The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement I

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The opening movement of the Mahler 2 portrays death at its most devastating. Rather like this painting by Felix Nussbaum (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

This first movement, if you remember from the last post, started life as Mahler’s Funeral Rites music. I can’t think of many other classical pieces that assaults its listeners like this one does …

(0:00) The whole thing begins with a tense vibration (a tremolo) on the violins . Under that, the low strings play an urgent theme. Like a vast thunderstorm, this music continues, growing in power and violence, as more and more instruments enter. Throughout it all, however, the low strings never stop playing. It climaxes in a mighty brass crash (2:40), which dies away on the woodwinds.

(3:09) A more gentle theme tries to enter on the violins, but the low strings are still hinting at trouble underneath and gradually this new gentle theme gets hijacked, and (4:19) we return to the tremolo of the opening.

(4:51) Then soon a military march emerges. It has a vaguely heroic sound, but it too gets hijacked, this time by the brass, which drag the whole theme down in a noisy passage of crashing cymbals and drum rolls. Everything becomes quiet again, and we wait to see what has happened in the aftermath . . .

(5:53) With the low strings providing the beat, a new march emerges – a funeral march. It is very quiet, with the woodwinds singing in a lonely desolate manner over the top. Also listen out for the harps which come in right at the end of the march. They play a kind of tolling sound, like a bell.

(7:05) And then, while the tolling continues, the strings again attempt the gentle theme. And this time it works! Gently soaring, and then moving into the brass and the woodwinds, we move into a miraculous passage of delicate beauty, like an oasis in the middle of a storm. One of the joys of listening to Mahler’s music, is that even in the middle of the worst circumstances, there will be flashes of  beauty. (Like life, really.O

(9:15) Gradually, however, the music starts to change. It’s still quiet, but it gradually morphs into another quiet funereal tune. (10:36) Then after that, the brass enters, and we head into another loud passage. As earlier, a heroic military march tries to win the day. But it gets stifled again, this time in an even more chaotic passage. (11:27) With crashing cymbals and pounding drums, the whole music literally seems to sink into the floor.

(11:47) But then, the gentle music starts again. However, it’s only the harps and flutes this time, so it sounds very small and vulnerable, when we consider the kind of devastation it has to match. More instruments join in, and the music comes to a happy little ending of its own.

(12:55) But we start to hear trouble brooding. With a crash, the opening urgent theme begins again on the low strings. This time, however, the music sounds even darker.

(13:20) Another funeral march begins, again with low strings providing the rhythm, and lonely woodwinds singing over the top. (14:25) As the music builds, the brass play a tune that sounds vaguely like an anthem of some sort. (This is actually – spoiler alert – a small hint of the music that the choir will sing at the end of the symphony.) The first four notes of this tune would have also been famous to its listeners – those four notes opened a famous Gregorian chant from the 13th century, the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath – have a listen here to the original) and ever since then, composers had been borrowing those four notes any time the wanted to drop a hint about the Day of Judgement. All of which just adds to the weight of this movement, right?

(14:48) Triumphantly, the music swells up, again attempting to be heroic. Again, it gets taken over by a whirl of cymbals, discordant notes and pounding drums. Horrible brass take over, rushing the music along to the most horrendous climax imaginable:

(16:20) A hideous chord (group of notes), made up of as many clashing notes as possible, plays over and over. Musically it is like being hit hit over the head with a sledge hammer and it’s meant to leave an audience cringing in their seats. Unlike our traditional Western concept of death, where we sanitise things, Mahler presents us with death in all its devastation and horror.

(16:47) When this is over, Mahler returns to the music of the opening. So the urgent strings enter again. Everything’s a bit shorter than the first time, but we hear all the familiar parts we know: the brass climax (18:10), and the gentle oasis music (18:36). This time, however, there is an edge of sadness to the oasis music which wasn’t there the first time. It’s as if, confronted with the fact of death, the music now has a sad outlook on life.

Mahler himself said that in this movement he was looking down into an empty grave and asking the questions: “What’s the point of life? Why are we even born if all we’re going to do is die? What’s the meaning of it all?” (Remember these questions: they become important later.)

(21:24) The gentle theme leads into another funeral march again – very slow, solemn and quiet. It builds up to one last climax from the full orchestra again. (Listen out for the tam-tam – a huge gong – which lets out a massive sound at this climax.)

(23:40) The music dies away into a lonely and bleak passage. At the very end, a trumpet sounds out one last note, which for a split second sounds like it might be triumphant. But it quickly turns sour and with a rush, the orchestra plays a descending scale, and ends with three low plucks on the strings, “like dirt being thrown on a coffin” as one conductor described it.

