The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde V – The Drunken Man in Spring

Photo by Philippe Alès [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – despairing drinking song; II – a lonely man in autumn; III – brief nostalgia in the jade pavilion; IV – the exploration of beauty, in the song about the flower pickers and the horsemen.

The Drunken Man in Spring

You may be thinking, given the title of this song, “What? Another drunk? That makes two for this song cycle!” Which is correct, but this guy is a far different character than the drinker from the first song. Or … here’s a thought … he could be the same character a few hours later. I’ll let you decide.

The contrast is mainly that if the drinker in the first song was serious and morose (almost fanatically so), this guy is a funny drunk. He’s staggering along home from a night at the pub. The sentiment is still that of misery with the world, but Mahler delivers it in a much more humorous way. Have a read of the original poem first:

Now here’s the song:

(0:00) The first thing to notice is the drunken, staggering rhythm that Mahler has introduced at the beginning. Listen to the tenor’s first line, and you can hear an amusing sort of lurch as if the music has paused a bit too long and then sped up.

(1:39) There’s one of those little moments of drunken logic where the poet sings to one of the birds and imagines that the bird is singing back to him. (It also gives the piccolo a rare chance to have a solo.)

(3:24) The song then reaches its climax, as the drunk decides to keep drowning his sorrows and sing “until the moon shines in the dark firmament”. Who cares about springtime? He says. Let me be drunk.

Subtly, this song is a reminder of the first song, and also the opposite of the autumn song. The lonely man in autumn desperately wanted summer back as winter approached, but this drunken man sees spring coming in and simply doesn’t care.

So far all the songs have dealt with aggravation in the face of death, misery in the face of loneliness, nostalgia for a past that can’t come back and, in today’s song, a vain attempt to forget about everything.

But in the final, epic-length song coming up, Mahler takes his listeners on one last journey to the only place left for him to go when faced with such a sad world: acceptance.

See you next week.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde IV – Of Beauty

 Photo by Apassionata [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Where We’ve Been: Song I – desolate drinking song, full of despair. Song II – Loneliness in autumn. Song III – fluffy nostalgia piece that looks backwards to the past.

This song is one of the most interesting ones in the whole cycle, because it’s one of those poems that you can read a lot of metaphors into, depending on how philosophical you want to get. As always, have a look at the words first (or even better, follow along with them as you listen):

The picture is very simple. Young maidens sit by the river picking flowers, and the first half of the poem is taken up with a picturesque description of the location and the girls.

But the turning point is when the young men come along, including one who has a runaway horse that tramples the horses of the young girls.

The interesting part in all this is where the maiden turns to watch him go, feigning a “proud demeanour” but really giving him “long, yearning glances”. Is this just a piece of romance? Or is it a deeper message that the people we love will trample and destroy our lives to some extent? Is it saying that we love them because we know they hurt us?

The honest answer is that I’m not sure, and nor am I sure that having a complete psychological explanation would make me enjoy it any more. But what we can perhaps all agree is that this contrast between the destructive nature of the boys and the delicate work of the girls, and the romance this inspires, is the heart of the poem. And Mahler has captured it perfectly in this song, which is sung by the baritone this time.

(0:00) The beginning is very “pretty” – lots of flute, in other words, as the girls are described picking their flowers.

(2:46) I always feel like this is a rip-off of the 1812 Overture, as the boys ride through on horses. (Though don’t take my word on that.) But it’s definitely the loudest part in the whole work, and almost impossible for any singer to really manage, as the music gallops faster than the singer can keep up.)

(6:13) The most beautiful moment in the whole work is the ending, where the girl looks longingly after the young man who has destroyed everything she has worked on – gorgeous woodwinds, high strings and a gentle fade out at the end.

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: Das Lied von der Erde II – The Lonely Man in Autumn

Finally, a song that I can find an easy picture for! [By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]
This next song is the equivalent of a slow movement in a symphony. It’s quiet, meditative and an exercise in stillness. This is partly a result of the words. Have a read of them before you listen:

You’ll notice that the two first verses are simply descriptive – the poet talks about the early morning, the frost like jade dust sprinkled on the blossoms, the cold wind, etc. The overall emphasis you get is autumn stillness.

Then in verse 3, he starts to describe himself, and we see that it is autumn in his heart. He’s lonely, he’s weary and he wants rest. (Which could, of course, be talking about death.) Finally, in the last couple of lines, he’s begging for the “sun of love” to come back again – but this is autumn, the weather is heading into winter, not back to summer.

