generation to generation in the way that the great hymns have.)

But this song had a real resonance for the 19th century generation that lived before recorded music. Think about it. Any time you heard a great piece of music performed live, there was a tinged edge to it – the more amazing the performance, the less likely you were to ever hear anything like it again. And with no recordings, you could certainly never enjoy that particular moment again.

So there we have it – “The Lost Chord” a song that is almost lost as well. Almost any singer that I can find that has recorded this song died long ago. And I think it’s that irony – that a song that is about the transitory nature of music – is itself falling victim to the transitory nature of music. Maybe one day, barely anybody will remember it.

I don’t know about you, but I think that one of the reasons I value so much the nostalgia of my childhood – the books, movies and music that I loved when I was younger – is because there is a growing realisation that with everything in life, there will always be the last time that you read that book, the last time that you hear that piece of music, the last time you meet that person. So getting to return to something from the past can give me the illusion that I can stop time.

But it is just an illusion. For everything in life, there is a moment where we will seek and seek vainly to be able to enjoy that thing again. At least in this life. But more on the afterlife another day.

For now, “The Lost Chord”. I’ve got a semi-obsession with listening to covers of this song (contact me if you want to hear more!) but I think I’ll leave with you the version that first caught my attention, by the one and only Harry Secombe.



Music and Mortality #2: COVID-19 Update + Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne Performs Live In Amsterdam

A series of blog posts on music that faces up to the reality of death (in different ways). Plus my latest thoughts on COVID-19.

So another week has gone by, myself and all my work colleagues are working remotely, and we’re all safely at home. I feel already in a week we have entered a new era in the Australian COVID-19 saga. If last week was marked by a general fear and anxiety on everyone’s part (which I was suggesting was part of our collective fear of death), I feel like this week that’s turned into general angst.

We’re safe now. We’re stuck inside, you can’t come near me, and I can’t come near you.  So now we’re just getting irritated. With our situations, with each other, with our politicians. Not everyone, and I wouldn’t want to read my week autobiographically into everyone else’s but, as we sit at the start of a stay-at-home period (not yet a full lockdown in my country) of an indeterminate period, it’s unknown how well we’ll treat each other in coming weeks.

See, we love stories about adverse situations bringing out the best in people. (In fact, I think it’s why everyone has a particular love affair with WWII movies at the moment.) But will we actually see that in ourselves at this point in history? I don’t know, but I’m finding it harder than I thought!

In the meantime, it’s time for another song about death, and this time by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. I came across this song a few years ago while working through Tom Moon’s 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

(Two quick tangents about that book: a) In case you’re wondering, I did get all the way through it over several years and managed to listen to probably 95%+ of the material in there, if it wasn’t super-obscure. b) Is COVID-19 going to put a stop to this “Before You Die” sort of subtitle on books? They suddenly doesn’t seem as amusing any more.)

Anyway, back to Jackson Browne. Probably not a guy I would have come across on my own (he’s more of a Baby Boomer specialty) but his songs have a quiet thoughtfulness that is quite distinctive. But the one that has stuck with me for the last few years, possibly because my own father was critically ill in intensive care when I first heard it, is “For A Dancer”.

It is, quite simply, one of the most poignantly and brilliantly written songs about death. It’s metaphorical enough to appeal to those who like poetry and philosophy, but the meaning is simple enough to be grasped by the ordinary person.

If only the first verse and chorus of the song existed, it would still be amazing. Using the metaphor of dance (it was actually written in tribute to a dancer friend of Browne’s who had died), it contains a number of true-to-life reflections that are hard-hitting in their simplicity and truthfulness:

  • The sudden shock of losing someone else: “You never know what will be coming down”. 
  • The way we lose touch with our close friends, somehow assuming we’ll always have an endless amount of time to catch up with them another time: “You were always dancing in and out of view / I must have thought you’d always be around”
  • The feeling of not knowing what is beyond death: “I don’t know what happens when people die / Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try”.
  • Possibly most poignant of all, the loneliness of death: “In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone”

All of these things would be total doozies to contemplate in and of themselves in our day and age. However, after a great violin solo from his collaborator David Lindley, Jackson comes back with the second half of the song, which elevates his musings on death to even greater theological and philosophical heights:

“Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down”

I don’t know that this has ever gone out of fashion – our ability as humans to want to turn to God (or something higher) when we face death and devastation. But there aren’t as many mainstream songs that I can think of that express this so clearly. The sting in the tail is that line about “You never know what will be coming down”. It seems a bit flippant at first, as if Browne is saying “You might as well pray to something. After all, it might do some good.”

But the next lines are the ones that haunt me:

“Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found”

Maybe this sentiment was more easy to express for someone living in the 1970s – caught in those tumultuous decades after the West had turned had away from traditional organised religion but still had the beliefs and customs lingering in the air. But it resonated with me when I heard it in the 21st century. It’s the crippling language of doubt.

That’s because I went through a period of doubt of my Christian faith for something like five or six years. And if felt exactly like the lines of those songs, and it wasn’t at all pleasant. Some people never quite understand what this feels like. It wasn’t a feeling of: “Oh, I don’t believe all this is true. I’m going to become an atheist.” Instead, it was just a simple feeling of being unsure. Perhaps there is a better world drawing near, but just as easily (depending on how you looked at it), maybe there is nothing there. And if there was nothing there, then I couldn’t find a great deal of meaning to explain the world either.

A world with many beautiful things, but no ultimate meaning. Could you cope with it?

In the end, Jackson and I probably part ways at this point. For me, I had a dawning realisation that God being there or not was not actually determined by how much I felt he was there, and that was the start of the road back.

But for this song, Jackson embraces the uncertainty and encourages his listeners to “Go out and make a joyful sound” – regardless of whether you are able to believe in something higher or not.