 

For several years after I first heard it, it was the Twin Towers I would see in my head during this movement, because that seemed to fit the devastating sound world Mahler constructs. Other people might hear different things. But whatever your experience of it, this is the darkness that is waiting to be overcome in the final movement – overcome by resurrection.

But first, the music takes an unusual detour – which you will hear when we come back for the second movement. See you soon!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

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So here we are – one last Mahler Symphony left. There are lots of debates over which is the “best” Mahler symphony and it’s a highly personal choice. But this one is my personal favourite, and there are some statistics to indicate that I’m not alone. A few years ago, Australia’s ABC Classic FM radio station (not to be confused with the UK’s Classic FM) had a Classic 100 Symphony survey. Listeners voted for their favourite symphony and then the radio station played selections from each of the top 100 symphonies over eight days in a big countdown from 100 to 1.

While there was no Mahler in the top 10 (he’s less mainstream in some ways), he had nine featured in the countdown. (Das Lied von der Erde was one of them, Symphony No. 7 was not. Poor old Mahler 7. It just never wins any popularity contests.) And the one that got the highest up the list? In 14th place, the Mahler 2, the “Resurrection” symphony. So until someone comes up with a more far-reaching poll, I’m declaring the Mahler 2 the most popular of the Mahler symphonies!

This symphony is also personal to me because it particularly pushed me to move into the classical music industry. I remember first hearing it in 2002 and being absolutely moved and exhilarated by it. I think it was some combo of its themes of resurrection and life after death, contrasted with the kind of world we were now living in post 9/11.

But as I listened to it more and more, the music reinforced the power of live music. While there are some fantastic recordings of the Mahler 2, as you hear it, you can’t help be struck by the thought that no matter how good it sounds on CD, it would sound 10 times better in a live performance. (And now that I’ve been to four performances of the Mahler 2 live, I can confirm that this is true.) The thought came to me, If a day ever comes where you can’t hear this stuff live, then we will have lost something from our culture. And that was the catalyst. From then on, I was desperate to work in the classical music industry, doing something to keep live music alive and I’m still here nine years later …

But back to the symphony.

The story behind the Second is rather unusual. It started with a dream. Mahler dreamed one night that he was laid out on a funeral bier, surrounded by flowers. It was that image which inspired him to write a devastating piece of orchestral music called Funeral Rites (Totenfeier). The story goes that he took it round to show the famous conductor, Hans von Bülow, and played it for him on the piano. Hans told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t even consider it music. It was too modern, too challenging, too harsh. (Which was pretty rough given that Hans conducted lots of Wagner, known as the most modern composer around.)

Depressed by this reaction, Mahler put the piece aside for a long while. However, he knew in his mind that it was the opening of a great symphony (it later became the first movement of the Mahler 2). But he didn’t know how to finish the piece. After writing an opening of such heaviness, how do you find an ending that can match it or balance it out?

In the end, the finale came to him in a rather ironic way. Hans von Bülow died, and it was at his funeral that Mahler first heard the hymn Aufersteh’n (Resurrection), being sung by a boys’ choir. “Like a thunderbolt”, to use his words, the theme he needed to end his symphony was found. And thus was born the astonishing “Resurrection” symphony of Gustav Mahler.

The symphony consists of five movements:

Movement I is the original funeral rites, one of the most devastating pieces of music ever written.

Movement II is a nostalgic look back at the dances of Mahler’s past.

Movement III is a quirky orchestral adaptation of a song that Mahler wrote a couple of years before.

Movement IV is a short five-minute piece sung by alto called “Primal Light”. It’s five minutes of pure beauty.

Movement V is the resurrection, one of the most incredible stretches of music ever composed with a massive choral climax.

There are many good recordings out there of this one. In fact, it’s a piece that is, on the whole, so good that even a lame performance is still going to sound fairly awesome. But the one I’ve landed on is the 1988 CD by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. It’s a lot slower than some of the others, but Lenny turns this into an unmatched epic experience. Also, after hearing it, if you want to own your own box set of Mahler symphonies, you can go pick up the complete Bernstein box set for a bargain price nowadays. (It used to be freakishly expensive back in the day.)

See you soon for Movement I!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement VI

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where We Have Been:

  • Movement I – What the Rocks and Mountains Told Me: a vast struggle between summer and winter
  • Movement II – What the Flowers Tell Me: a light, airy dance of the flowers in the field
  • Movement III – What the Animals Tell Me: a wild rumpus
  • Movement IV – What Man Tells Me: a haunting moment of stillness
  • Movement V – What the Angels Tell Me: an angelic children’s choir

And now we are at the top of Mahler’s chain of creation. And what is it like? Well, I think it is a love-it-or-hate-it movement. Some of you may find it a bit slow and anti-climactic after all the orchestral brilliance on the way up the chain. However, for me, it remains the most majestic slow movement of all time. This is what slow movements were invented for. To slow time down and to create an atmosphere of beauty that simply can’t be rushed.

