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

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Mahler turns aside from the devastation of the opening for … a dance?

Where We’ve Been

Movement I was a massive and terrifying portrait of death.

And now …

Mahler asked that there be a five minute pause between the first and second movement of this symphony.  (Not every conductor will do this, however, especially if the concert is being recorded for broadcast.)  The main reason for this pause is quite simply that this movement sounds nothing like the one before it.  It’s not just the fact that this is the slow movement of the symphony. It’s almost as if we’ve started listening to another symphony entirely. . . at first glance.  What is happening in this movement is that Mahler, after confronting us with death in the first movement, is now taking a nostalgic look back at the past, and reminding us of the “good old days”.  The way he does this is to bring in the music of a ländler (an old Austrian dance).

The movement is in five sections, which are pretty easy to distinguish from one another:

(0:00) Section 1 is the first appearance of the dance.  Just like a glorious waltz from a 30s movie, it sweeps in very delicately with lots of sliding strings and Viennese charm.

(2:04) Section 2 is a rather agitated-sounding theme that completely contrasts with the laid-back charm of the dance.

(3:50) Section 3 is a more elaborate return of the dance.

(5:58) Section 4 is the agitated theme again, but this time it enters in loudly, casting a dark shadow over everything.

(8:27) Section 5, however, brings us out the other side.  The dance returns, but this time the strings play pizzicato (plucked), making it the most delicate moment in the whole symphony.  Very gently, the movement winds to a close, ending with three plucks like the first movement.  But where those plucks were ominous, these plucks are charming and graceful.

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!

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 10: Movement IV

A firefighter’s funeral inspired the ending of the fourth movement of the Mahler 10. (Photo by dbking, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been:  Movement I – A slow movement of melancholy that arrives at some peace, but only after a huge struggle. Movement II – a clash between nostalgia and chaos. Movement III – the strange repetitive world of the Purgatorio.

And that brings us to Movement IV, which is the companion piece to Movement II. So expect more dancing, more chaos. Apparently, another comment that Mahler wrote on the score is “The Devil is dancing with me”. That might go somewhere to explaining this movement and also remind us of the incredibly strange second movement of the Mahler 4, which was based around the idea of Death playing the fiddle.

This movement is a Scherzo, so it features two sections – a Scherzo and a Trio, which alternate with one another. I like to think that the Scherzo represents the chaos of life’s troubles and the Trio represents the trivial ways we ignore that hard side of life. And like all trivia, it takes your mind off things for only a short while before real life interrupts again. I may be stretching things, but if you listen, the Trio, lovely as it is, always seems to come back in smaller and smaller doses, sounding more trivial with each return, while meanwhile the Scherzo theme is becoming wilder and more chaotic. But have a listen and see what you think:

(0:00) Scherzo: Nasty waltz – angular string sound, obnoxious woodwinds and annoying brass. (Okay, I might be being a bit harsh here, but it’s meant to be unsettling.)

(1:13) In this next stretch, gentle moments interrupt – but only for a bit. Things quickly get back to even more irritating and discordant than before.

(2:20) Trio: Quite beautiful and Barshai has really nailed Mahler’s “chamber music” feel in this section …

(2:59) Scherzo: … to set it off against the full orchestral force of the scherzo part.(3:33) I quite like this bit here where the strings get caught in a worried little rut.

(3:59) Before the brass sweep in …

(4:10) … and then everything drops back to a Viennese café for a moment.

(4:19) Then ramped back up. It’s a totally ear-catching moment.

(4:42) The Trio part again, but it’s a different melody than last time. But it has the same light, carefree feel. Listen carefully to a brief blink-and-you-miss it three-note “ha-HA-ha” sound from the trumpet. (4:49) (This goes on to play a big role in the final movement.) Eventually this Trio gets agitated again. (There’s not a whole lot of easing of agitation in this movement.)

(5:34) There’s a little bit of a dreamy moment at the centre here where you can almost escape the chaos.

(6:01) Scherzo: Then back to the mad waltz. This is pretty much the pattern for the rest of the movement – the waltz will get more and more chaotic, have a mini-climax, which will die down to the very simple Trio dance sound. But this never lasts very long before getting swept back into the noisier scherzo sound.

(7:42) Like here: the Trio returns again but then at (8:06), the “ha-HA-ha” motif barges in quite loudly and shatters the peace.

