The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 5: Movement II

A tower of elephants facing a Mahlerian collapse. [Photo courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons]
A tower of elephants facing a Mahlerian collapse. [Photo courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, via Wikimedia Commons]
The next movement of the Mahler 5 is in sonata form [link to last blog post], which I described a little bit in the last blog post. But that’s really just the technical framework. What’s more interesting to notice is that this movement, in terms of emotional content, is like a mirror image of the first one.

The first movement was mostly calm and elegant with some stormy passages. This one, meanwhile, is mostly off-the-wall psycho with some calm patches. And then a big Star Wars ending. (You’ll see what I mean.)

Disastrous Elephants and Elegant Tweets

(0:00) Exposition – The first theme is totally out of control. I find it a cross between the soundtrack from an old disaster movie and a tower of elephants, swaying back and forth, about to fall over. But regardless of whether you hear the elephants, you can probably hear how it is a cousin of the stormy music from the first movement. Surprise, surprise, the music collapses at the end of the theme.

(1:21) The second theme is introduced by a very cool tweeting on the flutes and oboes, and starts on the low strings (cellos and double basses). It’s very elegant and also reminds us of the funeral march from the first movement. So you see how it feels like the first movement but in reverse? The Elegant Tweets theme contains some awesome sound effects here, like when the tweets pass to the violins, who pluck it out (2:32), the massive Chinese gong (the tam-tam) which you can just hear in the background (2:47, for example). Again, you’ll notice that thing that I mentioned about Mahler’s music being remarkably clear so that you can hear all the details along the way.

Development – Into and Out of Darkness

(3:38) Development – This begins with the Disastrous Elephants theme of the opening which makes you think for a brief moment that you have gone back to the beginning. But, no, even the idea of a repeat falls apart (4:10) – I know I keep using words like “collapse” and “fall apart”, but there’s almost no other way to describe it. The tune disappears, and all the instruments die out as if they’ve just given up on playing whatever they were playing.

(4:24) Then, out of the darkness (well, the aural darkness anyway), a very quiet new idea begins on the cellos. I’m never quite sure if it’s sad or hopeful or some other feeling. To me, it just sounds lost and, in the Chailly recording, so bare. But this has actually been a long lead-up to …

(5:40) … the various tweetings of our second theme again, the Elegant theme. But like the first theme, it doesn’t get very far. Within a few seconds, something ominous appears on the horizon, as if Dorothy’s hurricane is blowing through. It continues to build and we brace ourselves for another a massive moment of chaos …

But it’s a trick … instead …

A Familar March and a New One

(7:03) … what nobody saw coming was the return to the funeral march from Movement I. It’s a brilliant special effect. It hints at where we have been and makes the symphony feel less like a disconnected series of tunes. (And I’ll be honest, I love that funeral march and am quite happy to hear the tune one last time.)

(7:52) Then a new sort of strident march begins on the strings. If you listen carefully, it feels as if it’s working towards a big brass finale (and it was, at about 8:25), but then it collapses again just at the last minute … Are you feeling the frustration yet? This, people, is Mahler’s view of the world – just when you think life is about to get good, something else comes along and it all falls apart. The reality is (spoiler alert) that the symphony is going to end with a massive brass happy ending and somewhat like a good movie director, this is Mahler’s way of foreshadowing the end. But it’s a way off yet.

For now, the orchestra sweeps us off into a chaotic linking moment that eventually takes us back to …

Recapitulation – Back to the Beginning

(9:06) Recapitulation – The crazy Disastrous Elephants again. (By now, if Mahler has been playing his cards right, you should start to feel exhausted.) Notice that when you get to the repeat of the Elegant music (10:23), it now feels more chaotic, as if elements of the storm have crept across from the first theme into the second theme.

(11:15) Ends with a particularly stressful moment where the strings are trying to climb upwards, but there’s a harsh trombone melody bearing down on them. But then … just when you think you’re going to be stuck in this world of struggle forever (it is becoming more and more like a quicksand) …

In A Galaxy Far, Far Away

(12:08) BOOM! … The Star Wars moment! Who saw that coming? Out of the blue, Mahler brings in a majestic brass moment (which will come back in its full glory in the final movement). This kind of thing is known as a “Mahler breakthrough”, where the music doesn’t transform or gradually change into something majestic – instead the new changes bursts in. It’s like a hero breaking through a wall.