Tune-wise, this movement is rather simple. I hummed the main theme many times to my kids when they were babies, just because it has the simplicity and comfort of a lullaby, but also something more powerful as well. The closest I can come to explaining it is that somehow Mahler is trying to portray Love as something much bigger than romantic love. This is Divine Love – God, in other words – and the sound of God is vast, majestic, beautiful and overcomes all obstacles.

The movement is built as a series of parts, each one like a wave. It starts with a beautiful major-key melody, which gradually descends into crisis but eventually overcomes in the end.

So find yourself a quiet place to be undisturbed for half an hour – and a good set of headphones – and immerse yourself.

Part 1

(CD2, Track 4, 0:00) Nothing but the strings, barely getting above a whisper. They play a looooong melody that stretches out and soars.

(Track 5, 0:00) A new type of theme; a chorale (i.e. you can imagine it being sung by a four-part choir). Again, still all on strings, still deathly quiet. But it marks a transition from the major key into the minor key. At the (0:48) mark, starting with the oboe and then the horns, the other instruments finally make themselves known. I find it breathtaking.

(2:14) The first minor-key interlude. Anguished tremolos (those shimmering repeated notes on the strings), with a mournful descending motif on the horns. But the struggle hasn’t yet broken out in full force.

(Track 6, 0:00) Transition – Back to the opening theme, but now tinged with sadness. Becomes more miserable.

Part 2

(1:59) At this point, the theme returns as we first heard it, but this time on the winds, with strings underneath.

(3:35) The chorale – this time on French horns, with a solo violin underneath. Quite haunting. Becomes gradually darker.

(Track 7, 0:00) At this point, things start to get more emotionally intense, leading to the first big climax of the movement. The build-up to it is extraordinary and it explodes at (3:09). Completely awe-inspiring passage of music (and I have never heard anyone do it with as much power as Litton and the Dallas Symphony). Also note how, at its most triumphant moment, Mahler brings back the dreaded winter winds from the first movement. (3:33)

Part 3

(Track 8, 0:00) Back to the strings,as in the beginning, but varied again. Builds to a huge brass climax. (1:57)

Which is quickly followed by another massive collapse. (2:14) It’s quite devastating after the beauty of the opening, but this is the last struggle. Love has broken through and on the other side of this last patch of turmoil is the greatest moment of all.

Part 4

(Track 9, 0:00) It begins with a lone flute over glistening strings, ushering in the final repeat of the main theme. But even though we know the tune, this rendition is amazing – it’s played by a quartet of trumpets, with horns providing harmony. But they’re playing quietly – which is what makes it so beautiful. (It’s also incredibly difficult for the musicians. I was chatting with a French horn player recently who said that this was his favourite piece of music – but that it was the hardest piece there was, there was nothing harder. I’ll take his word for it.)

I never fail to get cold shivers at this moment. For me, it will probably always be my favourite brass moment of all time.

The music continues and swells to a massively loud recap of the theme for the full orchestra, followed by the mother of all codas. All I can say is, this is the music I want played at my funeral.
Thus ends the mighty Mahler 3, one of the most moving and ambitious pieces of orchestral music ever created. I say “one of”, of course, because fantastic as this one is, there is one more Mahler symphony left on our tour. And that symphony, the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony is – never mind comparing it with other pieces of music – one of the greatest pieces of art ever created.

See you again soon.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement V

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Movement V: What The Angels Tell Me

Where We’ve Been:

  • Movement I: What the Rocks and Mountains Tell Me (aka Summer Marches In)
  • Movement II: What the Flowers Tell Me
  • Movement III: What the Animals Tell Me
  • Movement IV: What Man Tells Me

And now we’re up to the second-last level of Mahler’s chain of creation – the angels. This is really simple. It’s another one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn), that slightly bizarre set of folk poems that Mahler loved so much. It describes the joy of three angels in heaven.

The poem is arranged for (as in, written out to be performed by) a cute children’s choir (making “Bimm-Bamm” bell sounds), a female choir and the alto soloist again. And after assembling that many people, how long do they sing for? Yes, that’s right. Four minutes. Only in Mahler would you go to that much bother for something so short. But, it all adds to the magical levels of contrast we get to enjoy in this symphony.

(CD 2, Track 3)

Original German

Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang,
mit Freuden es selig in dem Himmel klang.
Sie jauchzten fröhlich auch dabei:
daß Petrus sei von Sünden frei!

Und als der Herr Jesus zu Tische saß,
mit seinen zwölf Jüngern das Abendmahl aß,
da sprach der Herr Jesus: “Was stehst du denn hier?
Wenn ich dich anseh’, so weinest du mir!”

