The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 8: Part 2

Goethe’s Faust, which provided the text for Part 2 of the Mahler 8.

Again, apologies for the long break between posts. I decided to try training to run for our most famous fun-run in Sydney, the City2Surf, and it took a lot more spare time than I thought. So it has been difficult to find writing time the last few months, thus leaving this awkward gap between movements of this Mahler symphony.

But the great thing is, Part 2 of the Mahler 8 always sounds awesome, no matter how long it’s been since you listened to the first part, so let’s dive back in.

Where We’ve Been:  In Part 1, Mahler took the old Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus and transformed it into a massively large and massively loud piece of choral music for choir and orchestra.

Now, using the same forces, he jumps several centuries ahead, to the famous tragic play, Faust, by probably Germany’s most famous writer of all time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust tells the story of Dr Faust, who makes a bargain with the devil. Goethe wrote the play in two parts and the text here comes from the very end of Faust, Part Two. In this scene (which I’ll warn you, is rather dense and complex in terms of the metaphysical ideas it’s trying to deal with), Faust – obviously having gotten out of his deal with the devil – is transformed and drawn up to Heaven.

Where it ties in with the first one is that Mahler is interested in the idea of the transformation of the soul. So many of the same melodies that were used to sing about the Holy Spirit’s transformation will appear again in this part.

The structure on this part is long but pretty straight-forward. Matching the words (and I would recommend following along with the words while you listen, which you can find over at, the music is a step-by-step ascension, moving from the anchorites (a bit like monks or druids) up to the Virgin Mary herself as Faust is drawn towards the divine. So musically this transforms into a grand sweep from a quiet, mysterious orchestral opening all the way up to one of the biggest noises in classical music history.

I’ll be honest, there are a few moments in the middle where I sometimes wish he’d hurry up, but if the destination is worth the journey, then I hope you can be patient. (And it’s hard to skip anything because the music is all continuous.)

CD 2

(Track 1) A mysterious, Haunting Theme. After the huge noise and clamour of Part 1, this is a great break. This Part is essentially a long sweep upwards from the earth to heaven, and so this quiet music at the beginning is the most earth-bound of the music we hear, and serves as an introduction to the holy hermits who are to come. It’s all pizzicato (plucked strings), tremolos (the atmospheric trembling sound the violins make) and woodwind solos, with a distinctive three-note motif (i.e. musical idea) at the beginning, followed by a climb, that repeats all the way through.

(5:12) Reaches a great little climax, before turning back into the tip-toeing quiet version again.

(Track 2) Passionate string moment. But this turns into a more intense version of the slow prelude.

(2:31) Just for a break, out of nowhere, the flutes play a gentle little chorale. This will come back sung by the young angels further along in the piece, so it’s a little bit of Mahler foreshadowing.

(Track 3) Back to the Haunting Theme.

(0:24) Entrance of the hushed choir. These are the anchorites, the holy hermits, singing about how nature (the rocks, forests, even tame lions!) are honouring “the sacred place, Refuge of Grace and Love”. It’s a great moment where you know Mahler has huge musical forces, but chooses to only use them sparingly. (Perhaps like a tame lion padding silently around us?) Amazing highlight moment for the woodwinds, which play two long drawn-out notes. The choir’s melody is simply a choral version of everything we’ve heard so far.

(Track 4) Next is the Pater Ecstaticus, sung by the baritone. According to the notes, the Ecstatic Father is having an out-of-body experience of love (unlike the anchorites), so his music soars up and down. He sings of

“The splendor of the most enduring
Essence of Eternal Love.”

(Track 5) An angular-sounding aria (solo) from the bass as the Pater Profundis. In this particular case (and it may just be the translation that makes it more awkward), love is a difficult spiky thing that roars around like a torrent and causes the Pater Profundis to have “bewildered thoughts”. It’s all over the shop tonally, but occasionally gets back to a snatch of melody that is familiar to us, as if he is grasping an occasional bit of peace in the midst of chaos.

(4:21) Another orchestral interlude. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, this is the big Love theme that the symphony is going to finish with.