However, in the final analysis, he is stunningly honest about what happens if you choose this path. In today’s day and age, we would probably make the being joyful part almost transcendent. In other words, if you can be happy yourself, make others happy, that’s pretty much as sacred as following a religion. “For a Dancer” is far more down-to-earth in its final lines:

“And somewhere between the time
You arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know”

It’s certainly a far cry from today’s mantra of finding your highest purpose. But maybe – as is the point with the music I’m writing about in this series of posts – maybe contemplating death changes our thinking about our highest purpose.

Anyway, before you have a listen to the actual song, I just found out that poor old Jackson Browne has actually tested positive to coronavirus. I do hope he gets better soon.


Music and Mortality #1: My thoughts on COVID-19 and Bach Cantata BWV8


Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

It’s been about three years since I posted on this particular blog, but I’ll be honest, COVID-19 has driven me to it. Plus I now have a bit more time on the weekends.

As many of you may know, I work in marketing for an orchestra. In Australia. And so, in less than two weeks, a group of talented musicians, many of them my friends, went from performing for an audience nearly every weekend to now being stuck at home, victims of a ban on public gatherings that started at anything larger than 500 people in one place and very quickly turned into anything greater than 100.

So here I am at home on a Saturday night – and not facing up to the prospect of going out to a concert tonight. (To be fair, there wasn’t one scheduled for this Saturday – it was next weekend. But you get the idea. I’m going to have to keep the moths off my concert-going clothes.)

But what I wanted to drill right down to today, because I can be as relentless about oversharing as I can about pursuing cold shivers – is the fear of death.

This week was exhausting. In fact, I checked Twitter on Friday afternoon and the word “Exhausted” was trending. (Sorry I didn’t screenshot that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

There are many reasons for this exhausted feeling (unexpected work, sudden change, trying to work out how to video conference!), but my theory is that the biggest reason for this collective collapse-in-a-heap – even if we’re not saying it out loud – is that my nation has taken a collective adrenaline shot of the fear of death.  Sure, we’re all talking about locking down and working from home to “flatten the curve”. But I think when we read the words “flatten the curve”, we’re not just talking about the idea of slowing down the rate at which we get sick. I think for many of us, what we’re hoping is that we won’t get sick. And we’re hoping that, because many of us aren’t ready to die.

Or maybe it’s just me? Whatever, I’ll ‘fess up.

In my head, up to a couple of weeks ago, my money was on me lasting maybe to my late 60s at least. The idea that this year or the next could be my last – no, that was not featuring in my thinking and planning. And these last two weeks have exposed how deeply I fear that changing. And I say that even as a Christian, someone who feels confident that there is life beyond this one.

There was an interesting blog post by Stephen McAlpine recently, back a few weeks ago when the biggest thing going on in Australia was the lack of toilet paper. I’m truncating his full thoughts, but he made these comments:

There’s a thin veneer of confidence in the Western world that is completely untested by any major traumatic event that sweeps all before it … It is a confidence that has held no weight and has no knowledge of anything that could break it. Yet. …

It’s like those videos of people in turbulence-rocked planes, with oxygen masks and luggage bouncing around, crying and screaming out that they don’t want to die.  And then the plane lands and they don’t die. And they have their holiday in Fiji and their massages and their cocktails on the beach.

But somewhere tucked in the back of their mind is the fact that actually they don’t want to die, but they will someday have to. It just wasn’t today.  And it just wasn’t that way.

This idea that we walk around with a fear of death tucked under a thin veneer of confidence was striking to me and has played on my mind.

But rather than get too philosophical about that (I’ll leave that up to Stephen and others!), it got me thinking about several bits of music I’ve come across over the years that deal with death. Maybe I’m morbid, but if fear of our own mortality is what we’re facing, music can sometimes be a more subtle way of looking it in the eye.

So I was thinking I could do a series of three or four blog posts sharing different music that I’ve come across that has a strikingly open view of death. But the one that I wanted to start with was one I stumbled across several years ago – the opening chorus of Bach’s Cantata BWV8.

A quick bit of background if you’re not aware of Bach’s cantatas. The great composer J.S. Bach used to compose music for the Lutheran church and wrote about 250 short works (about 20-25 minutes long) for orchestra, choir and soloists called cantatas. They would have been performed in the Sunday service and would have been tied to a particular Bible reading or theme for that particular Sunday.

The BWV8 cantata was composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity on the calendar and it’s the day where, as far as I can tell, the congregation contemplated their mortality.

So this chorus “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” literally translates as “Dearest God, when will my death be?” I cannot think of any church I’ve ever been to in my 41 years of church going that ever got as in-your-face about death as Bach does in this opening line of the chorus.

The full lyrics in English are:

Dearest God, when will my death be?
Now my days run ever on,
And the heirs of the old Adam,
In whose number I, too, am,
Have this for their legacy,
That they for a little while,
Poor and wretched, earth inhabit
And then are with earth united.

Here we go – in one chorus, we’re inhabiting the earth poor and wretched for a little bit and then get united with the earth. The next few sections of the cantata expand on this and explicitly and deliberately  work through the fears of death and offer the comfort of Jesus. (You can go read the full lyrics here to see how it plays out.)

But just have a listen to this opening chorus, because even despite the somberness of the sentiment in the words, Bach spins it out with some of the most delicate beauty ever created in music. There are long pauses between each line of singing, with a glorious duet between two oboe d’amores (an older version of our current oboe). Underpinning all that, if you listen closely, you can hear a very insistent rhythm, a slow ticking in the low strings, and a fast furious ticking on the flute. (Almost like one is the minute hand and the other is the second hand on a clock.)

I can’t prove this and maybe a Bach scholar can help me out, but even if it wasn’t done on purpose, the idea that this chorus literally ticks like the clock of our life, while discussing the idea that that clock will stop one day, is just musically spectacular and utterly moving. Somehow, miraculously, Bach has moved the fear of today’s age front and centre and said, “Let’s talk about it.”


A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Stole Classical Music Back From the Boring People?