“Und sollt’ ich nicht weinen, du gütiger Gott?
Ich hab’ übertreten die zehn Gebot!
Ich gehe und weine ja bitterlich!
Ach komm und erbarme dich über mich!”

“Hast du denn übertreten die zehen Gebot,
so fall auf die Knie und bete zu Gott!
Liebe nur Gott in all Zeit!
So wirst du erlangen die himmlische Freud’.”

Die himmlische Freud’ ist eine selige Stadt,
die himmlische Freud’, die kein Ende mehr hat!
Die himmlische Freude war Petro bereit’t,
durch Jesum und allen zur Seligkeit.

In English

Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!

And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”

“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”

“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”

The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

One more movement to go!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement IV

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Midnight Mist (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I: epic battle between winter and summer. Movement II: the delicate flowers. Movement III: a wild rumpus of animals.

But now we arrive at a moment of almost perfect stillness.

This movement is based on a very simple concept, but it’s beautifully executed. Mahler took some words by Nietzsche from Thus Spake Zarathustra. In particular, he latched onto some lines about the deep midnight talking. Then, by deliberate repetition of the word “deep” (tiefe) he creates music that sounds, well, deep and nocturnal.

Essentially, it is a call for man to emerge from darkness and pain and it starts to pave the way for the beauty of the last two movements.

(CD 2, Track 1, 0:00)

The whole movement is essentially a 10-minute long aria for alto based over gently rocking deep notes in the low basses. (If you’ve got a good memory, you might recognise this as a nod to the wintery music of the first movement.)

Every now and again, the oboe gives out a strange cry, like a bird at midnight (2:02, for instance). (And depending to what degree the oboist and conductor are adventurous, it can really start to sound like a long bird call.)

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht?
“Ich schlief, ich schlief -,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: –
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.

O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.

(Track 2, 0:00)

Tief ist ihr Weh -,
Lust – tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -,
– Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!”

Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!”
(Translation courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3 – Movement III

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It’s animal time in the Mahler 3. (Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, which I believe is inferring that America was so awesome, that big cats, bears and massive cows will babysit the kids for free while white people strike business deals with the natives.)

The opening tune in this scherzo is based on a song that Mahler had written for voice and piano that describes some birds reacting to the death of the local cuckoo. But Mahler throws in a whole bunch of other animals in this version, and the original song tune grows more and more wild. But then, in the B section of this movement, we get an amazing surprise, but we can talk about that when we get there.

Section A

(CD 1, Track 12, 0:00) The cuckoo song. It starts very polite and delicate, almost like another version of the second movement.

(1:23) But, in keeping with the animal theme, the instrumental sound gradually becomes less and less polite and more rambunctious. You start to feel like the orchestra is a bit of a zoo. In fact, this wilder, stampeding bit reminds me a bit of the wild rumpus from Where The Wild Things Are. But what do you hear?

(Track 13, 0:00) Back to the cuckoo song again, but slightly more melancholy. It descends (even more quickly this time) into the Wild Rumpus. This music is totally unique in the orchestral world (at least I haven’t heard much else to compare with it) and pure awesome.

Section B

(2:22) And then … in one of the most amazing passages Mahler ever wrote (I feel like I say that all the time, but seriously, this is one of those moments) the music dwindles down to just very high strings …

(Track 14, 0:00) … and then, almost like it is floating on the breeze, the sound of an off-stage post-horn. (Or other similar small brass instrument. Though, just to be confusing in this case, it’s a trumpet. Orchestras often do sub in a trumpet for the part, so feel free to track down a few other recordings if you want to hear what it sounds like on a real post-horn.) It’s so beautiful, and seen live, the whole audience will be holding their breath listening to a brass player that they can’t see.

As to the meaning of this beautiful but strange moment, Mahler described it as the first time man appears in his chain of creation. But man is still in the distance, still far away. As time goes on, some of the other instruments start to join in a bit more, like the French horn (2:15). There are also some interludes that hearken back to Section A, but the solo mostly continues on by itself for several minutes.

Section A

(Track 15, 0:00) Then with a mischievous little fanfare from the trumpet, Section A comes back, this time with mysterious tremolo (the shimmering sound on the strings), and more of a chamber music texture. But it doesn’t take long before the music works back up to its over-the-top self again. The clever thing about this stuff is that it manages to sound totally spontaneous – as if all the instruments have a mind of their own (like wild animals, really!) and are running crazy, but the reality is that Mahler has managed, to perfect, every last sound detail to sound that way.

Section B

(Track 16, 0:00) A return to the world of the distant post-horn, now with some more syrup in the strings. (I still like it, though.) The French horn accompaniment at this point is particularly beautiful.

Coda

(2:56) The animals come back again, but this time with a big Mahlerian collapse which is followed by another huge Star Wars moment which all lovers of brass and percussion will be sure to love.