(Track 6) Then into some cute angelic children’s choir music. (These are the angels and the “blessed boys”, hovering ever higher with Faust’s soul). You’ll notice hints of Part 1 in this bit as well (assuming you can still remember it).

(Track 7) More angels – the “Younger Angels” this time. They also sing of how they have rescued Faust’s soul from Satan and the evil ones, who retreated in the face of Love. Delicate with an enthusiastic flute accompaniment burbling underneath.

(Track 8) Things take a darker turn in this track, with a weird violin solo filling in the gaps as the More Perfect Angels sing of “an Earth’s residue that are difficult to bear”. Perhaps these are parts of Faust’s earthly nature that are difficult to shake off? (I might need some help from a German-speaker on this one!) But what does become clear is that once the alto comes in (1:21), things became beautiful and the tension disappears from the music.

(Track 9) Now we have a bit of a trio with The Younger Angels, more Blessed Boys and a character called Doctor Marianus. All of them are shaking off the last parts of earthliness from Faust’s soul and getting excited. This reminds me a lot, in tone, of the Mahler 4 – that childlike view of heaven that Mahler liked, where everything sounds almost like a game in the school playground. (A very innocent heavenly playground, of course, in case that gives the wrong connotations.)

Hang in there if all these angels are starting to get tedious – some people love this stretch, others struggle a bit. But things will pick up.

(Track 10) The enthusiastic Doctor Marianus and his choir, who usher in the Virgin Mary. (The Marianus means that he is a doctor, or teacher, of Mary.) But we have to wait a bit longer before we get to hear from Mary (the Mater Gloriosa) herself.

(Track 11) This is the moment when the Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary) soars into view, which is why we are treated to a beautiful orchestral interlude on harp and strings, before the choir (and later a female soloist) enter quietly and beautifully, asking Mary to listen to their pleading.

(Track 12) The next three women are penitent women (women who have committed great sins and have repented and been forgiven). They give hope to Faust that he will be forgiven as he ascends higher. You might recognise a lot of the themes. First up is the Magna Peccatrix (or Mary Magdalene) making reference to the washing of Jesus’ feet with perfume.

(Track 13) Then we have the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well. Her solo is much more solemn but ends with an outpouring of orchestral joy.

(Track 14) Last up of the three is Maria Aegyptica, or Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents.

(1:22) Then all three of them join in a trio offering hope that if they can be saved, so can Faust. The orchestration is very light (this is the chamber music part of the symphony).

(Track 15) In this track, Gretchen herself (or the Penitent One) calls for Mary to approach. Oddly enough, it starts a bit playful (mandolins?).

(Track 16) The Blessed Boys again, encouraging Faust to leave behind this life and become heavenly. (You may have noticed, BTW, that Faust himself never sings in this section. He is the centre of the transformation that is happening, but it is the other characters that sing about it.) And we are almost at the point of transformation. Gretchen sings (2:05):

See, how he is set free
From the old enfolding of earthly bonds.
Out of ethereal garments
The early force of youth appears!

But all her music in this section is taken from the tunes that we know from Part 1, where we heard about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is perhaps a loose connection between the two pieces – but it was enough for Mahler and he cements the connection with his music.

(3:12) And then the music slows down and becomes beautiful at the moment when Mary floats into view.

Track 17

To sing two lines. (Yes, all that for two lines!)

Come! Elevate yourself to higher spheres!
If he perceives you, he shall follow you.

The one time I saw this live, they put the soprano up in the organ loft to set her apart from everyone else and in every recording, there is always something other-wordly about this moment.

(1:27) Now this is where things get really good. Doctor Marianus comes back again with his awesome tenor solo that leads into the finale. He calls “all you, frail penitents” to “look up to the redeeming sight that gratefully recreates you to a blessed fate!”For my money, the best bit in the whole symphony is the massive vocal leap that he makes on “bleibe gnädig (keep being merciful)”. (2:59) His voice soars into the sky, and calls down the whole choir who reiterate his words to “look up”.

(6:05) Long orchestral interlude, which will make you think of vast night skies filled with stars and then …

(Track 18) … whisper quiet, the choir comes in one last time with this verse.