A series of blog posts about George Grove – in my opinion, the greatest classical music entrepreneur and audience growth expert in the English-speaking world. If you’re just joining us:

A Guy Named George – Part 1

A Guy Named George – Part 2

One of the great things about reading history is that, if a historian is a particularly good writer, a window can open on the past, and the people and situations start to rise off the page and you can picture them and understand them. But then there are other times, where the writer just doesn’t tell you what you’re burning to know. Or he or she might write about something that’s exciting to you in such a dry style that you just can’t grasp the excitement.

This is what I felt when I was reading the only biography of George Grove that I could get my hands on – George Grove by Percy Young.

Percy Young’s rather dry take on a most un-dry person …

While the book was certainly comprehensive in giving me an overview of George’s life (I slogged through it a few years ago), it never seemed to capture the feeling of Grove himself. From all accounts I’ve read of the man, he was simultaneously one of the most hard-working but also personable people that you could meet. And it’s that open generosity and enthusiasm that comes through in Grove’s writing, but not so much in Young’s prose.

In other words, I believe it was George’s love of music combined with his love of people that made him so determined to connect one with the other. This is what marked him out (and still marks him out, in many ways) from the other musicians and musicologists of his day. Other people were just in it for the music. But George wanted to get it to the people.

Don’t get me wrong –  Young talks about all this stuff in his book, but more with the understatement of an academic, rather than an enthusiastic story-teller.

But I started skimming over the book again on my way to London in April, so that I could come across at least somewhat knowledgeable about Grove and his activities when I visited the Royal College of Music. I did find lots of useful information on why Grove explained music the way he did, and how his background shaped his approach to music. But one thing eluded me and wasn’t really covered in the book: namely, the competitive landscape of the classical music industry in that day.

The Crystal Palace

It’s well documented that in the 1850s, the Crystal Palace opened and that by 1855, George Grove (who was on the committee that put on events in the Palace) had organised having an orchestra. Which then proceeded to play there every Saturday for seven months of the year for the next 50 years.

But what I wasn’t sure about was this: was this just one of many orchestras? (After all, we know that London has many orchestras nowadays, London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony, etc.) Was the Crystal Palace all that special? Was classical music popular in general and Grove was just famous for his dictionary and program notes?

In the end, to get a better feel for the landscape, I started to make a timeline, trying to work out where all the other orchestras fit into the Grove landscape. What I discovered was jaw-dropping.

All the major orchestras that we think of today when we think of London orchestras -almost none of them were there in Grove’s day. London Symphony, BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic – none of them were in existence. They all cropped up in the first 50 years of the 20th century.

So who was doing classical music in the 1800s? Well, not many people, actually. When Grove was a boy (he was born in 1820, son of a butcher, so he wasn’t from the upper class), it appears that the main place people went for live music was to concerts put on by a few choral societies that got together to perform choral music (with an awful lot of Handel’s Messiah, which seemed to have hit the sweet spot of being very musical and very religious, thus ensuring its success).

The Royal Philharmonic Society

But with regards to orchestra music, there doesn’t appear to have been very much. The most famous organisation that was doing anything along these lines was The Royal Philharmonic Society (which, incredibly, is still in existence). The RPS was set up by a bunch of professional musicians, most of whom had trained in Europe and its aim was to perform serious classical music. The RPS website puts it like this:

The aims of the fledgling Philharmonic Society were ‘to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music’ and to ‘encourage an appreciation by the public in the art of music’. This was at a time when most concerts consisted of a hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces. The Philharmonic Society was determined to make a case for serious symphonic and chamber music, ‘that species of music which called forth the efforts and displayed the genius of the greatest masters.’ And these ‘masters’ were the living European composers of the time, BeethovenCherubini and Carl Maria von Weber.

I would need to do some more research on this (if I ever get a chance to go back to London, one thing I’m going to do is try to chase up some of the concert listings for the RPS and find out what their concerts were like). But what it sounds like, quite simply, is that it was music for serious classical music nerds. They were expensive, they were bringing out the biggest name composers and unlike these other concerts which were a “hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces”, they were quite clearly designed to be serious.

One other quote from the RPS website bears quoting:

It represented a new spirit of egalitarianism, attracting an audience unified in ‘one great object: the love of their art.’ It was noted by the press that this commitment made them an impressive audience: ‘silence and attention are preserved during the whole performance’, an uncommon phenomenon at the time.

In short, if this report is to be believed, the RPS concerts were the forefather of our modern concert experience. The audience comes in, sits down in mostly perfect silence and attention, and listens to a concert experience that is deliberately devoid of any kind of crowd-pleasing tricks like “vocal tit-bits” and “virtuoso show pieces”. Well-behaved, familiar with the expectations of the concert environment. But the shows were expensive.

So in 1852, a new group popped up called the New Philharmonic Society – which are so obscure nowadays they don’t even have a Wikipedia page – who started doing cheaper concerts, bigger showpieces and – almost to be a bit spiteful – they brought out Berlioz as their chief conductor for their first season. This, too, is a common thing in the world of classical music. Your orchestra is going great guns until someone brings out a bigger, flashier version (or, in the case of Australia, till an expensive visiting orchestra from Europe arrives) with a bigger-name conductor.

A Spectacular Location For Concerts

All this is very similar to the industry today. And then, in 1855, George Grove arrives on the classical music scene. If you remember, the man had been an engineer up to this point, building lighthouses and bridges, etc. But he also seemed to have been a good networker. While working on the construction of a bridge in England, he’d met some men who were helping organise events to take place in one of the newest and most spectacular buildings in London – the Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace -home of a classical music revolution.

So Grove became secretary of the Crystal Palace Committee and, before too long, he was suggesting that the brass band that used to be the musical highlight of visiting the Crystal Palace should be expanded out and turned into a full orchestra. By 1855, the Crystal Palace had its own orchestra which you could hear live in rehearsal during the week and which would perform a concert every Saturday for about seven months of the year.


What The-?

At first glance, none of this sounds terribly unusual. You don’t have to go too far in many cities before you find a few amateur orchestras that get together to play music for people in the suburbs – at a cheaper ticket price. Was this what Grove was doing? Just giving people a cheaper ticket than you would get with the battling Philharmonic Societies back in the main part of London?