So there you go. How much fun was that?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement II

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The second movement of the Mahler 3: “What the flowers tell me”. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the first of six movements heading up Mahler’s vast chain of creation, and it covered off the rocks and the mountains (while also being a rather awe-inspiring battle between summer and winter). But now in the second movement, we come to the flowers of the field. This movement is the lightest and, dare I say it, fluffiest of the six movements and makes a nice break after the first movement. (This is part of the reason why the symphony never feels as long as its actual running time – the contrasts between movements are so interesting, you always feel like you’re going somewhere different.)

It has a very simple ABABA structure, so it’s easy to follow as well.

(CD1, Track 9, 0:00) Section A – The movement is marked as being a minuet (an old dance form with a one-two-three beat). Mahler drops all the heavy brass and uses much more delicate instrumentation. So, by complete contrast with the first movement, it opens with a light oboe melody, which expands out to the strings. The next couple of minutes are completely gentle.

(2:03) Section B – Things get a bit more crazy, with some pizzicato (plucked strings, which give that awesome “plinking” sound), and some fluttery flutes. Imagine, if you will, that the gentle flowers are now being blown about by the breeze. It’s a little bit like something out of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, to my mind.

(Track 10, 0:00) Section A – Back to the gentle minuet again. (0:51) In the middle, it drops almost to a chamber music ensemble, then (1:10) morphs into some big schmaltzy Viennese-sounding sweeps that André Rieu would be pretty proud of. Apparently, a lot of orchestras in the 1800s used to play this movement as a stand-alone piece because it was so cute. Which used to annoy Mahler because it completely gave audiences the wrong idea of what his music is meant to sound like …

(2:12) Section B – The anxious sound comes back again, with a bit of brass making an appearance, some weird clackety-clack sounds, and ends up whirling and spinning faster and faster.

(Track 11, 0:00) Section A – The minuet again, but now with a more skittish edge. Again, a beautiful chamber music passage in the middle.

(2:10) Coda – The coda (ending section) takes us right up to the top of the violins range, and fades out beautifully. I love the light, airy sounds of the Dallas Symphony violins in this section.

Back soon with the next movement – the animals!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement I

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The first movement of the Mahler 3 – sounds about as awesome as this Ouzbek Wedding Band looks. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

So we begin the Mahler 3 with one of the longest and most ambitious opening movements ever. In some ways, the structure is really simple. It’s in sonata form, so it features an Exposition with two main themes (both marches), a Development that plays around with them, and a Recapitulation. But both of the themes run for minutes and are completely different sound worlds. So what you’re going to notice most is the huge contrast between the two ideas.

If you remember from the intro, Mahler was trying to do two things in this movement. First of all, he was bringing you the sound of the rocks and mountains at the bottom of his huge chain of creation leading up to Divine Love. But he is also telling the story of an epic struggle between winter and summer. (Thus why this movement also has another subtitle: “Summer Marches In”).

But it’s really a clash between two marches. Winter is portrayed by a Funeral March, featuring an epic tenor trombone solo, and summer is also a huge march – a cross between the Star Wars theme and a Sousa march. (Which sounds like this for non-Americans reading this who might be less familiar with Sousa.)

Exposition – Theme 1

(CD 1, Track 1 – 0:00) The mighty French horn opening. It sounds pretty epic in its own right, but music nerds out there love to point out the awesome piece of trivia, that it is actually a minor key variance of this awesome section from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. And the Brahms itself is a riff on an even more famous theme by Beethoven. But you would never guess, hearing the Beethoven or the Brahms, exactly what that theme might sound like belted out on the brass like this, with those huge drum beats. It instantly announces to everyone in the room that Something Big Is About To Happen.

(1:16) A slow, draggy funeral march begins, complete with shivering strings, muffled drum beats and a sort of howling wind from the trumpet. It’s bleak and unrelenting. I’ve heard it explained in some places as being the sound of primal, undeveloped nature or the bleakness of winter. Either one works. The point is that it’s somewhat grim and – this is the best part – the more grim the orchestra makes it sounds, the more awesome the second theme is when it arrives.

(5:21) A fairy-style interlude from the woodwinds. This is Pan waking up, and the spirit of Summer starting to stir. The Summer March almost begins; you can hear it rumbling in the percussion (6:12), desperate to break free, but no …

(Track 2, 0:00) The Funeral March continues, more bleak than ever before. Everybody except trombonists are now feeling miserable. (Lest we just pick on that instrument, there’s also some spiteful-sounding trumpet work as well at 2:02 onwards.)

Exposition – Theme 2

(Track 3, 0:00) The Pan theme again. This time it succeeds and the Summer March begins. It starts quietly in the basses and works its way up through the whole orchestra. This is easily one of the greatest marches ever composed for orchestra, with all the instruments striding or walking (and in the case of the piccolo, scurrying) along, still sounding like individual characters, even though it’s a massive group effort.

