We haven’t had a bit of musical jargon for a while, but I thought it might be useful at this point to introduce the concept of major and minor keys. Very briefly, most Western music is written in a key. There are a variety of fairly technical ways to explain it, but the way I like to think about it is the group of notes that you’re using to construct your melodies. So, for instance, the most famous key is C major, which – if you’re on a piano – uses all the white notes and none of the black notes.
But there are a whole range of keys that composers can use, and certainly in classical music, most of the time a movement will move through several different keys over the course of the music (which is designed to keep things moving).
It’s this careful decision of which notes you use (and which ones you don’t) that have been allowing musicians to construct tunes for the last few centuries. Play a note that’s not in the key you’re using and it sounds like a clash. Play a note that is part of the key, and it all blends together perfectly. While our ears have slightly adjusted to what notes we’ll allow to mix together, for the most part, it doesn’t look like the concept of music being in a particular key is going to go away in a particular hurry.
One of the interesting thing about keys, though, is that they split into major and minor. It’s a total generalisation and you can always find exceptions to this, but for the most part, major keys sound bright and cheery and minor keys tend to have a more melancholy sound. But they’re never far away from each other. Just change a few of the notes and you can transform one particular key from the major into the minor.
The best simple example of this that I’ve found is this YouTube video in which the song starts in the major key, goes into the minor key and then back to major again, accompanied by some dramatic shifts in weather …
Got the idea? I’ll make a mention of it at a couple of spots in the next Mahler 7 movement (and it will also come back in many, many other movements on the tour as well, so it’s useful to know about).
The first movement of the Mahler 7 goes for around 20 minutes. It’s roughly in sonata form (which you can refresh yourself on over here). So, in short, there are some themes laid out at the beginning of the movement (the exposition), we go on a bit of a magical detour (the development section) and then return to the opening themes for the home stretch (the recapitulation).
Things to notice as we go along:
This is (arguably) Mahler’s most richly orchestrated piece. In fact, it’s almost over-orchestrated. Because of Mahler’s knack of being able to run several melody lines with real clarity between them (i.e. you can pick out each instrument) it does mean that when he decides to use lots and lots of instruments at once like he does in this symphony, it sounds really complex in your head. (As opposed to other composers, who might use the orchestra more like a choir, with solo instruments occasionally arising out of the mix.)
The whole symphony is laid out like a bit symmetrical arc. Movements I and V are big, sweeping orchestral numbers that sound huge. Movements II and IV are variations on night-time. Movement III is all about spooks and shadows.
The first movement calls for the prominent use of an instrument known as a tenorhorn. It’s a more obscure member of the brass family, sounding (to me) a little bit like a cross between a trombone and a tuba, but with a powerful singing sound. From what I’ve been able to read, Mahler didn’t say an awful lot about what this symphony was about, but one throwaway comment he did make, according to Constantin Floros’ book on Mahler symphonies was “nature roars [like a stag in rut]” in the opening of his first movement. I don’t quite hear this as much as Mahler did (maybe brass players are just not savage enough on the tenorhorn solo?) but the instrument certainly lends a bellowing quality to the proceedings.
Finally, every mood under the sun is contained in this first movement. It’s almost like having a mini-symphony within the symphony.
So let’s have a listen. (Note: the Claudio Abbado recording I have selected – just to keep the rotation of famous conductors somewhat fresh – breaks the movement up into several different tracks. So I will be detailing track numbers and times so you can keep up.)
(Track 1 – 0:00) Notice the shuddery rhythm at the beginning. (Apparently, this came to Mahler while he was in a boat being rowed on a river, so he might describe it less as a shudder and more of the sound of a boat in water.) Either way, a big solo begins on the tenorhorn, a quite distinctive sounding brass instrument that has a deep and bellowing sound that soars over the rest of the orchestra.
(Track 1 – 1:40) A march begins on the woodwinds and then gets louder.
(Track 2 – 0:21) Back to the tenorhorn, now even more epic.
(Track 2 – 0:54) The introduction of the galloping sound. I love the little shrieks from the strings here.