All things transitory
Are only symbols;
What is insufficient,
Here becomes an event;
The indescribable
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
Pulls us upwards.

That last part about the “eternal feminine” is an interesting philosophical concept in its own right which was popular in Goethe’s day (you can read about it on Wikipedia) but also got a bit of coin in our own day thanks to The Da Vinci Code, which made it part of its conspiracy theory.

But you’ll more likely be captured by the music, which is a huge, majestic climb to the finish. It’s vast, it’s over-the-top, it’s like floating in space. It’s the Mahler 8. It always brings the house down in the end.



The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 8: Part 1

There’s nothing quite like seeing 1,000+ musicians about to make an epic noise. This is a photo from a performance of the Mahler 8 in Slovenia in 2001 with 1,083 performers. (Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.)

The best way to listen to this whole symphony is to simply follow along with the words. Mahler thought they were important enough to have nearly the entire symphony sung, and so looking at the words will immediately put you on the wavelength of what the symphony is about. So for this blog post, I’ve mainly just listed the words, but I’ll throw in a few comments from time to time. (My translation is courtesy of Wikipedia, BTW.)

It essentially plays with two types of music – a vast, epic choral sound that you hear right at the beginning with the full choir, and some more gentle music that you will usually hear from just the soloists (of which there are eight!). So it simultaneously hits listeners with the full power of God, while bestowing grace and beauty on them as well.

Also, if you’ve been following along with the blog, you might recognise that the whole thing, as well as being spiritual, is also a type of sonata form, where he sets out his main themes, plays around with them in various ways in the middle and then brings everything full circle at the end with a recapitulation.

You will have to forgive the fact that it’s broken up into lots of separate tracks as well. It makes it easier to skip to your favourite bits second time around, but it does take up a lot of room on this post!

(Track 1) The organ chord that everyone loves, and then straight into the big Veni creator theme which opens and closes the whole symphony. I find with a choir this size (and technically the choir here is actually split into two choirs – singing back and forth at each other), most of the words seem to disappear, but you can hear the big soul-transforming sound easily enough. The music perfectly matches the idea of the Holy Ghost with his “bright heav’nly throne”.

Veni, creator spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita;

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;

(Track 2) Soloists – then choir – then soloists again; beautiful peaceful second theme. The first go round is with the soloists, then with the choir joining in quietly. Bit by bit, the singers work their way higher and higher up, so that the solo part climaxes on the words “spiritual anointment”.

imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paraclitus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,

fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
et spiritalis unctio.

come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.

You are named the Comforter,
A gift from the highest God,

Living fountain, fire and love,
Spiritual anointment.

(3:28) Returns to the Veni creator theme of the opening.

(4:03) Awesome orchestral interlude begins …

(Track 3) The interlude continues, now with bells and strings. The choir re-enters at (0:38) with the Infirma nostri section. Because this is about feeble bodies being strengthened, Mahler has the choir almost whispering at this point, with a solo violin flitting around, somewhat like an annoying mosquito. (That may be just my opinion, however. The word Mahler uses is “fleeting”.)

The soloists re-enter on the bit about “with divine power” and offer a bit of comfort.

Infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti;

Therefore, strengthen our feeble bodies
With divine power!

(Track 4) Another orchestral interlude begins. This one has hints of the first three notes, tolling bells, and off-stage brass.

(Track 5) I like to think that this brilliant little bit of flute music inspired the soundtrack for every creepy moment in children’s films from then on. It leads into more Infirma nostri from the soloists.

(1:15) The enlightenment arrives, and it’s as delicate and beautiful as can be.

lumen accende sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus.

Enlighten our senses,
Infuse your love into our hearts!

(Track 6) Accende lumen sensibus (the words slightly switched around) – the LOUD version. Soloists and choir take off.

(1:16) Next is the hostem repellas moment, which is great fun because the choir actually shouts its lines, just to really emphasise that they’re driving away an enemy here. And I should just repeat that when I say “choir”, there are actually two large choirs plus a children’s choir singing here, so there are approximately nine choral vocal parts plus eight soloists all going at once. It’s huge.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus;

Drive away the enemy
And give us everlasting peace!

(1:51) Then with almost no warning, Mahler heads into the next section.

ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne pessimum.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae paternae digitus;
Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus Filium, spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Da gaudiorum praemia,
da gratiarum munera;
dissolve litis vincula,
adstringe pacis foedera.

Guide us on our pathway,
So that we may shun all perils!

You, sevenfold tribute of the Father.
The finger in his hand,
Reveal to us the Father and the Son!
Let us have faith in you forever,
The Spirit that from both of you emanates!

Grant us the joys of heaven,
Bestow on us your offering of Grace!
Settle matters where conflict prevails,
And bring peace there!

This is a massive exercise in counterpoint (meaning all the voices have their own separate melody lines, but they all layer on top of each other perfectly), so the music sounds infinitely complex, but not at all like a cacophony. It goes on in this vein for several minutes, becoming more and more joyfully ecstatic.

(3:30) Accende Lumen comes back in full glory. Any other piece of music and you’d think this was the ending, but this is a fake ending. Instead, it starts working back up towards the real recapitulation.

(4:14) But not without stopping for the choral equivalent of a Mahler collapse along the way. The music sounds as if it’s falling apart, but slowly you can hear it stirring and you can feel things building …

(Track 7) This is essentially the start of the Recapitulation section. Back to Veni creator. Tennstedt slows it down for dramatic effect. Most of this is music from the beginning of the movement, but as always with Mahler, re-orchestrated and subtly adjusted. I must confess, there are many moments in this next stretch where you think the whole thing is about to finish and then it just keeps going … it will either start to wear out its welcome, or – especially if you crank it loud on a good set of speakers – the hugeness of it all will be amazingly overwhelming.

(Track 8) And just when you thought it was all over, there’s more! It’s a coda! A little orchestral interlude leads up to a children’s choir and the soloists singing:

Gloria Patri Domino,
Deo sit gloria et Filio
natoque, qui a mortuis
surrexit, ac Paraclito
in saeculorum saecula.

Let God the Father be praised
And his resurrected Son
And the comforting Spirit
In all eternity!

At first the melody is the Infirma theme, then it’s the Veni creator theme. Soon the organ kicks in, the choirs join in, the whole kitchen sink, climaxing with a massive series of upwards runs (2:19) at the end. Played loud or heard live, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 1 Deleted Scene: Blumine

The Trumpeter of Säckingen, the inspiration for Mahler’s deleted Blumine movement. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

And before we finally finish up with the Mahler 1, let me just throw in one last movement that Mahler originally wrote for the symphony, but later deleted.

This movement was called Blumine. (Which is not actually a real word, by the way  – Blume means flower in German, so it’s presumably something to do with flowering? Any German-speakers are more than welcome to chip in and help me out on this one!) It would have originally slotted in between the first and second movements.

Soundwise, the main tune was one that Mahler had written earlier as some incidental music from a story called The Trumpeter of Säckingen. Which explains why this is essentially an extended serenade for trumpet. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also very treacly and sweet as well, so you can see why Mahler cut it out and left only the edgy stuff in the symphony.

And once he did cut it, it was never heard from 1894 to 1966 when somebody discovered the older original manuscript of the Mahler 1 and found the movement. Respecting Mahler’s wishes -and also because of the above-mentioned treacle effect – nobody puts it in back in the symphony, but every now and again, somebody will play it as a bonus extra at a Mahler performance.

Somewhat like I’m doing now. So have a listen and see what you think. If nothing else, it’s a great piece of trumpet music. (Apologies -there is a lot of applause on this video before the music starts.)


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

Screenshot 2016-02-26 at 7.04.58 AM
Archives Bookstore – my favourite second-hand bookstore and the place where I was to pick up The Book That Changed My Life. (Photo Copyright Google 2016, sourced from Google Maps.)

I know we’re only four symphonies off the end of the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – and that will continue , don’t worry! But I have the opportunity to make a trip to London in just over a month, and that gives me the chance to track down and go hunting for any information that I can find about a particular person – namely, a guy named George Grove.

So in between the Mahler posts, I’m going to be throwing in the odd extra blog post on this guy George over the next couple of months, which may be far too nerdy for many, but you never know there might be some people that are interested as well. I guess we’ll see.