I’m not so sure. After reading Young’s book more closely, several peculiar features about the Crystal Palace concerts started to jump out.

A Working Class Audience. We know the concerts were aimed at amateurs. But Percy Young’s book says:

Thoughout its life … the Crystal Palace performed a singular service for music, and it is unlikely that any building ever did more to accustom working people to the enjoyment of music. (p. 59, emphasis mine)

Working people? When was the last time we saw working class people at a classical music concert?

An Unsophisticated Working-Class Audience. And by all accounts, the audience was pretty inexperienced in the ways of classical music. Listen to this quote:

An attempt was made politely to discipline the audience towards accepting a new-style concert behaviour. The programame contained this note: ‘Visitors are requested to keep their seats during the Performance of the Music. An interval will be allowed between the Pieces, and between the Movements of the Symphony, which can be taken advantage of by those who wish to move.’ (pp. 66-67)

I can tell you now, if you had people like that in our current concert setting, walking around and chatting during the music, the current audience would be up in freaking arms about it. We harrumph somebody just for clapping in the wrong spot – but his audience was moving around between every movement? And how different does this sound from the rapt attention and silence of the RPS audiences?

One Conductor. For the modern orchestra today, standard practice is to have a different conductor come along for every concert program. There will usually be a chief conductor, who sets the tone for the orchestra and conduct more concerts throughout the year than any other conductor, but for the most part, it’s a different guy (and it’s nearly always a guy) every week. But Grove only had one conductor at the Crystal Place, a fellow called August Manns. While the Royal Philharmonic Society made a huge ballyhoo about its latest guest conductors – “We’ve got Wagner this year!” – for nearly 50 years, the Crystal Palace got by with just the one guy.

And Grove Was More Famous Than Him. An unusual story appears about 15 years into Grove’s career at the Crystal Palace. He writes a letter to a friend in which he talks about the Crystal Palace conductor August Manns. Apparently, Manns was a bit upset. In Grove’s words: “Manns is in a terrrible state of grief owing to various remarks in the Papers recently which seem to give me more credit than is due – or rather to give him less – in reference to the Saturday concerts”. (Young p.128). Grove then goes on to ask if his friend Bennett, who was a music critic of the time, could write some nice stuff about Manns in his next notice for the newspapers.

But let’s stop and think about this for a moment. In what symphony orchestra anywhere in the world would the manager of the organsation, much less the person who writes the program notes, be considered more important than the conductor? What’s going on here?

There is ome indication that Manns may have been a bit second-rate. There’s a story told about the famous Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bülow who, “on hearing what Manns was doing to the Coriolan Overture threw the score he was following to the ground and shouted, ‘What can you expect from a bandmaster?'” (Young p. 104) But still, take a look at the typical cover of an orchestra marketing brochure and there’s a strong chance the front cover will be a photograph of the conductor. So for Grove to be seen as important to the success of the thing is almost unique in the history of classical music.

To Compete With The Crystal Palace …

But the story that almost made me fall off my chair was when I decided to research on Wikipedia where Grove fit into the eco-system of the other orchestras. As far as I could tell, in those days, the lay of the land was that you had your two Philharmonia Societies, both of them stocked up with the best musicians, the best international conductors of their day coming over from Europe and leading the charge – guys like Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner. And then you’ve got Grove, with his bandmaster conductor, and his second-rate orchestra, playing concerts for – let’s be honest – 19th century cultural Philistines in a rather fancy exhibition building that’s outside the CBD.

Given that situation, you would expect therefore, that Grove and the Crystal Palace concerts would be a bit of a struggling organisation. Somewhat like an amateur musical society nowadays – they might be able to put on some of the same shows with tackier sets and costumes, but if you want to see Wicked or Phantom of the Opera performed with a great cast and amazing set designs, you go to Broadway or the West End.

But then, almost casually, on the Wikipedia page for the Royal Philharmonic Society, it is mentioned that the RPS decided, in 1869 – so after the Crystal Palace had been going for nealry 15 years – to move from the 800-seat Hanover Square Rooms to St  James’ Hall, which was larger. And then “the Society remodelled its charges to obtain a wider audience and compete with the Crystal Palace and other large venues, and introduced annotated programmes”.

So larger venues, cheaper prices, and annotated programmes – to compete with the Crystal Palace.

The Most Awesome Classical Music Story I’ve Ever Heard

Maddeningly, there is no mention of this incident in Percy Young’s book, which I find frustrating. In fact, there is almost – in a rather mystifying way – not a lot of mention of the Royal Philharmonic Society and its competition with the Crystal Palace, full stop. This means that what I’m about to say is somewhat speculative, and perhaps someone can research it more fully. But this is what it looks like:

Before Grove, classical music in London was, quite simply, only for a handful of elite people. If you were a musician, or you moved in those circles, you had the money to afford it and you knew a bit about European music, you might have come along to the Royal Philharmonic Society concerts. The fact that there were no annotated programmes for the first 50 years of its existence means that the RPS were pretty much assuming that you knew your music theory before you walked in the door, and thus were au fait with what went on at a classical music concert. (And probably dropped turns of phrase like “au fait“, for that matter.)

Then Grove comes along. He’s a civil engineer. He’s not a musician. He’s not a conductor. He’s not from that set at all. He’s an engineer from a working class background who, through sheer force of his personality and connections, gets the chance to start running his own concert series at the Crystal Palace. His audience consists of ordinary people who are completely unfamiliar with the music (after all, there were no recordings) or even just general concert etiquette.

And yet, within 15 years, the big high-brow organisations back in the main part of town are copying him. An engineer layperson has run rings around organisations that featured the most famous composers of the 19th century. That’s freaking impressive and almost unimaginable in today’s day and age. If that’s what actually happened, it is, without doubt, the most awesome story about the classical music industry I’ve ever heard.

If I understand correctly the number of concerts that the RPS performed was about a modest eight concerts a year. Whereas Grove performed every Saturday for about seven months of the year. So assume around 28 concerts a year – almost triple the performances of the RPS.