(Track 3 – 0:00) The main theme takes off at a full-blown gallop. It’s similar to the opening tenorhorn theme, because they both have a jerky rhythm and descending melody (i.e. it tends to go down the notes rather than up).
(Track 3 – 0:33) The next bit sounds (at least to me!) like a dance being played by a drunk band with the hiccups.
(Track 3 – 0:49) For a second, Mahler gives you the illusion that the orchestra is about to play something nice and lovely for the old ladies in the audience, but then it’s back into the gallops before too long.
(Track 4 – 0:00) The second theme is much more sweeping and gentle and mostly about the strings, with the brass in the accompanying role now. Reaches a high climax …
(Track 4 – 1:02) Now to the march theme that we heard back in the intro, which leads back to the gallop …
(Track 5- 0:00) … which leads back to the drunk bit. The orchestration now includes a tambourine, just to be particularly obnoxious.
(Track 5 – 0:35) And then our friend the tenorhorn introduces us to a much quieter section with schmaltzy violins, but the underlying rhythms are the same as before.
(Track 5 – 1:07) Then everything gets stressful again, like alarms going off. A lot of the jerky, descending rhythm, the drunk sound and everything else all thrown in together for a couple of minutes
(Track 5 – 2:27) And then – out of the blue – everything drops back to a shimmering on the strings (this particular sound effect, where the violins repeat the same note over and over again at a rapid speed is called tremolo – Italian for “trembling” – which is about the most perfect name imaginable) and an awesome trumpet solo. Then, like a hymn, the low strings come in underneath everything. This quiet oasis in the middle of the craziness is as good as the symphony gets, so enjoy it while it lasts.
(Track 6 – 0:00) The schmaltzy violins again, but quietly. The march creeping in.
(Track 6 – 0:43) Back to the trumpet solo moment again, and the low strings. I’ve just worked out – and you might have too – that the tune they’re playing is actually the march, slowed down to an absolute crawl.
(Track 6 – 2:04) The most gorgeous moment in the whole symphony – as the strings sing out a soaring melody, with the brass supporting, and magical harps. It’s a great moment of orchestral restraint, like a massive beast being finally tamed. It climaxes beautifully, but too soon …
(Track 7 – 0:00) … we’re back to the tenorhorn again. As with all Mahler recaps, it’s similar enough that you can recognise the original themes, but varied in the style, orchestration and what he does with the music. It gradually works its way back up to a dramatic climax that leads to …
(Track 8 – 0:00) … a SPECTACULAR re-appearance of the galloping theme, now sounding like it’s in some epic outer space movie. From here, through to the end, the orchestral sound is just huge, with the brass especially going to town.
(Track 8 – 1:02) More drunk band with hiccups, then back into the gallop.
(Track 8 – 1:49) A majestic transition into the sweeping second theme on the strings. Here it sounds like the finale to some dramatic black and white 40s film, all emotion and over-the-top pathos. “Oh Franz, will we ever meet again?”
(Track 8 – 3:06) Then a huge build-up, back to the march, then on to the gallop, now with mega-crazy tambourine action. Mahler has created a world of absolute chaos, with layers of sounds everywhere. It’s exhausting to listen to.
(Track 8 – 4:24) MASSIVE, MASSIVE, MASSIVE brass finale, which turns the tenorhorn theme into something epic, with trilling strings, lots of trombone. It’s just nuts.
(Track 8 – 4:52) The gallop finishes the whole thing off. In a truly fitting finale the final notes are the jerky, descending motif of the beginning.
So what did you think? Too much going on? Just perfect? While I found it a spiky piece to get into at first, I must confess every time I revisit it, I find myself growing a little more fond of it.
So next up is what could (arguably) be described as Mahler’s least popular work. If I was doing a true ranking from my least favourite to my most favourite Mahler symphony, I would probably put this one at the bottom, but I didn’t want to start with this one because that would have made it a bit of a rough listening experience for anyone new joining in.
However, if you made it through the Mahler 5 (which is the other Mahler symphony that the 7 most resembles), you’ll probably find this a lot easier to listen to, because you will be familiar to some degree with Mahler’s sound world.