(8:19) Things then turn truly weird, with a strange, limping moment on a solo violin and guitar (8:19), which is actually a transition back into a slightly more quiet version of the Scherzo. There are too many of these moments to describe, where Mahler has an astonishing lurch of tone and Barshai has used some really unusual combos of instruments to make them stand out. One can only wonder how Mahler would have orchestrated them himself if he’d gotten to it.

(9:24) Like this comic sliding trombone that Barshai puts in here, which briefly hints at the Trio theme for a moment. It quickly gets interrupted by a huge discord, with the “ha-HA-ha” right behind it. (9:36) Then everything collapses. I haven’t heard another recording that really makes this movement so weird, which is part of the debate about completing someone else’s symphony. Has Barshai overstepped the mark with the craziness or  is he onto something? I’ll let you decide. (Myself, I think that even if it’s not Mahler’s original vision, it’s amazing what he’s done with it.)

(10:30) The music dies out with a bizarre discussion between cymbals, timpani and woodwinds with a nasty drumbeat right at the end which brings everything to a grim ending.

Mahler’s wife, Alma, tells the story of this finale and its strange drumbeat. When they were living in New York, they heard a noise outside the window and looked out to see a funeral procession for a firefighter who had been killed while fighting a blaze. The public were gathered, speeches were made, but the only thing which could be heard from the Mahlers’ window was the muffled beat of the drum that accompanied the funeral procession. It moved Mahler to tears, this simple funeral ceremony, and so he then used the drumbeat at the end of this movement (and it also opens the fifth movement) with instructions that it should be played “completely muted”.

And if you’re a bit overwhelmed by all this chaos and are desperate for things to settle down and peace to return, then you’re not alone – this is exactly where the final movement will take us, as it makes one last struggle for peace and meaning.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement II

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Mahler’s original draft of the second movement of the Mahler 10.

Where We Have Been: Movement I – a long slow movement, taking us from despair, into a crisis and then to calm acceptance at the end.

This next movement is a scherzo, which means that it has two contrasting ideas: the “scherzo” section and the “trio” section. What’s most noticeable about the scherzo section (particularly if you are a musician having to play the thing) is the constant shifting of the beat. In most music, you have a regular beat that is used as an underlying “count”. It might be a “ONE-two-three” beat or a “ONE-two-THREE-four” or something along those line. And in a composition, a composer may suddenly change from counting in fours to counting in threes.

But in the scherzo section of this movement, it happens constantly. You might not notice it straight away from listening to it, but if you were to try counting along with it, you’ll notice it.

By contrast, the trio section has a regular “one-two-three” beat. So it’s almost as if Mahler is using the beat of the two sections as a contrast between chaos and order (which is often an underlying theme in many of his movements).

Scherzo
(0:00) The crazy dance begins on the French horns in the Barshai version and then passes over to the strings. Even if you can’t hear the shifting beat, you should still be able to feel the chaos and its shifting moods. Barshai does a great job with his mixture of instruments as well, which also adds  a level of variety (he knows Mahler well enough to mix up the full orchestra sound with smaller ensemble / chamber music sounds.) By about the (2:00) mark, it’s almost getting quite jolly. It climaxes with some great clacking sounds and other cool percussion (3:11).

Trio
(3:22) By contrast, the trio is quite nostalgic and old school (and has a more regular beat, which helps). Barshai throws in some interesting instruments like a guitar which you don’t hear in other versions of this symphony. It reminds me a lot of Mahler’s classic Disney on Ice music, such as we heard back in the 4th Symphony.

Scherzo
(5:16) Back again for another spin, the scherzo comes in, more boisterous than ever.

Trio
(6:13) I love the big see-saw effect on the brass here as the trio comes back in, now even more schmaltzy than last time – lots of solo violin. (I should perhaps stop calling this schmaltzy. I think what Mahler is actually trying to do is include some nostalgia in his music. And in many ways, this is much more gentle than some other symphonies where he takes folksy type of music and makes it sound nasty.)

Scherzo
(7:51) A more laid back version of the scherzo this time, with a nice slowed-down moment at the (8:57) mark. But it soon goes back to the more twitchy version that we’re used to. There’s an interesting moment at (10:08) where it drops back to just a few instruments with a bit of percussion in the background – another Barshai insertion that is only on this recording. Then off to the big climax at (10:47).

So we’ve gone from a long, quiet struggle, now to some chaos, and then when we return next time, we’ll go to a very strange type of Purgatory …

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement I

The Merry-Go-Round of Doom? (Photo by Darren Wilkinson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The opening of Symphony No 10 is a very long slow movement (26 minutes on the Barshai recording). But despite that, it’s not actually all that complex in terms of its structure. It is in sonata form (check back here if you need a quick reminder about that), but the essential heart of the piece is three musical ideas. They’re quite distinctive and easy to tell apart, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble following along.