I can’t state this strongly enough, but nearly every major orchestra playing today is competing on the grounds of who can attract the best conductors and soloists to come and perform, because it is assumed (even if it’s an unspoken assumption) that this is the way to boost attendance at orchestras. But if I’ve understood the story of Grove correctly, his calibre of conductor and soloists was a lot lower than that of his competitors. And yet Grove was the one that grew the audience. What does that say about the way we’re approaching things today?

And all this was just what I could glean from looking through the one biography of Grove and having a poke around the internet. But what I couldn’t tell – and it was going to take a trip to the Royal College of Music to shed more light on it – was what actually went on at these Crystal Palace concerts? Were they just like our classical concerts, but cheaper and in a cool venue? Were Grove’s programme notes as enthusiastic in tone as his Beethoven book?

Well, my trip to the RCM did shed light on that particular subject – and totally blew my mind – but now that I’m at the 3,000 word mark, I’ll leave that for another blog post. (And for those waiting for Part 2 of the Mahler 8, that will be coming next!)

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde III – Of Youth

“Dalian劳动公园A159285″ by 陳炬燵 – Own work. Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons .”

Now this next movement is somewhat of a rarity – a Mahler movement where everything is done and dusted in under 5 minutes. So blink and you miss it, really.

Where We’ve Been: As a recap, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) is working through a selection of Chinese poems that Mahler discovered. The first movement was the bleak drinking song where the poet expressed his misery at the finiteness of life. The second movement was a more introverted but no less miserable look at autumn and a reminder of the poet’s lost love and current loneliness.

Where We’re Going: In this movement, which reverts back to the tenor, the music strikes a much happier tone, because the poet is looking back to his youth and becoming nostalgic. (Mahler always liked to insert a bit of nostalgia in his symphonies – something that would hearken back to a simpler time.)

The lyrics for the song are here:

The poem simply tells of a bunch of friends that get together on a pavilion in the middle of a pond to “drink, chat and write down verses”.

The music has a sort of “fake Oriental” feel to it – the kind of music you feel might have been used on a Disney cartoon with Chinese characters done back in the 40s. It has all the touches – the cute little flute melodies, trills (where two notes alternate back and forth very fast), the slightly exotic triangle which dings at the beginning of the song and the cymbals  (0:52) which kick in when the verses start talking about the people.

There is a contrast in the middle part (1:36) when the poem starts to talk about the reflection of everything in the pond below it. Mahler uses this line as an excuse to take the somewhat cutesy feeling of the song and inject some melancholy into the proceedings. It casts a brief shadow before the music brightens up again (2:35) and the song finishes as chirpily as it began.

In and of itself, this would be a bit of a nothing song, but when you take the song cycle as a whole, where we are viewing life from the perspective of someone looking death and loneliness in the face, it becomes a sad bit of remembering a past that is not coming back. The song serves to remind us that the happy times of life don’t last forever, and that they are transitory.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Up Next – The Song of the Earth

das liedOur next stop on the Mahler Symphonies guided tour is a bit of an unusual one because technically it’s not one of Mahler’s symphonies, but there are a couple of good reasons to include it as one of them.

The Song of the Earth (or Das Lied von der Erde as it’s referred to in German – which is how it will most commonly be labelled if you’re looking for it online) is a large scale song cycle (i.e. a set of connected songs) written for two singers and a large orchestra. So while Mahler may not have called it a symphony, you certainly need a symphony orchestra to perform it.

It was composed in 1909 and fits in between Symphonies 8 and 9. In fact, some people have speculated that perhaps Mahler actually saw it as his ninth symphony, after finishing off his massive eighth, but was superstitious and worried about falling foul of the “Curse of the ninth“, a commonly-held idea that famous composers will drop dead once they’ve finished a ninth symphony. I suspect this idea is more appealing to people who write about music rather than one that the composers themselves held, but I’ve got to admit, it’s a great story if there’s any truth to it … (And, of course, the legend is reinforced by the fact that after Song of the Earth, Mahler went on to compose his 9th symphony, and then started work on the 10th, but died before the former was ever performed and the latter was ever completed.)

So for all intents and purposes, conductors and Mahler fans tend to think of it as a symphony, so we’ll include it on the tour. For me, also, it marks a new break in the way Mahler composed his music, so it will prepare your ears for Mahler 9 and 10 when we get to them later.

Essentially, in these last three works of his – Song of the Earth, Symphony 9 and the unfinished Symphony 10 – Mahler developed a more introverted style of symphonic music. He still had a massive orchestra, but more because he could paint all sorts of musical colours with it, not because he was necessarily after an epic sound.

Also his symphonies aren’t journeying towards a big ending – or at least not a big ending in the regular symphony way. For most symphonies, you end up at a massive full orchestral finale. It is, after all, what the crowd goes nuts over. Even the Mahler 5, quirky as it is, ends with the big Star Wars moment.

But Song of the Earth, the 9th and 10th, all end with long slow movements and they fade away. And the ideas that Mahler is dealing with in the works are clearly to do with loss, death, grief, mourning, and the strange beauty of life that you only realise when you haven’t got much of it left.

And that’s explicit in Song of the Earth, of course, because it consists of songs, songs have words, and so we know exactly what emotions Mahler was trying to convey.

Which brings us to the poems themselves. The Song of the Earth verses started life as ancient Chinese poems. Some of them were translated in German by an author named Hans Bethge and published in 1908, the year before this work came out.

At the time, Mahler was suffering from intense grief on a few fronts – he’d had to resign from his position at the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly due to anti-Semitism and political manoeuvring, his eldest daughter had died and finally he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. So all in all, he wasn’t in the greatest of spaces.

So when he came across these poems, which speak – albeit in slightly symbolic language – of how fleeting life is, of remembering joyous times in the past and, most movingly, of farewell, he knew that this was the material he wanted to use for his next symphonic work.

