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

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Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Where We Have Been:

Movement I was a devastating picture of death.

Movement II was a nostalgic dance from the past.

Movement III was a quirky and humorous movement.

Movement IV was the moving song “Primeval Light”, sung by a soul desperate to get to God.

And now comes the most extraordinary finale I’ve ever heard. Here we go …

(0:00) The fifth movement begins (without a pause) with an almighty crash as the orchestral scream from the end of the third movement returns. Gradually, the orchestra dies away. From here on, like a circling procession, we will hear various themes that return again and again throughout the movement.

(1:47) The first major theme we hear is played by the trumpets. We’ll call this Last Trumpet, because it’s meant to sound like the trumpets on the final day. These trumpets are be placed offstage around the concert hall, and will (in an ideal performance) echo from the four corners of the room in true surround sound fashion. Some phenomenal-sounding harp stuff here as well.

(3:20) The next theme to enter is the hymn tune Aufersteh’n itself. (Which you might remember was the hymn that Mahler heard at a funeral that inspired this finale.) It’s in a simple version that is played first by the winds, and then by the brass, and accompanied by plucking strings. It is followed by a more majestic sounding tune on the brass. The horns start to take over, as the plucking accompaniment switches to the flutes. Like an ancient creaking machine, this tune winds down.

(5:45) Then a new theme begins with two-note sighs on the woodwinds, with agitated string vibrations underneath. For reasons that will be clear when the choir enters, this is the “O Believe” Theme. It sounds agitated, panicked. It builds in intensity and then dies out.

(7:08) The hymn tune returns. This time, it is played by the brass, sounding like a large choir. They begin quietly, again with plucking underneath. But they build in power and volume, until with a loud drum roll and a mighty cymbal crash, a majestic new theme enters. (8:44) With fluttering flutes, soaring trumpets and repeated cymbal crashes, this new theme soars to the sky. To me, it’s like the Star Wars theme, only 10 times better. (I know, controversial.) For a brief instant, Mahler gives us a glimpse of life beyond death. However, this music dies away again. (Mahler often does this – he’ll give a foreshadowing of what is to come before he gets there.)

(10:46) Out of the silence, comes an astonishing sound – a massive (and I mean massive) couple of drumrolls usher in the next section. The drum rolls, Mahler said, are meant to represent the shaking of the earth, as the graves of the dead are burst asunder.

(11:53) Following this, the orchestra begins a huge majestic march. You may not be able to pick it, but this is another variation on the hymn tune. It picks up, bravely going where the heroic march from the first movement could not. As the march grows in intensity, large bells (like church bells almost) start to toll.

(13:24) However, as with all things in life, in Mahler symphonies, no plan succeeds easily without a struggle. At the height of the march, minor key discordant music starts to enter, and the march struggles as it is being swamped by this new music, especially by obnoxious three-note taunts which come from the other instruments. Despite this, the march bravely struggles on, almost reaching its climax . . .

(14:42) . . . but no! A massive CRASH on the tam-tam blows the whole orchestra to smithereens. Like animals running scared, all the instruments just play frightened versions of the march as everything dies into nothingness.

(15:06) Again darkness. Out of this new darkness, we hear the “O Believe” theme again, on the brass. The strings enter with a new theme, a worried string melody. But, even worse, offstage, we hear the sound of a demonic brass ensemble. Sounding like a circus band gone crazy, the offstage brass gets louder and louder . . .

(16:43) . . . and then onstage, we reach the final struggle. A furious brass theme enters, battling higher and higher, getting more and more worked up. It climaxes, again in another tam-tam crash, and another dissolving wave of sound from the orchestra.

(17:33) But this time . . . this time . . . from the darkness that follows, we hear a change in the air. We realise that this time, death has been defeated. The strings gently play a lyrical melody, while the orchestra gradually calms down. Now, there is an air of expectation in the air. What will happen next?

(19:02) Again, we hear the brass calling from the four corners of the room, sounding like the last trumpet. Following this, a lone flute circles around, sounding like a bird. Mahler’s sister described this as “the Bird of Death, hovering above the graves” uttering a last drawn-out cry.