And even then, “least popular” is a bit of a loaded term, because it makes it sound like it’s boring from beginning to end. It’s totally not. There are some amazing moments in the Mahler 7 (especially in the first movement) and if you want a big money’s-worth orchestral sound, you are going to get it with this piece.
However, it does seem harder to find a connection between the different movements and what they’re doing. And it’s pretty long (but what Mahler symphony isn’t?)
But the thing that seems to cause the most controversy, without fail, is the finale. It’s a 20-minute long, very brassy affair that is relentlessly chirpy and still encourages much debate among the Mahler crowd. Was Mahler really feeling this happy? Was he writing a send-up of happy music for ironic purposes? Either way, it can be difficult to know what to make of it – but you can make your own mind up when we get to it.
Here is a brief overview of the movements and what to expect:
Movement I – a long, sombre movement that turns into a gallop, but then has an amazing oasis of calm in the middle.
Movement II – a swaggering march
Movement III – a creepy little thing that wouldn’t be too out-of-place in a Halloween special
Movement IV – an exercise in Viennese schmaltz
Movement V – the grand finale from hell
So see you in a couple of days, and we’ll get started. And if anyone more knowledgeable wants to drop by and explain the coherency of the Mahler 7 to me, I won’t complain at all …
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – the over-the-top drinking song of the world’s sorrow; II – the lonely man in autumn; III – the nostalgic jade pavilion; IV – the reflection on beauty with the maidens and the horsemen; V – the raucous drunk who sings with the birds and ignores springtime.
But now we come to the finale of The Song of the Earth, which could polarise listeners a little bit. As I mentioned earlier, many conductors love this work of Mahler’s more than any other, so for them, this is amazing.
But for me, it took a long while to warm up to this piece, and especially this movement, which is 30 minutes long (so nearly as long as everything we’ve heard so far in the work) and – for the most part – an exercise in stillness and quiet.
Structurally, it’s pretty straightforward. Mahler took two of the original Chinese poems from the Bethge book (see my original intro if you need a reminder on that one) and combined them into one work. Have a read of the lyrics here. (I’m linking to the text on Wikipedia this time, because the normally amazing lieder.net only seems to have a translation of the first poem, but not the second one.)
And then let’s jump in:
Poem 1 (“Die Sonne scheidet”)
(0:00) I love the beginning of this movement. It starts with the sound of the tam-tam (a type of massive Chinese gong) with an accompanying growl from the low instruments and circling above it, a twirling theme on the oboe.
(0:57) A rhythm starts to begin – it hints that we’re in for a funeral march – but we don’t get to hear the full version of this until the middle of the movement.
(1:27) A very flat and quiet intro from the soloist – baritone in this recording. The flute keeps up the twirling idea that we originally heard from the oboe and then performs a solo of its own. Everything is very quiet as the sun disappears below the horizon.
(2:41) Another orchestral interlude and a hint of the march.
(2:59) One of the most gorgeous moments in the whole piece – especially the way Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings it here – is where the moon floats out like a boat. It’s a tiny moment of beauty in this otherwise morose landscape.
(4:51) At this stage, a slightly off-kilter rocking rhythm enters on the harp with an oboe solo above it. (Which, to have a completely tangential thought, reminds me a lot of the interval bell at the Sydney Opera House. “The performance will commence in 5 minutes time.” Anyway, back to Mahler.)
This next stretch is rather descriptive, as the poet describes the landscape at night. The next five minutes or so consist of some passionate interjections from the orchestra (like 8:01), a bit more of the bird sounds on the woodwinds (8:33), but overall the mood is becoming ever more quiet, as if the world really is going to sleep as described in the poem.
(9:53) At its most quiet, it is just a solo between the flute and the singer. You can lose track of this on a recording, but when you see it live, you see the massive orchestra that Mahler has arrayed, and yet so much of this movement are just intimate moments like this, where a couple of voices are playing, and the rest remain silent.
(11:10) A slightly more optimistic theme begins on the flute and strings. This is the Ewig (German for “ever”) theme which will return at the end. It is a hint of the place where we are heading for – a calm acceptance.