And so Song of the Earth was born. The structure is pretty simple. There are seven of the Chinese poems. Each movement has one poem and runs between 3 and 10 minutes, except for the last movement, which is made up of two poems combined together and runs for a mammoth 30 minutes, almost the total of everything leading up to it. So six movements in all.

There are two singers – a tenor (higher male voice) and an alto (lower female voice), though Mahler did say “if necessary, the alto part may be sung by a baritone” (lower male voice). (In fact, the version I’m going to refer to is the Leonard Bernstein recording where he used tenor James King and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, because they both sing it really well. If you like it, by all means track down the regular version with an alto to compare with later.) Each singer gets a movement and they alternate, so there are no duets here. It looks like this:

Movement I – Tenor

Movement II – Baritone

Movement III – Tenor

Movement IV – Baritone

Movement V – Tenor

Movement VI – Baritone

And that’s all you need to know to get started. We’ll have Movement I up in a few days!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 5: Movement IV

Gustav Mahler is said to have written the fourth movement of the Mahler 5 as a love-note to the love of his life, Alma Schindler, later to become his wife.
Gustav Mahler is said to have written the fourth movement of the Mahler 5 as a love-note to the love of his life, Alma Schindler, later to become his wife.

Where We’ve Been:

Part 1 of the symphony consisted of the two dark movements, Movement I, the elegant funeral march, and Movement II, the storm of chaos that climaxed in a big brass Star Wars moment. Part 2 was the third movement, the crazy scherzo that starts out like a waltz and then goes into some truly strange places.

Now we begin Part 3, the two light movements. And this one, Movement IV, is the slow movement of the piece (it’s marked Adagietto which means “fairly slow”), so take a deep breath and relax a bit for this one.

Mahler’s Entry Into “Top 20 Relaxing Classics”

One of the interesting things about Mahler is that he almost never shows up on those chirpy compilation albums (100 Favourite Classics, Your Top 20 Best Classics, Classic’s Greatest Hits, etc). I think that’s why a lot of people outside of classical music circles haven’t heard of Mahler – because he simply doesn’t appear in general-public-consumption classical music collections. You really only hear Mahler on recordings of complete Mahler symphonies, in the concert hall or when a radio station decides to broadcast an entire symphony.

The reason for this is that, mostly, the pieces of music that lend themselves to showing up on classical compilation albums (or even just becoming greatest hits in general) generally have what I would call a “continuity of mood”. In other words, if it’s slow and beautiful, they want the movement to stay slow and beautiful for the whole piece. That way you can string together 20 slow, beautiful pieces and call it a “Relaxing Classics” album.

But the problem with Mahler is that he rarely supplies you with a continuity of mood. He can start a movement beautifully, but then go some pretty dark and jarring places in the middle of it. Likewise, he can start in some pretty dark places and go to amazingly beautiful places. So if you weeded out all Mahler movements with a split personality like that, plus any that are longer than 12 minutes, really the only thing that you’re left with that has a general continuity of mood and that doesn’t go for too long – is the fourth movement of the Mahler 5.

Death in Venice

What also helped cement its fame in previous generations (it certainly didn’t do anything for my generation on up) was a film from the 70s called Death in Venice. It’s based on a novella by author Thomas Mann and tells the story of an aging author who goes to Venice during an outbreak of cholera and becomes obsessed with a young boy. In the film, made by famous director Luchino Visconti, the climactic scene show ***SPOILER ALERT*** the old author dying in a deck chair on the beach watching the boy standing down next to the water in the sunlight.

But what cemented that scene in the mind of the arthouse set was that it was set to the slow movement of the Mahler 5. (You can see it here if you’re totally curious: From then on, like so many classical pieces that show up in arthouse movies, it became a bit of a fan favourite.

However, I would suspect that many people nowadays haven’t seen the Visconti film and don’t have those connections, which might just be a good thing. Because the problem can be that when you hear it in the film setting, you start thinking of the piece as being rather slow and sad.

Speed Issues

In fact, what has happened over the years is that conductors (that would be you, Leonard Bernstein) have discovered that if you take it at a snail’s pace, it will sound really soulful.

However, there are now another group of voices who are arguing the case that just because you can play something super-slow, doesn’t mean that you necessarily should. It appears that Mahler’s original intentions were that it was meant as a love-note for his girlfriend, Alma Schindler (later to become his wife) and that it’s actually meant to be more sweet. And faster. Like 8 minutes.

So depending which recording you’re listening to is how long it will run for and thus affect a little bit what kind of experience you have with it. The Chailly recording is somewhere in the middle, clocking in at just over 10 minutes.

The structure of the piece is pretty straight forward and there’s not a lot to describe because it moves so slowly and it is essentially an atmosphere piece. There are two big themes, the first of which is the most beautiful, but the second of which is probably the most important, because Mahler borrows it to play funny games with it in the last movement.

(0:00) Big Tune 1 – Gentle rocking on the harps. Beautiful-sounding string moment. Dies away darkly in the low strings.
(2:26) More of the same.
(4:09) Things become a bit more passionate. (I would say that if it’s a love note, it’s definitely one of the most moody love notes ever written.) But things clear and calm down pretty quickly.
(4:58) Big Tune 2 – A new theme begins. This is the one to remember because it comes back in the last movement, but transformed into something completely different. It has a kind of searching quality to it, as if it’s constantly reaching upward and then fading.
(6:54) Back to the beginning. Builds slowly towards a soaring ending.

And there you go. Mahler’s greatest hit. (Arguably.) My own personal opinion is that this slow movement is a bit overrated compared with some of the other slow movements which are to come in other symphonies, but what did you think? Stunningly beautiful? Bit too slow and you can’t wait for things to ramp up again?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 5: Movement III

The Mahler 5 Scherzo - only slightly less crazy than being chased by playing card in Wonderland.
The Mahler 5 Scherzo – only slightly less crazy than being chased by playing card in Wonderland.

We’re now into Part 2 of the symphony (which just consists of Movement III). This is the shift from darkness to light, before the happiness of Part 3 (the last two movements).