And then, in one of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful moments in all music, the choir enters.

They sing the first two verses of the Aufersteh’n hymn that Mahler heard at von Bülow’s funeral. (But with new music by Mahler.) At the end of each verse, you will hear the female soloist break away from the main choir and soar above it. (In the first verse, it is the soprano, in the second verse, the alto.) After each verse, there is an orchestral interlude, painting a picture of a heavenly life after death.

(21:53) Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben!
wird, der dich rief, dir geben!

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.

(26:07) Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!

To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.

(30:12) After this, the alto and then the soprano enter with the “O Believe” tune, and this time, the words are actually sung. Interestingly, these words are not from the original hymn. Mahler wrote them himself and, in them, he answers the questions that he asked in the first movement. Death is not the end. You were not born in vain. Your suffering was not for nothing.

Alto:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten!

Soprano:
O glaube: Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!

Alto:
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!

Soprano:
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!

(31:42) Then, in almost a hushed whisper, the choir enters again, intoning the mysteries of life. We are born, and we die. But what dies, rises again! With a loud proclamation, the male singers tell us to “Prepare to live!”

Was entstanden ist, das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!

What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!

(33:33) Then, as the movement heads into its final minutes, the two soloists sing an ecstatic duet, rejoicing that death has been conquered. After this, the chorus starts to sing about how they shall soar upwards to the light. The music builds to soaring new heights. Mahler was never comfortable with the concept of a last judgment, and so carefully selected the words so that all people who have died rise again and go to God. And it’s almost impossible not to catch Mahler’s vision while you’re listening to his music.

Soloists:
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd’ ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!

Chorus:
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
Werd’ ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!

Soloists:
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Chorus:
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.

(35:53) And then . . . in what is, without doubt, one of the greatest moments in all musical history . . . when you think things couldn’t possibly get any more spectacular . . . the choir thunders out the hymn tune at full volume, accompanied by the orchestra, and now also an organ. We can’t see it with our eyes, but in our ears and minds, the sky is full of the resurrected dead, shining as they fly to God.

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen,
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

(Translation sourced from Wikipedia.)

(37:30) The symphony finishes with a rousing orchestral close, and in the final moments of the piece, two tam-tams (a high and a low one) crash out waves of majestic sound, over and over again, as one of the greatest symphonies of all time comes to a close.

 

Well, I don’t know about you, but that always feels like the Mount Everest of music to me. Maybe there’s something out there that is more jaw-dropping and inspiring, but I haven’t come across it yet.

Thus ends the Mahler 2, and also the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour. I do hope you’ve enjoyed the last year or so, journeying through the Mahler symphonies. If there’s an orchestra near where you live playing some Mahler live, I highly recommend getting along to hear it. Spectacular as it might sound on a good hi-fi or set of headphones, no recording can capture the intensity of a Mahler symphony heard live.

After this, I’ll be coming back with one last blog post about George Grove to complete my thoughts on that fascinating Victorian gentleman. And then I have a couple of new blog projects launching shortly which you may be interested in as well. Thanks again!

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

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a vast and terrifying picture of death. Movement II – a nostalgic dance. Movement III – a slinky swirl of clarinets, looking at the chaos of life.

And now a moment of stillness and beauty …

In this fourth movement, Mahler returns again to the folksongs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, this time with a song called Urlicht. It is a very simple song, sung by an alto, where she sings about wanting to get to Heaven. She asks, in a fairly simple naive way, that God will give her a little light to show her the way.

“Urlicht” – German Text

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

“Primeval Light” – English Translation
O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

(Translation from Wikipedia.)

I’ve always loved the brass moment early in the movement after the opening line. It reminds me of slow military brass laments. I could imagine this being used on Memorial Day or a similar type of remembrance ceremonies. Whatever the setting, the music is utterly moving.

In a way, this song is attempting to be an answer to the death and devastation that we have heard in the first movement. However, it is pretty obvious that this song is far too light to be the ending of this symphony, and doesn’t really balance things out. As if to make that point, the fifth movement blasts in, fury raging from the opening seconds. But we’ll come back to that in our next post!