Now listen to how this is reflected in the music:

(0:00) Before there is any singing, the music consists of a long passage of a solitary oboe singing over wandering strings. One of the things to notice here is how separately all the instruments are playing. Mahler has a huge orchestra at his disposal, but is only using small separate groups to create the sounds he wants. Different solo instruments accompany different phrases but we only once feel like it’s a full orchestral sound in this movement.

When the singer finally does enter, with his description of the stillness of the autumn, the music has already set us up for an atmosphere of non-motion.

(5:33) Things start to become even more flat as the singer starts to describe the weariness of his heart. Things pick up a little bit, but the real climax of the song is at (9:11) when he sings of the “Sonne der Liebe” (Sun of Love). The orchestra fires up and illuminates this line, so that for a brief second you feel like the sun is shining upon you. The music gives us a glimpse into the poet’s former joy. For me, this is the only real moment that feels like a full orchestra in this movement.

But then it all dies out, and we return to the lonely oboe and the wandering strings. The sun is gone, autumn is still here and the poet is alone.

A rather melancholy week, all in all. If you want something a bit more chirpy, see you next week.


The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde I – The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow


This picture has nothing to do with Das Lied except that people have clearly seen some strange things while drinking in the past …

I’ve decided to refer to this work by its German name, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), because it will make it easier for other people to find online (plus the German name is the one used on the title of 99% of recordings). Though even then, a lot of us in classical music circles get lazy and just refer to it as Das Lied (The Song). Or is that just me and I’ve been thinking everyone else does it? I’ll have to ponder that …

However, because it is sung in German, unless you’re a German-speaker (I’m not!), it’s worth popping over and having a read of the song texts translated into English. Which is a great time to do a shout-out to a phenomenal website, which is becoming even more of a useful resource in this day and age of digital music which doesn’t come with any liner notes or booklets.

It’s called The LiederNet Archive ( Lieder is the German word for songs, particularly songs written by classical composers in the 19th century for piano and voice. The problem with a lot of these songs, though, is that unless you speak German, you need a copy of the lyrics in front of you. So he owner of the website, Emily Ezust, started translating these old songs. She then moved from songs to choral works and everything else classical and vocal and has now built a massive freely available library that contains translations into multiple languages of nearly all the major classical vocal works out there. If you find you get into opera or lieder but you’d like to know what they’re singing about, pop on over, and you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.

Anyway, here is Emily’s translation of the first Das Lied movement, the awesomely titled Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth. I’d recommend following along with the text the first time you listen to it to get the feel of it, and I’ll make some comments and point out my highlights after that.<

I did say in the introduction to Das Lied that the whole thing is fairly introverted – and it is on the whole – but this first song is wild straight out of the gate. We tend to think of drinking songs as being noisy, jolly things. And it is noisy. But there’s no jollity to be had here.

(0:00) Verse 1. It’s got a big French horn theme, swirling strings, and a stuttery trumpet thing happening. It’s chaos, in other words. And the tenor, James King, just storms into the middle of this, sort of life a crazed toastmaster. He’s proposing a toast, the glasses are raised, but he’s telling his audience that they shouldn’t drink yet. He has a few things to say and most of it revolves around how miserably unfair it is that we only get this one shot at life and then death takes us.

(1:10) The music goes into a quieter sound, more chamber music, as he talks about desolate gardens of the soul. But the big line, the chorus if you like, is at (1:42) where the line “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (“Dark is life, dark is death”) occurs. It’s the theme of the whole song – with death looming at the end, the whole of life becomes dark. This line gets repeated throughout the song and is the constant thing the singer keeps returning to, even though the song itself goes in all sorts of interesting directions.

(1:56) Verse 2. A return back to the chaotic French horn opening  and then Verse 2. Same “Dunkel ist das Leben” ending. The singer is still talking about drinking and how it seems like a good idea, but he holds off.

(3:56) Interlude. The last line of Verse 2 sets us off into an amazing orchestral interlude. To start with, a melancholy but beautiful moment on the strings.

(4:17) Then, introduced by some amazing fluttering sounds on the flute, a variation of the first verse appears on various instruments, ending up on a trumpet. (Those who are particularly sharp-eared may notice that this is a little bit like sonata form that we looked at a few weeks ago – the verses are like the exposition, and the interlude is like a development section in the middle. Das Lied is the kind of piece where symphonic forms and song forms get blended together seamlessly.)