It’s also great to hear live, because if you’re in the concert hall when this piece is played, you can feel a rising sense of joy in the audience as Summer well and truly Marches In. It’s almost like they start to unfreeze from the wintry opening.

(4:02) I also feel that this is possibly the moment where the Star Wars theme was invented. (But then I also say that about the Bruckner Symphony No 4, which is a conversation for another day.)

(4:11) But, just as things are about to get really good and the music is about to reach a climax … we get a typical Mahler collapse, where the theme falls apart. And then we’re into the development.

Development

(Track 4, 0:00) The devastating sound of Winter again, howling in the French horns, with the shivering strings underneath. More spiteful trumpets. There has been no triumph of Summer here. We’re right back in the bleak sound world of Winter.

(1:03) Plaintive trumpet solo, almost like it’s begging for mercy. The wintry sounds die down with a bit of timpani and brass fanfare, but we’re not really sure what’s about to come next.

(Track 5, 0:00) A beautiful trombone solo. Like a cousin of the Winter music, but slightly more hopeful. Followed by a haunted oboe. The music keeps dying into silence after each episode, though, so you have a feeling of staticness – of things trying to change, but not being able to get anywhere.

(1:18) Low harps and then the Pan theme emerges again, this time with a beautiful violin solo mixed in.

(1:40) It gets cut short by a bit of a military operation (very quietly and stealthily) by the trumpets and piccolos. Summer looks like it’s gathering its troops.

(2:14) A quiet, almost chamber-music version of the march. (But then again, we’re in the middle of a Mahler movement. Of course he’s going to crop back over a hundred musicians to a small ensemble.) And may I say while I’m at it, that I love the bit at (3:17) for the cellos. Magical every time.

(Track 6, 0:00) A slightly comic (insofar as you can find any orchestral music to be comic) episode that Mahler describes as “The Rabble”. You’ll understand why when you hear it. 

(1:46) The Summer March starts to come back, with a lot of military fanfares, pounding drums. But it’s deliberately not as epic as the full version from the exposition, because believe it or not, we’re still in the development section.

(2:28) I don’t care what Mahler calls this bit. I call it “Brass Band Chaos”. It dies down to a fading military drumbeat. (Track 7, 0:00)


Recapitulation – Theme 1

(0:18) More or less a straight recap of the way it was the first time. The opening French horns, and then the dark Winter theme.

Recapitulation – Theme 2

(Track 8, 0:00) The march fires up again, completely re-orchestrated, but this time it’s not headed for collapse. It’s a glorious 5 minutes of orchestral glory all the way to the end. Enjoy!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 3

61ewth2bb1zlTwo more Mahler symphonies to go! It’s a pretty close call for me between these last two (Symphony 3 and 2) as to which I like the best. Both symphonies are worth seeing live. The epic sound and spectacle of these two works are absolutely amazing. But I like Mahler 2 that fraction more, so here we are with the second last symphony being the might Mahler 3.

The first thing I need to warn you up front is that the Mahler 3 is the longest of all Mahler’s symphonies (and as you know,they’re all pretty long!). It runs for around 100 minutes, and it’s probably the longest symphony that is still regularly performed by orchestras to this day.

Which is quite a feat, because the length makes it incredibly difficult. I was speaking to a French horn player the other day who explained that the Mahler 3 is the hardest piece there is to play. (At least for horns!) There’s so much work to do, for so long, that it’s almost impossible to play the end. But at the same time, it was his favourite piece of music in the world. So that tells you something, right?

I’m happy to say, having seen it live a few times, it’s not anywhere near as difficult to sit through as it is to play. In fact, despite the length, it actually seems shorter than some of the other Mahler symphonies. I think it’s because there is so much interesting stuff going on all the time, and every movement is so different from the others, that you can’t help but get sucked into the whole experience.

What is does help to know, before we set out, is that the Mahler 3 is broken into six movements (which is unusual, given that most normal symphonies have four). And they don’t even correspond to normal movements. Unlike most symphonies where the fast movements are usually the first and last ones, this symphony begins and ends with two massive slow movements. (Which might sound familiar to readers of this blog, having just listened to the Mahler 9.)

The reason for this, though, is that Mahler had a particular scheme or idea in mind when he was creating the movements. He envisioned a vast chain of creation, starting with the lower-level elements and ending all the way up at God (or Divine Love, as he would describe it). So he once described the movements like this:

  • Movement I – What the Rocks and Mountains Tell Me
  • Movement II – What the Flowers Tell Me
  • Movement III – What the Animals Tell Me
  • Movement IV – What Mankind Tells Me
  • Movement V – What the Angels Tell Me
  • Movement VI – What Love Tells Me

And then, honing in on Movement I, as well as being about the static rocks and mountains, Mahler also wanted to capture in music an epic struggle between winter and summer, but we’ll talk more about that when we listen to the first movement.