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

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The third movement of the Mahler 2 is based on a song about a guy … who delivers sermons to fish. (Painting by José Benlliure y Gil, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – the devastating portrait of death. Movement II – a nostalgic look into the past with a gentle dance. And now for a bit of quirky humour.

The last three movements are to be played one after the other without a break, so apologies that splitting this over three blog posts somewhat breaks that momentum!

This third movement is the scherzo of the symphony. A scherzo (Italian for “joke”) is generally a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that lets the composer write something that is fast, but not necessarily as big and grand as the first and last movements. As you’ve heard in his other symphonies, if you’ve been following along, Mahler liked to use the third movement to express irony or satire and this one is a perfect example of that.

At the time when this symphony was composed, and in the years before it, Mahler was a great fan of a collection of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Two of these poems make an appearance in one form or another in this Second Symphony. The first one to appear is a song called “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fish”).

The original poem is a rather cynical little tale about St Anthony who gives up preaching to his congregation because they don’t listen to him. So he goes down to the river and preaches to the fish. The fish are highly interested in his sermon and gather around to listen, but as soon as it’s over, they go back to being their same old selves and don’t pay any attention to what they heard . . . Mahler set this poem to music shortly before this symphony was completed for voice and orchestra and then decided that he liked his tune so much, he’d use it again in this symphony.

(0:00) With a opening “ba-bum” from the timpanis – which shocks a live audience every time, coming after the quiet ending of Movement II – the opening theme (the Anthony song) begins. This has some very elaborate instrument choices, with all sorts of strange sounds coming from all over the place. (For instance, listen out for the rute – a bundle of sticks which they beat against the side of the drums to make a clicking sound.)

Most of the opening tune is dominated by the woodwinds, playing all sorts of slinky, slidy melodies. In the original song, this represents the movements of the scaly, slithery fish, but in this symphony, it serves as a larger metaphor . . . In this movement, Mahler is telling us that life is often chaotic and endless.

(4:09) However, as we’ve seen, even in the middle of chaos, there is beauty. After a few minutes, the song theme gets interrupted by a loud brass section, and soon we hear a wonderful interlude: (5:10) over a billowing harp accompaniment, a trumpet quartet sings out a gorgeous melody. To me, it really is one of the most beautiful moments in the symphony.

(6:39) Alas, however, it ends, and the music starts getting more discordant, as if it’s lost its bearings and doesn’t know where to go. The slinky song tune starts up again.

(8:54) Again, a few minutes later, a loud brass section interrupts and for a minute, we think we might be lucky enough to hear the trumpet quartet again. But no . . . it’s far worse.

(9:14) The orchestra lets out a scream. The chaos of life is too much, and we hear it. The scream almost collapses the orchestral sound in on itself and the music wanders into a strange ethereal sound world on the other side of it. However, this new sound that comes from the orchestra after the scream has a hint of the fifth movement, and it gives us a glimpse of eternity – of a life beyond this one on earth.

(10:51) But then the slinky St Anthony song returns again, and the scherzo closes as it began.

 

If you liked that movement and you’re open to trying things strange and new, the Italian composer Luciana Berio used it in the third movement of a work of his called the Sinfonia, which features an orchestra and singers who don’t actually sing (they often speak, shout or whisper instead) all thrown in a strange post-modern mix. Have a listen on YouTube if you’re interested. It’s a trippy experience!

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 – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the symphony.

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

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

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

The symphony consists of five movements:

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon for Movement I!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde VI – The Farewell

By Gregory H. Revera (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 () or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
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”).

Orchestral Interlude

(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.

Conclusion

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.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde V – The Drunken Man in Spring

Photo by Philippe Alès [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
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:

http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20691

Now here’s the song:

(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.

See you next week.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde IV – Of Beauty

 Photo by Apassionata [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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):

http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20687

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.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour: Das Lied von der Erde III – Of Youth

“Dalian劳动公园A159285″ by 陳炬燵 – Own work. Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons .”

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 lyrics for the song are here:

http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=20674

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.