The overall arc of this movement is an increasing sense of sadness, a terrible climax (in the emotional sense of the word – musically, it’s awesome) and then we find some peace at the end. The main problem with this movement is that it’s very similar to what Mahler had already attempted in the Mahler 9 and he probably did it better in that one. But if you’re coming to these symphonies new via my blog, you might not have heard the 9 yet anyway, and I’m trying to keep these two separate a little bit in the order I work through them. So as long as you don’t listen to it too closely after Symphony No 9, it shouldn’t sound too much like re-hashed ideas.

So here we go:

Exposition
(0:00) Unison Violas – The first motif we encounter is the most haunting sound in Mahler’s universe, a long mournful melody on the violas. (Remember, a motif is a basic musical idea and they make up the the musical building blocks that the composer works with). It’s difficult to pinpoint why, but it’s instantly lonely and desolate. We then move to the next motif:

(1:17) Orchestral Sad Song – a moving farewell with unusual dissonant (i.e. unresolved and sometimes clashing) harmonies. Despite the slow nature of the theme, it  never quite brings peace.

(2:52) The Merry-Go-Round of Doom – a strange, angular little tune that has a strange climbing sound, some pizzicato (plucked notes) and some strange little trills (two notes repeated over and over at a very fast speed).

Everything from here on is just those three ideas, getting longer, more complex and more intense. You might have noticed that the ideas overlap as well. The Merry-Go-Round is really just a form of the Orchestral Sad Song and the Unison Violas begin with the Merry-Go-Round theme

Exposition Repeat (Long Version)
(3:51) Unison Violas.

(4:35) Orchestral Sad Song – takes longer to build, but it has a magnificent intensity when it peaks. (This bit especially will remind Mahlerites of the Finale from the Mahler 9.) The orchestra is almost whistling like a kettle by the time we get to (7:38), then it dies away to nothing.

(8:16) A very gentle lead-in to the Merry-Go-Round of Doom, which has even more weird surprises this time.

Development – Chamber Music Style

We’re now in the development section. The main feature of this section is that a lot of the music gets reduced to chamber music versions (i.e. just a few instruments). If you’ve been following along so far, you’ll instantly recognise this as a standard Mahler trick.
(10:12) Unison Violas
(10:48) Merry-Go-Round of Doom – “chamber music” version
(11:36) Orchestral Sad Song – again, in chamber music style.
(11:46) Combo of OSS and MGRoD. Becomes a bit chaotic by (12:27) with a mini-climax.

Recapitulation

You’ll notice that Mahler skips the Unison Violas here and jumps straight in to the Sad Song.
(13:10) Orchestral Sad Song – first by the horns, then the low strings, then keeps building from there.
(14:08) Almost dies away to the Unison Violas but manages to keep struggling along.
(14:23) A very gentle version of Merry-Go-Round on the strings. (It’s the absence of the mocking woodwinds that makes it sound gentler.) It builds up as well, which sounds like it’s going to lead back to the Sad Song …
(15:11) … but instead goes back to Merry-Go-Round.
(15:46) A bit of the Sad Song thrown in, but with the Merry-Go-Round trills added, till it dies down in a chamber music manner.
(16:37) The Sad Song by itself, in one of its most magnificent incarnations yet.
(17:20) Unison Violas theme back again, but this time with a halo of high strings floating above it. It’s a strange moment this, because it sounds like the music is waiting for something, almost like static electricity in the air. And it is … Suddenly, without warning …

Coda
(18:13) … the brass deliver a stunningly loud chorale (i.e. a section of music that sounds like a four-part choir; imagine it being sung by hundreds of voices, and you’ll see what I mean), the most majestic moment in the whole symphony.
(18:39) Followed by a full orchestral version of the Merry-Go-Round, sounding a little bit like a 1960s spy film which leads to …
(19:00) The Nine-Tone Chord (i.e. nine notes all being played at the same time) – one of the most hideous sounds Mahler ever created. A vast horrendous clash of sound which gradually dies out.
(19:50) But this scream has let the tension out. The Orchestral Sad Song begins again on the strings, transformed into something exhausted but hopeful.
(20:16) Even the Merry-Go-Round doesn’t sound so bad.
(21:28) Gentle version of Sad Song begins on the cellos, finally with all the stressful harmonies taken out of it. It’s passed around to the various instrumental groups.
(23:00) The most beautiful part of the whole movement, a high strings version of the Sad Song.
(23:25) The Unison sound back for a moment.
(24:06) A beautiful solo on oboe. Essentially, from here to the end, the music consists of hints and motifs from the rest of the movement, but all transformed into a dream-like shimmer of sound.