I should also add that after a couple of premieres of the work, he decided to not tell people what it was about at all, and hid all his notes away. His main reason for this was that he didn’t want to give people something to criticise that might take them away from just listening to the music itself. But thankfully we have scholars nowadays who are quite okay with peeking in people’s diaries and notes after they’ve died, and now most people who know Mahler are familiar with what he is trying to do. And I’ve got to say, if you didn’t know that it was about a chain of creation, it would be a much more confusing piece to listen, so I’m glad that people have researched this one.

My choice on recordings is an unusual one, because it’s not particularly famous. I also apologise that it splits the movements up into lots of tracks – which is great if you’re skipping to the really good bits on CD, not so great if you’re trying to link to Spotify tracks, but we’ll see how we get on. But I love the sound engineering and balance on this recording by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. There are a number of sections where Mahler brings the full orchestra in and the clearer all the instruments sound and blend together, the more spectacular the result. There are plenty of others out there to choose from, so this is by no means definitive, but it’s the one I keep coming back to.

See you soon with Movement I!

A Guy Named George – Part 4: Secrets Hidden in the Royal College of Music

rcm-atmosphericA 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 me, here are the other parts:

A Guy Named George – Part 1: The Book That Changed My Life

A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man Who Changed My Life

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

If you’ve been following along with the previous posts then you’ll know I’d ended up in London in April 2016 trying to work out the secret of George Grove’s success in the classical music field. In the last post, I described how looking at George’s biography and a bit of sleuthing around Wikipedia led to the astonishing conclusion that Grove – a non-musician, from a working class background, running a series of concerts with an (arguably) second-rate orchestra with the same conductor every week, performing for an audience so unsophisticated it didn’t even know to sit down while the music was playing – was able to out-perform his more sophisticated rivals, the Philharmonia Societies (the Royal and the New).

I was madly curious to know what actually happened at these concerts of his in the Crystal Palace and for that, the internet wasn’t helping so much. So there was only one place to go – the closest thing that you could call a “home” for George Grove in London – The Royal College of Music, still regarded as one of England’s best music schoools.

rcm-across-the-road
The Royal College of Music, defying being photographed in the London midday sun.

rcm-sign

I had lined up a chat a few weeks before with Dr Peter Horton, who works in the RCM library. He was amazingly helpful, and a fount of knowledge on all things to do with concerts in the 19th century. I know musicologists and researchers are probably used to these sorts of things, but as a lay person completely new to any sort of historical sleuthing, being able to chat to people who are full of knowledge and stories about a past era is nothing short of astounding.

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Down the Library corridor …
reading-room
The beautiful stained-glass windows of the RCM library.

After our discussion, I got to visit the Reading Room of the library. This itself, was a powerful experience. Because as well as being a charming old-school academic reading room right there, sitting on top of a bookshelf overlooking the reading tables – was Grove himself.

bust
The Grove bust, just sitting there on top of a bookshelf in the reading room.

It’s a slightly larger-than-live carved wooden bust (there’s a matching one in the room next door for Elgar) with no name caption – but there is no mistaking those mutton-chops. It was George and it was like he was waiting for me.

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George Grove.

I only had a few hours, so I decided to check out a couple of books on Grove and the Crystal Palace days, some of the old Crystal Palace programs and a couple of examples of Grove’s  “commonplace books”.

The commonplace books took my breath away, because I’ve never been connected with someone from the past so intimately before. To look at, a commonplace book is just a small hardbound book with blank musical staves in them. But this was more than blank sheet music – this was the equivalent of George Grove’s iPod favourites playlist. (Substitute whatever personal device you listen to your music on nowadays.)

commonplace-books

In the 19th century, when recorded music was still several decades away, what did you do if you really loved a piece of music, especially a symphony or something that required a large number of musicians? You might be lucky to hear it half a dozen times in your lifetime. And so, almost as a way of carrying the experience around, Grove had his commonplace book.

Any time Grove came across a musical idea that he particularly liked, he would make his own copy of the sheet music. Never the whole thing – you would have had to buy the sheet music for that – but maybe a theme that caught his ear. His favourites were clearly Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert because they cropped up again and again. So here, for instance, is the majestic French horn opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”). Which sounds like this for those who can’t read music.

schubert-9

I can just imagine Grove, flicking through his commonplace book, seeing that notation of the opening of the Schubert symphony and hearing the French horns firing up in his imagination. It made me wonder how many times he got to hear that symphony live in his lifetime. Did he listen extra closely every time he heard that theme, knowing that it would be several years before he’d get to ever hear it again. And, later in life, did he listen to it wondering if this would be the last time he would ever hear it?