In the last post we talked about scherzos. And, now we come to the third movement of the Mahler 5, which I can only describe as one of the weirdest of all scherzos. In the Mahler 5, the Scherzo is almost the key movement in the whole piece. It shifts the tone from darkness to light, and it is a neat balance between the brass (which dominate the first two movements) and the strings (which dominate the last two movements). But, most of all, it’s one of the most interesting pieces of writing for multiple instruments ever composed. Not because it’s huge and spectacular – though it has its moments – but mainly because it gives every group of instruments (not to mention a few people who get to become soloists) a thorough workout.

The weird part is in its length (nearly 20 minutes – at least twice as long as a regular scherzo) and what Mahler does with the themes. Normally, we would expect the scherzo and trio to be a simple A B A pattern, or occasionally A B A B A. But my theory is – and there are a variety of different ways that you can break this movement up, so this may be just the way I hear it – that this would have sounded like a normal scherzo for the audience up until the second B. Right then, at the moment, where you think things are going along fairly normally, and we expect a repeat of the first B theme, Mahler grabs us and drags us down Alice’s rabbit-hole into a strange and bizarre orchestral world. (Well, technically, it’s probably a Development section, but I prefer to think of it as a bit of a psychedelic orchestral trip.)

So, if you can, try to imagine that you’re listening to a regular scherzo for the first five minutes, and see if you can get that feeling of weirdness when Mahler detours off on his own path.

I know it’s complicated enough following a scherzo and a trio, but what’s potentially more confusing is that the scherzo has its own little sections as well which divide it up. There’s what I’ll call a1, which is a fairly happy dance. And a2 is more about the rhythm. It uses a special technique known as “pedal point”, which is essentially where every second note in a stretch of notes is the same note. This repeated note then provides a very strong rhythm. If all of that makes no sense, then you can check out this YouTube video where a guy explains this concept on an electric guitar. Or you can feel free to ignore all that and just notice that section a2 is more rhythmic, and a bit more intense than the waltz.

Let’s begin!

Scherzo (A)

a1. (0:00) Starts with a boisterous, joyful waltz in sections. There’s a leading part for the French horn, and in some performances, they even let the main French horn player stand out the front while they play this movement.
a2. (0:41) Down to the strings who play that rhythmic pedal point I was telling you about, with the woodwinds tooting like toy trains over the top. It makes a contrast for all of 20 seconds and then …
a1. (1:02) Back to a cute version of the waltz on flutes, which ushers in the Disney on Ice version of the waltz. (Hey, look, if Kenneth Branagh can go from Henry V and Hamlet to Thor and Cinderalla, there is no reason a composer like Mahler has to be ultra-serious all the time.)
a2. (1:26) Pedal point again – all sounding a bit ominous.
a1. (1:54) Cutesy version again. Until the French horns call everything to a halt …

Trio 1 (B)

(2:25) This is a nice little Austrian dance called a ländler with a long-short-short rhythm. It’s a very, very Austrian type of dance (proved by the fact that it made it into The Sound of Music, of course). So this is what a normal trio sounds like. A bit Austrian and nostalgic (which is another regular feature of Mahler symphonies), but normal. But that’s the last time anything sounds normal in this movement. Have a listen to this …

Scherzo (A)

(3:25) Back to the scherzo. You probably get the drill now – big waltz then into the pedal point. But somehow something goes wrong when they go into the pedal point moment. It keeps going and they never make it back to the waltz …

Development Section aka Down the Rabbit-Hole

(4:36) Everything goes a bit woozy and we head into orchestral no-man’s land in the middle. You’ll hear hints of the Scherzo and the Trio, but broken down into some seriously cool orchestra effects. My favourites include:

  • (5:09) The epic horn-sound off over trembling strings (an effect mainly for string instruments known as tremolo) followed by a series of beautiful brass solos.
  • (6:47) The quiet-as-a-mouse pizzicato (plucked) bit for strings and awkward woodwinds. This sets everything up for the next part, when the strings resume their normal mode of playing, which now sounds incredibly beautiful after all the plucking.
  • (8:47) The trumpet solo here over the strings. The sound is just a scattering of solo instruments from various sections of the orchestra. We have somehow moved from orchestra music to chamber music.
  • (10:04) The Trio returns, livens everything up, and the symphony turns into cinematic chase music. It’s about to climax when all of a sudden …

Scherzo (A)

(11:11) The Scherzo comes back again, as if it’s never been away. You’ll notice that the orchestration is subtly different with lots of little extra details. But all our old friends are there – crazy woodwinds, pedal point rhythm, and Walt Disney.
(12:27) Big joyous finale, you would think that we’re almost done …
(13:04) But no, elements of the chase music creep in.
(13:19) Strange Scottish-sounding woodwind moment? (Can anybody think of a better description than that? It might be just me, but I always think bagpipes on this bit.) Is he starting another development?

Coda aka Extra Development

(14:12) No, it’s okay, we’re back to the waltz. Kind of. By this stage, everyone’s given up trying to guess where Mahler is going with this thing.
(14:50) A bit of the horn sound-off again. (Which might be a good moment to say that the horns are awesome in this Chailly recording, aren’t they? Not many recordings get such a gorgeous singing sound out of those instruments.)
(16:15) The woodwinds, sounding somewhat awkward, lead into a cautious winding-down segment. Is it all going to die out quietly?
(16:55) But no! Here are the final moments which really don’t need much more description than “they’re awesome”.

So there you go. If you thought that was a marvelous feat of orchestral brilliance, or if you just thought it was long and rambling and all over the shop – you’re probably right on both counts. But hopefully you found it interesting.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – What’s So Funny About Scherzos?

Possibly no Scherzos available in this joke shop. (Photo by Stephen McCulloch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)
At the risk of front-end loading all the musical concepts into this one symphony, I thought it might be helpful before we venture into the third movement of the Mahler 5 just to talk a little bit about a word that’s really only heard within classical music circles (or Italian-speakers).