It’s been a long path to peace, but worth it in the end. (I hope. Are you still awake?)

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement III (Shadowdance)

A Witches’ Sabbath, painted by Cornelis Saftleven (via Wikimedia Commons)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Epic orchestral movement with tenorhorn, galloping and a trip to another world in the middle. Movement II – The first “Night Music” movement, with a swaggering procession around the city.

While this third movement doesn’t have a specific “night music” title like movements II and IV (in fact, its title is “Shadowdance”), it’s very “spooky” music (in a fun sort of way – not in a scary way), and so immediately draws visions of Witches’ Sabbaths and Halloween and other such things.

It is also,the Scherzo of the symphony, which you might remember from earlier in the tour, is the word used to describe a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that’s definitely not the slow movement, but nor is it as big-sounding as the first and last movements.

Scherzos frequently alternate between two main musical ideas – the outer sections, known as the “Scherzo” sections, and a contrasting theme known as the “Trio” (even though, for the most part, more than three instruments are playing). Sometimes Trios only appear once in the middle, but in this case, Mahler brings the Trio back twice, but each time the themes re-appear, they’re using radically different instruments and sound, so if it sounds like completely new music rather than a repeat of earlier themes, that’s part of the way Mahler composes things.

Scherzo
(Track 1 – 0:00) Dodgy-sounding bumps on the timpani, flighty woodwinds, single horn notes. A weird, weird opening to this one … But it easily conjures up images of ghosts and old-school Witches’ Sabbaths. (This Abbado recording is particularly fun in that area, because if you listen to the woodwinds, rather than coming out with the beautiful, smooth tones we would expect, they play with awkward squawks and howls). Continues in this vein for the next couple of minutes.

Trio
(Track 2 – 0:00) The Trio starts on the oboe, and at first it sounds like it’s going to be a nice contrast to the Scherzo, but gradually it gets strange as well. Finally it climaxes with two massive cymbal clashes (1:14), which to the audience of Mahler’s day would be instantly recognised as a rather crazy nod to Johann Strauss and his Viennese waltzes, before dying out.

Scherzo
(Track 3 – 0:00) Begins again, but varied. Lots of creepy pizzicato (plucked strings) in this bit (it really is a dance of shadows!), including a part where everything stops with a massive crack! (1:47).

Trio
(Track 3 – 2:04) Trio again, but this time with a big oom-pah-pah accompaniment from the brass (again, giving it a slightly trashy Viennese feel).

Scherzo
(Track 3 – 2:37) All this craziness gradually dies away, ending with the shifty sound of the original timpani.

So there you go – maybe the background music to your next Halloween party?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement II (Night Music I)

Rembrandt’s massive painting, The Nightwatch

Where We’ve Been: The Mahler 7 is a dramatic arc with movements that mirror each other. So we’ve heard the first movement, which is loud and epic, as is the fifth movement when we get to it. Movements II and IV are both called Nachtmusik (“Night Music”) by Mahler, so we’re about to hear Night Music I.

You might think that with a name like that, this movement might be about nighttime stillness and quiet. Actually, no. While you do get a bit of that with the fourth movement (which acts as the slow movement of the symphony), in this second movement, it’s actually quite noisy.

The story goes that Mahler was inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Nightwatch, which you can see above. The painting shows a group of local militia heading out on a night patrol (though apparently I was just reading there’s now some scholarly debate as to whether the painting – which was never originally called The Nightwatch – is actually meant to show night time at all, or whether it was just dark-coloured. But let’s just keep pretending that it’s night time for the purpose of this music.) As well as all the militia types, you’ve got a bunch of extra randoms, like the guy on the side with the drum, and the little girl amongst the crowd. In other words, it’s quite possible, that parading around town at night with the local militia was a rather exciting thing to do in the evenings back before you had the latest season of Game of Thrones to download.

I think the idea that Mahler has latched onto in this movement is the idea of a procession. The movement marches along in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner and moves through a series of rather up-beat episodes. I don’t know exactly why – I think it’s the whole self-important swagger that infects the music – but this has always been one of my favourite Mahler movements in this symphony.