(5:30) The singer returns with the third verse, where he begins his lament that the stars and sky and earth last forever, but how long do we get? Less than 100 years of life to enjoy “the rotten triviality of this earth”. It’s bleak stuff.

But the spectacular moment is about to arrive. With a return to the chaotic sound of the opening, the tenor sings of a ghostly vision of an ape crouching on the graves, shrieking into the night air. “His howls shrill out into the sweet fragrance of life”. On the word “life” (Lebens in German), the tenor takes an almighty leap out into the void (7:17). It gets me every time. (I’ve often wondered how the poor tenor feels about it, though.)

Then, straight away, he picks himself up, faces his drinking companions and tells them it’s time to have that toast he’s been prepping them for. It ends with another repeat of the line “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod”, a final swirl and a very bleak thud.

In short, it’s awesome in its bleakness. But what did you think?

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 V

Everybody loves a grand finale. [Photograph by Jamsinux (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Where We’ve Been: Part 1 of the symphony consisted of the dark first two movements: a funeral march and a swirl of chaos, respectively. Part 2 was the expansive scherzo, taking us down the rabbit hole. Part 3 is the happy ending and began with the beautiful slow movement.

Where We’re Going: And now we’re up to the big happy finale. I must admit, this is where I find I get a bit disappointed with this symphony. I don’t know why, but I find if Mahler is in a serious mood, whether it be dark (like the opening funeral march) or glorious and spiritual (like some of the symphonies we’ll come to later in the tour) I always find it convincing. But, for some reason, when he attempts to be light and happy (like he’s doing here), I find it a bit jarring. It feels like a grown man skipping down the street – it ends up being more odd than anything else.

Now, that said, the great thing about music is that you can bring your own sense of judgment to the whole thing and have a listen for yourself. Am I just being a sourpuss? Is it actually a glorious ending?

Let’s have a listen.


Before we begin the finale, there are three more bits of jargon that will be useful.

Rondo. Mahler called this movement a “Rondo-Finale”. I think the word finale speaks for itself but rondo is a particular type of music where there is one main theme that keeps alternating with other themes throughout a piece of music. So if you imagine that A was the main theme, and B, C and D were the other themes (though there could be more), the structure would look like A B A C A D A. So you’ll find there’s a slightly chirpy theme that shows up on the French horn that keeps cropping up throughout this movement.

However, just to be convoluted, this movement is also a lot like sonata form, where we have an exposition of the main themes and a development section at the end.

Counterpoint. I’ve often thought that this sounds like a kind of tapestry (but, no, that’s needlepoint), and there is a sense of weaving sounds with counterpoint. But strictly speaking, counterpoint is where you have several voices (in other words, several melody lines) that are all running simultaneously but they’re constructed carefully so that they don’t musically clash with each other. In fact, they’re picked because the sounds blend well together (or as Wikipedia puts it, in a much more complex turn of phrase, the voices “are interdependent harmonically“).

Counterpoint is one of the major differences between old Baroque music (like Bach and Handel) and the music we have nowadays. For instance, I happen to be listening to Mumford and Sons while I’m writing this, and if you listen to the way they construct their songs, there is one main melody line and all the other banjos, guitars, and piano, etc really provide accompaniment to that one melody line. That’s the melody you remember, that’s the one you’ll be humming later. But if you listen to Baroque music, it can actually be difficult to identify which is the main melody, because there are two or three main melodies all going at once.

Fugue. Finally, there is a type of music known as a fugue, which is probably the most well-known type of counterpoint, and furthermore, you may well have participated in a fugue at some stage in your life without realising it … A fugue is a piece of music where one voice starts out, then a bit later, a second voice comes in with the same melody line and then the two melody lines combine together (that’s the counterpoint part). You could then add in a third part and so forth.

The classic example of this is the children’s song “Row, row, row your boat”. If you’ve ever sung it as a round (which is a type of fugue) where one person starts, then another person comes in a couple of lines later and so forth, you may have noticed that the amazing thing about “Row, row” (at least when you’re 8) is that even though the person who started second is a couple of lines behind you, the melodies combine perfectly well and sound fine.