The singer gets one last big moment in the climax of the first poem where he is singing about beauty and eternal love (“O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens”).
(14:21) But after this we enter a long orchestral interlude. It’s mostly concerned with the opening swirl (which you should be able to instantly recognise by now) and doesn’t have much of a shape.
(15:06) But gradually, with a series of ominous thuds, a march begins. It’s a slow, crawling thing at first, almost as if the tune is struggling to pull itself out a quicksand. But once it picks up, it reminds me a lot of the funeral march from the opening of Symphony 5. I find this funeral march sounds so classical and European that it takes me away from the Chinese feeling of the piece, but it’s so beautiful that I never mind the detour.
(19:40) Towards the end the march becomes more ominous.
Poem 2 (“Er stieg vom Pferd”)
(20:32) The tone becomes flat and still again, as the singer begins the second poem. After the description of night time, and mostly nature, now a scene of people emerges: two friends – one about to say farewell to the other and offering him the “cup of farewell”.
He asks his friend where he is going and why he must go? The Departing Friend says that fortune has not been kind to him (22:34 – note how the music becomes more warm and less flat as he expresses himself) and that he is off to wander.
Everything dies out to almost an awkward silence (25:36) and then the off-kilter rocking idea returns again as we enter the final stretch, heading towards the magical ending …
(27:06) The final lines speak with a quiet optimism about the spring and the earth renewing itself. Unlike the drunk from Movement V who saw nothing to like about spring, this time spring is a source of comfort and a promise of something else beyond this life’s suffering. It has some really unusual instrumental touches like a mandolin (an earlier precursor of the guitar) and a celesta (the tinkly little bell-like instrument – think of Danny Elfman scores or the Sugar-Plum Fairy).
But most striking is the way the music just fades, as the word Ewig (“forever”) is repeated over and over again. (Seven times, if you’re into numbers.)
Up until then, apart from the Mahler 4, which ended with a quiet song, and the Mahler 6 (which is the only one with a really unhappy ending), most of Mahler’s symphonies ended like the Mahler 5 we’ve already listened to – big, epic, massive walls of sound. But with Das Lied von der Erde, he was to introduce a new kind of sound, and it’s very tempting to think that it was inspired by thoughts of his own mentality. For this symphony, and Symphonies 9 and 10, there is no “big ending”. They simply fade out, as if the music has passed into another world.
So, as you can see, this piece is a bit of a tough beast to grapple with. It’s got a lot of singing, a huge orchestra that barely makes any huge sounds, a quiet ending and somewhat obscure lyrics. And yet conductors and musicians love it. I think it’s because you’re seeing a composer that you know could unleash a massive wall of orchestral sound, deliberately restraining himself. (It reminds me a lot of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg is quite capable of making huge battle scenes, action scenes, you name it, and yet has crafted a film that is predominantly conversation-driven.)
But what did you think?
And if you’ve had enough of the introspection and quiet, rest assured, we will be back with noise and clamor galore when we return next week with Mahler’s 7th Symphony.
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – despairing drinking song; II – a lonely man in autumn; III – brief nostalgia in the jade pavilion; IV – the exploration of beauty, in the song about the flower pickers and the horsemen.
The Drunken Man in Spring
You may be thinking, given the title of this song, “What? Another drunk? That makes two for this song cycle!” Which is correct, but this guy is a far different character than the drinker from the first song. Or … here’s a thought … he could be the same character a few hours later. I’ll let you decide.
The contrast is mainly that if the drinker in the first song was serious and morose (almost fanatically so), this guy is a funny drunk. He’s staggering along home from a night at the pub. The sentiment is still that of misery with the world, but Mahler delivers it in a much more humorous way. Have a read of the original poem first:
(0:00) The first thing to notice is the drunken, staggering rhythm that Mahler has introduced at the beginning. Listen to the tenor’s first line, and you can hear an amusing sort of lurch as if the music has paused a bit too long and then sped up.
(1:39) There’s one of those little moments of drunken logic where the poet sings to one of the birds and imagines that the bird is singing back to him. (It also gives the piccolo a rare chance to have a solo.)