(13:23) Coda – The storm rapidly reappears, interrupting the Star Wars bit. It’s the most chaotic appearance of the Elephants theme yet but it falls apart in the end, as if the rain has cleared up.

(14:12) The second theme, the Elegant theme, does reappear for a brief moment (mainly the tweeting flutes part), but in a very small form, almost as if it’s a small chamber music ensemble playing, not a full-blown orchestra. And it all dies out with a whimper, rather than a big bang.

All in all, a very strange and unsettling movement. As far as I’m aware, back in its day, audiences had never heard anything quite so musically violent and I’m not sure that it was immensely popular for a long while. But what did you think of it?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler Symphony No 5 – Introduction

Mahler Symphony 5

I had originally planned to jump straight into Movement I of the Mahler 5 but the introductory couple of paragraphs I intended to write blew out to a blog post on its own. So this is the introduction to the symphony itself. Movement I will be up in a couple of days.

Overly Short Historical Introduction

You don’t need a lot of background to listen to this music, but to give you an idea of how old it is, this symphony was first performed in 1904, and was written over the previous two years by Mahler on his holidays. Mahler, at the time, was director of the Vienna Court Opera, and was more famous as a conductor than anything else. He would spend most of the year conducting operas, but when the opera season was on break, in summer, he would sit down and start composing his massive symphonies.

Clarity of Sound

Knowing that Mahler was a conductor helps explain the way Mahler wrote music for orchestra. I don’t claim to be an expert on conducting, but a good conductor has an ear for what kind of sounds can be made by particular instruments, how those different sounds combine an how to get a good balance of sound. And Mahler seemed to have an extraordinary ear for it, because in almost any of his movements, one of the first striking features worth pointing out on a guided tour is how clearly each instrument’s voice stands out.
This doesn’t always happen in writing for orchestra. In a lot of music, the instruments blur together to form a sound more like a large choir. But not so with Mahler. At nearly any point, you can listen and pick out what each group of instruments is doing. The end result is that the music sounds incredibly rich and complex (in a good way), because layer upon layer of sound is added in to form the whole. It’s like looking at the inside of a clock – you can see each cog and wheel moving but all of those individual pieces add up to the movement of the clock hands.

Three-Course Symphonies

Now, while I don’t want to get super-technical straight out of the gate, it is also worth knowing something about movements in a symphony and what audiences expected. Most works of classical music from the 19th century (and especially symphonies) are broken into sections called movements. The easiest way to think of this is like courses in a meal.
Most three-course meals have an entrée, a main and a dessert. But what is entertaining for the diner (and hopefully for the chef) is that there is an infinite variety of types of entrées, mains and desserts. But nonetheless, we kind of know what type of food would count as a main, compared with a dessert. So while we know each course will vary depending on the restaurant and chef, nonetheless, we can have a certain expectation of what we expect the food to taste like.
Movements in symphonies in the 19th century worked in largely the same way. By the time Mahler came along, the audience generally expected that a symphony would have four movements:
1) A fast movement to start with
2) A slow movement (to calm things down and contrast with the first movement)
3) A quirky movement called a scherzo (Italian for “joke”) which was faster, but still a bit light and not as heavy as the first and last movements
4) A fast movement to end with
Movements 2) and 3) can often be swapped around, but generally those four movements were what an audience expected to get from a symphony by the end of the 19th century.

Four Plus One

However, the Mahler 5 – just to be different – has five movements. There are a couple of ways you can think about it. In one sense, you could call it a regular four-movement symphony with a bonus funeral march thrown in at the beginning. But most people, and Mahler himself, describe it as being in three parts.
Part 1 contains the first two movements – Movement I, one of the most elegant funeral marches ever created and Movement II, a wild, chaotic whirlwind of emotion with just a hint of the Light Side at the end. Essentially, these two movements form the Dark Side of the symphony, the heavy stuff, the bad beginning.
Part 2 is the Scherzo in the middle – the longest Scherzo ever written, and it’s the hinge or the fulcrum, as David Hurwitz puts it, that tips the mood balance of the piece from dark to light.
Part 3 is the last two movements. It is the Light Side, the beautiful stuff, the happy ending.
Overall, the symphony is not particularly about anything, but there are some musical ideas in this symphony that pop up in nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies. But I’ll point them out as we go. See you in a few days!