The reason for that is because the melody is constructed to obey the rules of counterpoint, so that the two melodies can lie over the top of each other and be separate, but yet combine harmonically. The part where one voice comes in staggered after the other is what makes it a fugue. (And, if you want to get super-technical, the difference between a fugue and a round is that, in a round, everybody sings exactly the same melody line, only staggered by time. But there are lots of other fugues where, apart from the opening part of the melody, the different voices have different melodies in the middle, which means you can do lots of interesting things with the counterpoint. So it means that all rounds are fugues, but not all fugues are rounds.)

Anyway, the point of all that is that in this movement, you will hear a repeating theme which keeps coming back (making it a rondo). And you’ll find another section that keeps appearing is a fugue (where one voice comes in after the other, starting with the same melody) and this layering of melodies on top of each other is called counterpoint.

The reason all this is interesting is that by Mahler’s day, counterpoint was a bit of an old-fashioned thing. It really belonged back in the days of Bach. But Mahler had been listening to a lot of Bach at the time and wanted to write something along those lines, while putting his own spin on it.

Let’s have a listen.

(0:00) Intro – This is a thing you’ll come to recognise in later symphonies – a Mahler “hinting” intro, where he hints at the tunes he’s going to use later in the movement.


(0:42) Main Rondo Theme – Starting with the French horn, a very happy theme.
(1:20) The Fugue – So here’s that counterpoint we’ve been talking about. It has lots of twitchy string playing but you should be able to hear how the voices come in one at a time and the way everybody is playing their own melodies, but they all combine together. I find it quite cute-sounding.
(2:49) Rondo Theme – Again.
(3:27) Fugue – Again, but more intense.
(3:51) Slow Movement Theme. Now here’s where Mahler does something rather surprising. If you listen carefully, this is actually the second theme from the fourth movement (4:58 on that movement, if you want to go back and compare), but it’s speeded up and turned into a jaunty little strut. Or ice skating music. Take your pick. Either way, Mahler has managed to take a tune that sounded soulful and reaching in its first incarnation when played slowly and has made it light and breezy the second time around. (Normally, composers work the opposite way – they take a theme that sounds lighter and make it more weighty. But this is Mahler in a good mood and he wants to be different.)
(4:45) Quiet Ending. Ends with a quiet little chamber music moment (i.e. just for a small group of instruments) on just the strings and woodwinds. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve moved from the stress of the opening movements, isn’t it?


(5:30) More counterpoint. Hang in there, folks. There are 10 more minutes of this to go.
(5:55) Building to our first climax …
(6:18) A great French horn theme. (Okay, I really like this bit. Leave me alone. I didn’t say I didn’t like the whole thing.)
(6:31) I’ve always thought this bit is a soundtrack in my head to trying to chase a bunch of mice with a hammer whilst drunk … or are the mice drunk? I’m not sure.
(6:53) And more counterpoint.
(7:16) Jaunty version of the slow movement theme again.
(8:08) Quiet Ending again. Then straight back into the counterpoint world.
(8:34) The brass come back in. Everything is speeding up – becoming a wee bit anxious around the (9:00) mark.
(9:13) The development climax, which kind of collapses in on itself. (Because there always has to be a collapse, even in the happiest of Mahler.)


(9:33) Woozy seasick string version of the main Rondo theme. This is about the time when I start to get over this piece and am ready for it to finish. And, look, I’m probably not supposed to say it’s woozy. He’s just varying the rhythm. Still …
(10:18) Back to the fugue part, but even more boisterous (adding brass will do that). Home stretch now. Hang in there.
(11:18) Everyone lands in a slump. Is it possible that the orchestra themselves are sick of all the jolliness? It certainly sounds that way …
(11:51) But the woodwinds – far too optimistic for their own good – start perking everybody up again, and things start to move.
(12:32) Back to the Slow Movement Theme, still in its Disney on Ice incarnation.
(13:33) Okay, here we go. The big climax. Are you ready for it?
(13:47) And it’s the big Star Wars climax from Movement II, this time with the fugue underneath. (They call this brass playing a chorale, because you could imagine it being sung by a choir.) All right, I will admit, this bit is pretty cool, but was it really worth waiting 13 minutes for?
(14:35) A bit of mucking around, and we’re all finished.

There you go – in my books, Mahler’s second-most irritating finale. (Number one, of course, goes to the finale of the Mahler 7, but we’ll tackle that one another day.)

But what did you think?

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.