(3:24) The song then reaches its climax, as the drunk decides to keep drowning his sorrows and sing “until the moon shines in the dark firmament”. Who cares about springtime? He says. Let me be drunk.
Subtly, this song is a reminder of the first song, and also the opposite of the autumn song. The lonely man in autumn desperately wanted summer back as winter approached, but this drunken man sees spring coming in and simply doesn’t care.
So far all the songs have dealt with aggravation in the face of death, misery in the face of loneliness, nostalgia for a past that can’t come back and, in today’s song, a vain attempt to forget about everything.
But in the final, epic-length song coming up, Mahler takes his listeners on one last journey to the only place left for him to go when faced with such a sad world: acceptance.
Where We’ve Been: Song I – desolate drinking song, full of despair. Song II – Loneliness in autumn. Song III – fluffy nostalgia piece that looks backwards to the past.
This song is one of the most interesting ones in the whole cycle, because it’s one of those poems that you can read a lot of metaphors into, depending on how philosophical you want to get. As always, have a look at the words first (or even better, follow along with them as you listen):
The picture is very simple. Young maidens sit by the river picking flowers, and the first half of the poem is taken up with a picturesque description of the location and the girls.
But the turning point is when the young men come along, including one who has a runaway horse that tramples the horses of the young girls.
The interesting part in all this is where the maiden turns to watch him go, feigning a “proud demeanour” but really giving him “long, yearning glances”. Is this just a piece of romance? Or is it a deeper message that the people we love will trample and destroy our lives to some extent? Is it saying that we love them because we know they hurt us?
The honest answer is that I’m not sure, and nor am I sure that having a complete psychological explanation would make me enjoy it any more. But what we can perhaps all agree is that this contrast between the destructive nature of the boys and the delicate work of the girls, and the romance this inspires, is the heart of the poem. And Mahler has captured it perfectly in this song, which is sung by the baritone this time.
(0:00) The beginning is very “pretty” – lots of flute, in other words, as the girls are described picking their flowers.
(2:46) I always feel like this is a rip-off of the 1812 Overture, as the boys ride through on horses. (Though don’t take my word on that.) But it’s definitely the loudest part in the whole work, and almost impossible for any singer to really manage, as the music gallops faster than the singer can keep up.)
(6:13) The most beautiful moment in the whole work is the ending, where the girl looks longingly after the young man who has destroyed everything she has worked on – gorgeous woodwinds, high strings and a gentle fade out at the end.
Now this next movement is somewhat of a rarity – a Mahler movement where everything is done and dusted in under 5 minutes. So blink and you miss it, really.
Where We’ve Been: As a recap, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) is working through a selection of Chinese poems that Mahler discovered. The first movement was the bleak drinking song where the poet expressed his misery at the finiteness of life. The second movement was a more introverted but no less miserable look at autumn and a reminder of the poet’s lost love and current loneliness.
Where We’re Going: In this movement, which reverts back to the tenor, the music strikes a much happier tone, because the poet is looking back to his youth and becoming nostalgic. (Mahler always liked to insert a bit of nostalgia in his symphonies – something that would hearken back to a simpler time.)
The poem simply tells of a bunch of friends that get together on a pavilion in the middle of a pond to “drink, chat and write down verses”.
The music has a sort of “fake Oriental” feel to it – the kind of music you feel might have been used on a Disney cartoon with Chinese characters done back in the 40s. It has all the touches – the cute little flute melodies, trills (where two notes alternate back and forth very fast), the slightly exotic triangle which dings at the beginning of the song and the cymbals (0:52) which kick in when the verses start talking about the people.
There is a contrast in the middle part (1:36) when the poem starts to talk about the reflection of everything in the pond below it. Mahler uses this line as an excuse to take the somewhat cutesy feeling of the song and inject some melancholy into the proceedings. It casts a brief shadow before the music brightens up again (2:35) and the song finishes as chirpily as it began.
