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.

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The Royal College of Music, defying being photographed in the London midday sun.

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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 …
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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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The last movement of the Mahler 9 – it feels like the musical equivalent of watching someone pass away. (Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the contrasting emotions of facing up to death. Movement II was a raucous dance movement. Movement III was a representation of chaos.

But the thing that has been eluding Mahler for the last two movements, was the one thing that he had just found at the end of the first movement: acceptance. This final movement, which showcases the strings especially, is probably one of the most powerful representations of dying ever composed.

One quick musical bit of jargon which I would normally avoid, but will help a lot with me being able to describe the music to you more easily, is the concept of a turn. A turn is a very particular thing that composers used a lot in the 19th century to make their music sound a bit more fancy. (The term they would use is that they were adding “ornamentation” to the music.) So instead of playing just one note, they would quickly play four, like this:

  • The note above the main note.
  • The main note.
  • The note below it.
  • Back to the main note again.

We’re normally used to hearing this in earlier classical music, but if you have a listen to the opening few seconds of this last movement of the Mahler 9, you’ll hear it’s a really intense long note, which is then followed by a quick set of four notes. Those four notes are the turn. (It’s also the Last Movement Hint that Mahler dropped in the third movement.) It occurs so often throughout this movement, that I’ll refer to it as the Turn Motif. However, unlike older composers who used it for a fancy effect, I think Mahler is drawn to it because the turn, with the notes grouped so closely together, starts to create a hypnotic effect after a while.

Okay, that jargon out of the way, let’s finish the symphony.

(0:00) Theme 1 – the strings immediately set the tone of this theme (and the whole movement) with lots of vibrato (which refers to the vibration each note makes), and an especial care to make sure that each note is connected to the one that follows. (We call this legato, which is Italian for “tied together”.) I call this theme String Intensity. It instantly gives the melody an enormous emotional kick, right from the start.  Tune-wise, this opening theme is a combination of two main ideas. One is the quiet idea from the middle of the third movement, which is the Turn Motif we’ve already talked about. The other idea, which arrives around the 0:24 mark, is a sad series of descending notes, which could very well be a hint of the famous hymn Abide With Me, often played at funerals. (And also written by a hymn-writer who knew he was only weeks from death.)

(2:00) For a brief moment, we hear a hint of a very sparse theme on the bassoon (but it will come back later) but it is swept aside very quickly by more String Intensity. It climaxes with an Epic Climb (3:54), stair-stepping up two notes at a time to reach …

(4:05) … a plateau with the Turn Motif repeating over and over again, this time in the minor key, but still quite recognisable.

(4:44) Theme 2 – This is like nothing else in all of Mahler. Super-high barely-there notes from the strings and a creeping bass line. The famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said this moment was like “transcendental meditation”, as if Mahler has managed to put all emotion and feelings behind him. I can understand why he would say that.

(5:32) Solo viola and flute as the music gets more spare. I really like this sound that Mahler creates.

(7:08) The String Intensity theme comes back, this time beginning on the French horns (which then makes me wonder whether I’ve made it confusing by calling it String Intensity!), but the strings soon return to the foreground (7:23). It continues on, growing in passion, like this bit at 8:54. Either way, the overall feeling I get is that Mahler has found his bravery. He has steeled himself up to do something, not with false heroics, but simply with acceptance. And now we are striding slowly but steadily forward into the unknown.

(10:59) I love this bit when the music works up to a massive climax and then …

(11:08) … just drops away to the strings playing quietly. It’s tragic and beautiful all at the same time. The Turn Motif continues on and on … At 12:29, we have our obligatory Mahler Chamber Music Moment. This is the one that makes everyone cry. Heartbreaking violin solo, a couple of woodwinds to close off the phrase and then …

(12:55) Chords on the high strings, with the Turn Motif on the lower instruments. Possibly my favourite moment in the whole symphony. This is where normally you might expect the movement to stop. But, no, it keeps going …

(13:32) … back to the Transcendental Meditation zone again with an off-kilter harp and a lonely sounding group of woodwinds.

(15:25) Return of String Intensity. Builds up to an even bigger massive climax …

(17:00) … which dies away to an extraordinary descending scale with the legato now so intense that each note seems to be clinging for dear life to the one in front of it. The full orchestra joins in (for the last time in this symphony), in another one of those majestic build-ups that seems about to hit the big ending note …

(18:33) … but then die away to softness, with that Turn Motif hanging in space alone. A bit more String Intensity and Abide With Me.

(20:06) There is one more final build-up …

(20:52) … and then one of the most extraordinary codas ever written. Over high whistling notes on the strings, the Turn Motif repeats over and over again, sometimes on solo instruments, but mostly on the strings.

Gradually, every instrument goes quiet except for the strings (minus the double basses). They repeat the same phrases over and over again, but getting slower and with longer pauses in-between. The only thing you can compare it to is a dying person slowly running out of life. Bit by bit, they slow down, and you’re not sure which breath will be the last one.

No matter how many times I hear it, unless I’m looking at the track times, I’m never sure when the symphony is about to end. It’s like it doesn’t really end, it just slips away. You look over, and the life is gone, the orchestra has stopped playing. If you see it live, watching the rest of the orchestra quietly wait while the strings die out feels uncannily like old friends gathered around a deathbed waiting for the last breath.

Over a century later, it is still one of the most moving moments in all music.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get cracking.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The overall effect is to leave you quite breathless …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(8:01) Dance 3 again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wave 1

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

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

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

(3:05) The Heroic Theme that fails.

Wave 2

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

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

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

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

Wave 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wave 4

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

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

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

Wave 5

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

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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