Let’s have a listen:

Here are the various episodes, as I hear them:

Horn Calls (aka The Steampunk Machine Fires Up)
(Track 1 – 0:00) Long, sonorous calls on the horns, echoes from the woodwinds, bird calls, you name it, but it’s definitely a type of call. It also reminds me of  one of those machines from steampunk movies or stories – a vast machine made of of tiny little cogs and wheels that all have to whirr and line up before the machine can start moving (or in this case, before the orchestra can start marching).

An interesting feature – perhaps in a nerdy sort of way – is the group of notes that climaxes this section (1:27). It has a group of notes (a chord, if you want to be more particular) that are in the major key, but then slide down to the minor key, as if the chord is dying out. This is a bit of a nod to a very similar (and much more dramatic) use of the same effect that got used in the Mahler 6. In that symphony, it was a major feature of the work. In this one, it’s more like a little in-joke that points to the Mahler 6. But well worth pointing out on a guided tour (particularly if you’ve heard the Mahler 6 a few times). And if you haven’t, no worries, the procession is about to start.

The Drunk Procession
(Track 1 – 1:31) A grand, amusingly pompous march begins, like everybody’s had a couple of pints and begun marching up the street. (Also, have a listen for the awesome sound of the violin players thwacking their strings with the back of their bows. Very cool stuff.) The march eventually quietens down to just a low mutter – like there’s one drunk who has got a bit further to walk home than the others. The accompaniment to the quiet bit is plucked strings (or pizzicato, if you remember from the Mahler 5), then the band comes back to the march again, with an even more grandiose sound than before. I love the self-importance of the whole thing.

The Tchaikovsky Ballet
(Track 2 – 0:00) Chirpy, dancing music. Sounds a bit like The Nutcracker, but you’ll notice that it’s just a variant on the drunk procession music. For fans of lesser-used percussion instruments, it does feature a bit of triangle action along the way.

Horn Calls
(Track 2 – 1:50) Back again, with an echo from muted trumpets. But then all of a sudden … what the heck is this? Cowbells? (But sadly no Christopher Walken.)

While they sound a bit strange to us today, Mahler often liked to use cowbells to create an other-wordly – almost transcendent – atmosphere, as if we’ve temporarily left the earth behind to enter into a higher plane.

All of this leads into some dubious minor key mutterings of the theme by the brass and the woodwinds, almost like the orchestra can’t remember who’s supposed to be leading the parade. (Mahler often likes to compose music to sound as if it’s coming apart at the seams a little bit.)

Subdued Drunk Procession
(Track 2 -2:56) Begins again, with muted trumpets. Also a bit more quiet this time, like they’re sneaking past the cranky neighbours who might hear them.

Luminous Moment
(Track 2 – 3:53) Ah, a luminous moment in the middle of a movement! It must be a Mahler symphony! Harp pluckings, high strings, fairy trills. It is still a variant on the march, but it’s like we’ve stumbled into somewhere magical, with the emphasis on the woodwinds. This turns back into the vast steampunk machine firing up (4:51) from the opening, leading back to the dying major-minor slide (5:11).

Schmaltzy Café Dance
(Track 2 – 5:18) Low-key version of the dance. Is it only me that thinks it sounds a bit like a tango in a dingy Spanish tavern? Ends with a hint of the Luminous Moment harps (6:22), until there’s a duel (6:39) between a strident trumpet (“Play the march again!”) and some nervous woodwinds. (“Are you sure? We might wake somebody up…”)

The Drunk Procession
(Track 3 – 0:00) This is better! All the band comes back for one last no-holds-barred version of the procession. Sounds like the end of Peter and the Wolf. Starts to get a bit counterpointy (i.e. lots of melody lines playing simultaneously) towards the end as the parade disappears over the hill.

The Tchaikovsky Ballet
(Track 4 – 0:00) Dancing flowers again. And not just the triangle – there’s a cute-sounding glockenspiel in there with just three notes. (0:50) And the cowbell. The percussion section are run off their feet!

Subdued Drunk Procession
(Track 4 – 1:30) The quieter minor-key version of the march. Our drunk band is disappearing into the distance.

Horn Calls
(Track 4 – 2:41) The calls build up to the dying major-minor slide, but this time it’s to close the movement quietly. It begins as it ends, but with an ominous tam-tam stroke and a mysterious pluck of the harp.

And there you have it, a bizarre, wondrous and grand nocturnal march. Did you enjoy it?