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!

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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 – Symphony No 3 – Movement III

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

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

Section A

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

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

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

Section B

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

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

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

Section A

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

Section B

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

Coda

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

So there you go. How much fun was that?

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

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

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

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

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

Exposition – Theme 1

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

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

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

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

Exposition – Theme 2

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

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

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

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

Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recapitulation – Theme 1

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

Recapitulation – Theme 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon with Movement I!

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

rcm-atmosphericA series of blog posts about George Grove – in my opinion, the greatest classical music entrepreneur and audience growth expert in the English-speaking world. If you’re just joining me, here are the other parts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

rcm-sign

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

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

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

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

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

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George Grove.

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

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

commonplace-books

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

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

schubert-9

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

The whole thing was utterly moving.

lead-kindly-light

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

And then on to the programme notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.