The 1812 Overture – The Guided Tour

Could there be any more fitting way to finish off a reading of War and Peace? The 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky was written as a musical representation of the year of 1812, and is a hugely entertaining 15 minutes of music, beloved of audiences everywhere.

It has been used in so many different ways, that most people wouldn’t realise what the real history of 1812 was. Certainly, I remember it as a youngster in the context of Australian Army ads – this was back in the days when we used to advertise the Army with images of guys in camouflage gear wandering around in the bush shooting machine guns. Once the 90s arrived, and the Gulf War happened, ads oddly enough started just being about how the army would help you get a degree … no guns in sight, after that.

Anyway, here it is – a video of the 1812 Overture. I have taken the liberty of sticking a running commentary over the top. Those of you who know my blog will have seen this before. For those of you horrified by the idea, you might want to look it up on YouTube.

1812 Overture – Part One

1812 Overture – Part Two

CD Review: A Night in the Tropics (Gottschalk)

Even for those who like classical music, I’m pretty sure if I were to poll a lot of people, Louis Moreau Gottschalk is possibly not going to be a completely familiar name.  However, after having heard this CD (actually, after having heard it lots of times), I really think that’s a bit of a shame.

Gottschalk was actually a famous American pianist, believe it or not, of the 1800s. He started out as a child prodigy, and by his later years (and when we say later, bear in mind that he died at age 40), he was touring Europe and mixing with people like Liszt and Chopin.

But what makes his music stand out so much is that he really did capture all the syncopated music of South Louisiana and the Caribbean.  If you didn’t think rumbas were around in the 1840s – think again!

Don’t expect anything deep and serious from this music, but it is a lot of fun. For those of you who are purists, be warned, this is not Gottschalk’s original versions (most of which would have been for solo piano), rather, this is versions of his music which have been arranged for various combinations of instruments (most of them piano and orchestra).

Starting with the utterly sparkling Celebre Tarantelle arranged for piano and orchestra, and then moving on through a variety of numbers until it ends with the title piece, A Night in the Tropics, a nifty little two-movement mini-symphony. For those of you looking for something a little bit different, this is a CD worth checking out.  And being a Naxos CD, it only costs 10 bucks, so who can complain about that?

Review Backlog 9 of 10: Brahms – Symphony No 1, Tragic & Academic Festival Overtures (Marin Alsop)

One of the main reasons my reviews have been backlogged has been the fact that I’ve had real diffficulty trying to get my head around Brahms.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the guy’s music is great, and this recording is only cementing that.  But it’s his structure I have trouble with.  Everything sounds as if it’s carefully planned and that things are subtly morphing into other things, but I have trouble hearing it all.

However, it’s that feeling that there is a bigger picture to it all that keeps me listening to this CD, and that’s probably a good thing.  If, at some stage, I’m able to find a good book that goes into detail about Brahms symphonies (something I haven’t yet found), then I’m sure I’ll be able to offer a lot more detail.

In the meantime, however, if you want really great orchestral music, this is a great CD to start with, and being a Naxos CD, it won’t cost you very much at all.  Also, another thing that I thought would be interesting about this piece is that it is conducted by a woman, and female conductors are rare as hen’s teeth (I’m not sure why – but they are).  Oddly enough, that seemed to make little difference, and if anything the piece sounded as if it was being conducted by Brahms himself, so maybe that’s a sign of Marin’s genius.

Either way, this music is very different from the high-energy symphonies of Beethoven, and the emotional highs and lows of Mahler.  Instead, the music feels very stately and dignified (almost as if we are listening to an older man think about life).  However, that’s not to say that this music is boring – it’s certainly not.  It has drama, fire and passion, but it all seems to be within well thought-out boundaries.

So unlike, say, Mahler, where he often tries to create the impression that the music has a life of its own, sometimes even wailing and collapsing in on itself, in Brahms’ hand, we feel that the music is guided strongly.

Anyway, words really don’t describe this symphony.  Have a listen for yourself, especially at the low price.  Included on the CD (to make sure you get your money’s worth) are two of Brahms’ overtures, the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture, both of which he wrote at the same time.  The Academic Festival Overture has become quite popular, as Brahms runs through a series of popular student songs, turning them into orchestral  melodies with both a sense of fun, and a sense of power.

Did I mention the sound was really good on this CD as well?  (If I had a more hi-tech sound system, I’d love to try the SACD or DVD-Audio of this recording.)

5 out of 5 (at least until I hear some more Brahms recordings)