The whole thing was utterly moving.

lead-kindly-light

And there were little quirky things – on one of the blank pages inside the commonplace book, he had written out in full the words to a hymn “Lead Kindly Light”. Why did he do that? Did he like that particular hymn tune? As a man who dug into his faith intellectually (he was a huge enthusiast for Biblical archaeology when he wasn’t doing music) but struggled with doubts, were these words a comfort for him? We’ll never know 100%, but it was fascinating.

And then on to the programme notes:

programme-cover
I love the warning at the bottom – clearly this was an audience that was used to tromping in and out of things, regardless of what was happening on stage.

Very quickly I found out something amazing about these programme booklets. They weren’t just a random copy of the printed programs that had been kept for posterity. These were Grove’s own copies of the booklets. Flick through half a dozen of them and you’d find his familiar handwriting (and the ink of his fountain-pen or whatever pencil he had to hand, still just as dark and clear today as it was 150 years ago) scattered throughout. Holding it, you could just see him sitting in the Crystal Palace listening to the orchestra playing. He would think of a random idea, or perhaps something that he could have said differently in his notes, whip out his pen, and jot down his thoughts. That night, he’d add the program to his growing collection of the little booklets that were the trademark of that concert series.

But the really jaw-dropping fact emerged soon after I started checking out the second page of the programmes – the list of works that were to be performed at each concert. Suddenly, the penny dropped for me; I realised how he had gotten the crowds and grown his audiences. Look at this program – it’s a typical Crystal Palace Saturday afternoon concert program:

list-of-works
Beginning and ending with exciting crowd-pleasing overtures, interspersed with lots of short songs and popular opera arias, and the only major work is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. A concert cleverly designed for newbies and classical music fans at the same time.

There were many, many concerts that had this sort of format – they would start with an overture (the opening music, if you like) from a ballet or operetta that was popular at the time. Then there would be a curious 5-minute interval. (Only 10 minutes into the concert!). Then after that a long classical work, like a piano concerto or symphony by Beethoven. Then a couple of singers would appear to do a number of popular arias from operas and others songs that are now long since out of popular rotation. There would be another 5 minute break and then one more final overture, followed by a bit of organ music for the next half hour while you got a chance to walk around (or “promenade” as they called it back then).

For those who aren’t used to classical concerts, let me say right now: this is completely different from how we do concerts today. This is the equivalent of starting a concert with 10 minutes of John Williams’ music from Star Wars VII, playing a major classical work, bringing out some singers to do a bit of popular musical theatre, and then finishing with some all-guns-blazing piece of crowd-pleasing orchestral action – like Thomas Bergersen, for instance. (If you’re sceptical, just listen to the last couple of minutes of that Sullivan “In Memoriam” overture that ends the concert. Totally designed to have the crowd roaring on their feet.)

But lest you think the Crystal Palace just sounds like a glorified 19th century André Rieu concert, flicking through the programme notes, we see that in the middle part, where they did the serious music, they were pretty determined to turn the audience into classical music nerds. They’d play the whole work, and Grove’s notes were thorough and methodical. He didn’t hold back from explaining key changes, sonata form structure and the other nerdy stuff. His language was enthusiastic and he was aiming at the lay-person, but he was determined that the lay-person could learn to love this music at the same level as the music nerds.

beethoven-violin-concerto
George Grove having an enthusiastic gush (albeit a musically technical one) about how awesome he finds the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “An art which no one ever possesses, and perhaps no one ever will possess, as he did.”

In short, Grove was putting on a show that attempted to both please the crowds and yet make them more sophisticated at the same time. In short, the whole thing was built around the audience and it was designed to be fun. The dirty little secret of the Crystal Palace and their audience growth was finally out. The reason it took off was because they were giving the audience a good time. No wonder the poor old Royal Philharmonic Society couldn’t compete!

two-major-works
Now in the 1860s, Grove can get away with putting two major works in the concerts – Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and Beethoven’s E Flat Major Piano Concerto (which, interestingly enough, is not nicknamed the “Emperor” Concerto, as we would do today). But the program is still padded out with lighter, crowd-pleasers.

And clearly it worked. I looked through programs from the 1850s and then some from the 1860s and in a decade, the noticeable change was that the concerts had moved from having one lengthy major work to having two a decade later. (So an 1860s Crystal Palace would still start with light fluff, end with light fluff and have light fluff in the middle, but it might contain a concerto and a symphony mixed in the middle somewhere.)

I can’t prove this without doing a lot more research, but the evidence points to Grove’s “audience-first” approach starting to pay off. It took time, but gradually, his audience was getting a longer attention span and growing in sophistication.

Next time in this series on George Grove, in my final post on him, I’ll cover off why I think his influence died out, and what we can learn from him in the 21st century.