And that is a scherzo. Scherzo is simply the Italian word for “I joke” and I as I mentioned in an earlier post, it is a quirky movement which was faster than the slow movement but not as light and heavy as the first and last movements. But the best way to really get your head around a scherzo is to actually listen to a couple of them to get the idea of what they sound like. It will also give you an idea of just how insane the next movement of the Mahler 5 would have appeared to the audience of the day.

First off, years before there were scherzos, but composers were still cranking out four-movement symphonies, there used to be a fast first movement, a fast last movement and a slow movement (usually the second one) and the third movement would be a kind of dance called a “minuet”. Then, if you think of the minuet theme as Theme A, in the middle of a minuet movement, the composer would switch to a different theme (Theme B). And then when Theme B was finished, they’d go back to Theme A. So it has a simple A B A structure.

Now, at some early stage, the B theme was only played by three instruments, so it came to be known as the “Trio” section. The tradition about only using three instruments didn’t last very long, but the name stuck, and so the full name for a Minuet movement was a “Minuet and Trio” even though any number of instruments will play in the trio section. It’s nearly always the simplest movement to follow. You hear the minuet, then the trio, then back to the minuet. Sometimes they play the minuet through twice the first time then only once after the Trio, but overall it’s not too complicated.

Here’s a world-famous example of a minuet:

This is from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The minuet begins at (0:00:), the Trio kicks in at (0:35) and then back to the minuet at (1:19). Pretty straightforward.

However, by Beethoven’s day, the preferred version was to call it a scherzo, which meant that instead of being a light fluffy dance number, it could be a bit more raucous. (Or at least raucous for an early 19th century set.) But it still had the same pattern. Scherzo (Theme A), middle section called a Trio (Theme B), then back to the Scherzo.

Here’s an example of a very famous scherzo: the third movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (or Heroic) Symphony. The Beethoven 3 is all about heroism (originally he had Napoleon in mind when he wrote it) and so, in this movement, you can almost imagine mounted soldiers:

(0:00) It starts at a light canter, then heads up to a full gallop at (0:47). This scherzo theme repeats twice. The Trio arrives at (2:34). It’s a great moment for French horn players, and I always feel like the horn calls give it a military feel as well. Then at (3:59) the scherzo returns and we gallop to the finish..

You get the idea. Despite the name, scherzos are not super-funny, but they are kind of fun.

The only other thing to know is that occasionally, there was a variation on the scherzo, where the Trio would come back again to make the movement a bit longer. (So A B A B A.) But, for the most part, for the listener of the day, it was a simple movement to follow, you knew what to expect, and you knew you’d be done in 10 minutes max. Until the scherzo of the Mahler 5 came along … But you can enjoy that in a few days.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – An Interlude About Sonata Form

Sonata Form Diagram (The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sonata Form Diagram (The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I was writing the description for this week’s movement, I found a need to explain the idea of sonata form (at least in a very, very, simple way). So I hope you’ll forgive me for covering some technical stuff, which I’ll get out of the way up front, but which will hopefully be helpful as the tour progresses.

Letting The Music Speak For Itself

I’ve found in listening to classical music over the years, that the really, really great pieces of classical music, are so all-round awesome to listen to, you don’t need to know anything about how the music works or what the composer is trying to do. These tend to be the big pieces that make their way onto the many “Top 20 Great Classical Favourites” CDs that are out there. (Did I just say CDs? I’m showing my age …)

However, I’ve also found a large number of classical music works in the middle which make a whole lot more sense when you know something about the structure of the piece and of the movements. It gives you an idea what the composer was trying to with the music. So let me introduce you to the well-kept secret of the classical music world – sonata form.

Why Has This Movement Been Going For 10 Minutes?

For years, coming to the music, as a relative amateur, I had often wondered why some classical music would go on for ages with no real logic as to where the music was going. Was it just 10 minutes of random music slotted together until the composer was sick of the tunes and moved on to the next one? Apparently, not quite.

One day, I discovered that a lot of music in the 19th century used fairly distinct structures. So in a sense, classical music is a bit like architecture. In the same way, that most buildings share the common elements of having a floor, walls, windows and a roof, classical music also has different forms that composers would use as a basic template. Every composer would do something different with the template, but it meant that the audience of the day (who knew a lot more about musical structure than the average person does nowadays) would have an idea what to expect. The modern equivalent would be that we know most songs have a verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure, and so when we listen to new songs, we’re listening out for that repeated section which we know is the “chorus”. It’s subconscious, but the reason that your mind latches on to some music and not others has a lot to do with how quickly your brain can work out the music’s “pattern” and match it against other patterns.

Sonata Form

When I first heard about sonata form, my first thought was, “No wonder I could never understand what was going on in classical music! Who would ever guess this structure if nobody ever told you about it?” And so, because I’m a nice guy, just so you don’t have to pore over some obscure textbook (or, worse yet, give up listening to the music), here is sonata form, in the simplest possible way that I’ve been able to get my head around it. Sonata form is a way of structuring a piece of music to turn it from a random bunch of tunes into something a bit longer – a sort of musical adventure, if you like.

It’s in three broad parts:

1) The Exposition is the opening section and here the composer sets up his main themes that he will use in the symphony.

2) The Development section is where the composer breaks those themes down and uses little bits of them and combines them in interesting ways. In many respects, this is the journey part of the adventure because you never know how far the composer is going to take his themes and how many things he can do with them in this middle section.

3) The Recapitulation is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a big moment, where we come full circle back to the main themes of the Exposition. This is usually easy to pick if you’re paying attention because it just sounds like the music has started again.

There are a couple of optional extras that a composer can throw in at the beginning and end as well if they want to make things go for a bit longer:

a) An Introduction – some extra stuff at the beginning of the movement before the exposition begins properly

b) A Coda, which is where the composer wraps things up. Sometimes Codas just take the themes you know and finish them off neatly, but every now and again, composers with a sense of adventure (Beethoven, for example) like to take you on a whole new adventure at the end just when you thought everything was finishing.

And that’s it. Sonata form. You’ll see it in action in the next movement of the Mahler 5, when we get back to the tour in a couple of days.