In and of itself, this would be a bit of a nothing song, but when you take the song cycle as a whole, where we are viewing life from the perspective of someone looking death and loneliness in the face, it becomes a sad bit of remembering a past that is not coming back. The song serves to remind us that the happy times of life don’t last forever, and that they are transitory.
Our next stop on the Mahler Symphonies guided tour is a bit of an unusual one because technically it’s not one of Mahler’s symphonies, but there are a couple of good reasons to include it as one of them.
The Song of the Earth (or Das Lied von der Erde as it’s referred to in German – which is how it will most commonly be labelled if you’re looking for it online) is a large scale song cycle (i.e. a set of connected songs) written for two singers and a large orchestra. So while Mahler may not have called it a symphony, you certainly need a symphony orchestra to perform it.
It was composed in 1909 and fits in between Symphonies 8 and 9. In fact, some people have speculated that perhaps Mahler actually saw it as his ninth symphony, after finishing off his massive eighth, but was superstitious and worried about falling foul of the “Curse of the ninth“, a commonly-held idea that famous composers will drop dead once they’ve finished a ninth symphony. I suspect this idea is more appealing to people who write about music rather than one that the composers themselves held, but I’ve got to admit, it’s a great story if there’s any truth to it … (And, of course, the legend is reinforced by the fact that after Song of the Earth, Mahler went on to compose his 9th symphony, and then started work on the 10th, but died before the former was ever performed and the latter was ever completed.)
So for all intents and purposes, conductors and Mahler fans tend to think of it as a symphony, so we’ll include it on the tour. For me, also, it marks a new break in the way Mahler composed his music, so it will prepare your ears for Mahler 9 and 10 when we get to them later.
Essentially, in these last three works of his – Song of the Earth, Symphony 9 and the unfinished Symphony 10 – Mahler developed a more introverted style of symphonic music. He still had a massive orchestra, but more because he could paint all sorts of musical colours with it, not because he was necessarily after an epic sound.
Also his symphonies aren’t journeying towards a big ending – or at least not a big ending in the regular symphony way. For most symphonies, you end up at a massive full orchestral finale. It is, after all, what the crowd goes nuts over. Even the Mahler 5, quirky as it is, ends with the big Star Wars moment.
But Song of the Earth, the 9th and 10th, all end with long slow movements and they fade away. And the ideas that Mahler is dealing with in the works are clearly to do with loss, death, grief, mourning, and the strange beauty of life that you only realise when you haven’t got much of it left.
And that’s explicit in Song of the Earth, of course, because it consists of songs, songs have words, and so we know exactly what emotions Mahler was trying to convey.
Which brings us to the poems themselves. The Song of the Earth verses started life as ancient Chinese poems. Some of them were translated in German by an author named Hans Bethge and published in 1908, the year before this work came out.
At the time, Mahler was suffering from intense grief on a few fronts – he’d had to resign from his position at the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly due to anti-Semitism and political manoeuvring, his eldest daughter had died and finally he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. So all in all, he wasn’t in the greatest of spaces.
So when he came across these poems, which speak – albeit in slightly symbolic language – of how fleeting life is, of remembering joyous times in the past and, most movingly, of farewell, he knew that this was the material he wanted to use for his next symphonic work.
And so Song of the Earth was born. The structure is pretty simple. There are seven of the Chinese poems. Each movement has one poem and runs between 3 and 10 minutes, except for the last movement, which is made up of two poems combined together and runs for a mammoth 30 minutes, almost the total of everything leading up to it. So six movements in all.
There are two singers – a tenor (higher male voice) and an alto (lower female voice), though Mahler did say “if necessary, the alto part may be sung by a baritone” (lower male voice). (In fact, the version I’m going to refer to is the Leonard Bernstein recording where he used tenor James King and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, because they both sing it really well. If you like it, by all means track down the regular version with an alto to compare with later.) Each singer gets a movement and they alternate, so there are no duets here. It looks like this:
Movement I – Tenor
Movement II – Baritone
Movement III – Tenor
Movement IV – Baritone
Movement V – Tenor
Movement VI – Baritone
And that’s all you need to know to get started. We’ll have Movement I up in a few days!