But let me start with a question: Have you ever had a life-changing moment? Something that, perhaps, you could look back and say, “Yep, that’s one of the major turning points in my life right there.” In some cases, you might have known right at that moment that this was a big thing (like births, deaths and marriages). But sometimes life changes in major ways and you didn’t realise that it was happening until much, much later.

It was this kind of change that happened to me about 15 years ago, and it all started in the building in the photo above – Archives Bookstore in Brisbane. And precisely because I didn’t realise that this particular visit to a bookstore was going to be so momentous, I actually can’t remember the year or even the time of year. I suspect it was 2000 or 2001, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.

Archives, which I’m glad to see is still going strong in Brisbane, even though I don’t live there any more, is a big old rambling bookshop where you can find everything from old rare editions through shelves of pre-loved sci-fi and fantasy, with just piles of odd stuff everywhere.

In fact, obviously the folks at Google were taken with the place, because they didn’t just stop at photographing the outside. You can actually take yourself for a virtual wander through the shelves, which is great fun:

Somewhere up the back, if you wander up far enough, is their section on music books. Possibly, the reason I was interested in music books was because I’d been reading through Phil Goulding’s Ticket to the Opera, which is a fantastic friendly guide to learning about different operas. Anyway, whatever the reason, I stumbled across a little blue paperback that looked brand new amidst the piles of otherwise well-loved books.  (Maybe it was donated by some music student who was supposed to read it but had never bothered to crack the cover? I’ll never know.)

This was the book:


The book offered to take you through the music of Beethoven’s symphonies, almost note by note and, perhaps the most friendly aspect of it, it was written by Grove for amateurs. So, while being quite a different beast, it was very much in the same spirit as what I’ve been attempting with my Mahler guided tour.

Of course, when Grove was writing his book (and this was in the late 1800s), the definition of an “amateur” was a bit different. An amateur was somebody who could read music (the book is filled with different snippets of sheet music) and understood music theory – so stuff like sonata form, major and minor, movements in a symphony (which I feel would need to be explained to amateurs today), were all assumed to be understood by his readers.

So when I first started reading it, I had to work hard consulting music dictionaries and such-like stuff to try to understand what the heck he was talking about. (And I can only thank my father and his piano lessons for teaching me how to read music, otherwise I don’t think the book would have meant anything at all.)

But I persevered, and as I read, something jaw-dropping happened.

Let me back up a minute. A few years earlier, I had seen and loved the famous Gary Oldman Beethoven film, Immortal BelovedAnd I’d enthusiastically bought the soundtrack which I still think, to this day, is the greatest single Beethoven album anyone can own.

Then, thinking that I should expand my horizons and get into all of the Beethoven symphonies, I one day picked up – because it was always the cheapest set of Beethoven symphonies back in the late 90s – the von Karajan set where he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, this exact box set here:


But I seemed to run into difficulties listening to it. All the Beethoven symphonies have four very distinct movements (except for the “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, which has five movements). But instead of hearing 37 distinct movements, the CDs always seemed to sound like this:

Symphony 1 – Nice Orchestral Background Music (NOBM)

Symphony 2 – More NOBM

Symphony 3 – First five minutes I heard off Immortal Beloved followed by another 40 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 4 – NOBM

Symphony 5 – Opening famous bit; another 25 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 6 – Some NOBM with that bit with the storm and the country dance – this one was a little easier because the tunes were vaguely familiar from Fantasia

Symphony 7 – NOBM – that great second movement where Beethoven’s nephew tries to shoot himself – More NOBM, albeit a bit more up-tempo

Symphony 8 – NOBM leaning towards random

Symphony 9 – What, a whole hour of NOBM before I get to the famous part with the choir? Why can’t he just skip to the good bits? (That said, there are possibly still hugely educated music fans that ask the same thing about the Choral Symphony.)

But, after reading Grove, I discovered that the Beethoven symphonies came into sharp focus, and all of a sudden I felt like I understood a) what Beethoven was trying to do and b) why the music was the way it was. So now listening to the Beethoven Symphonies became like this:

Symphony 1 – Movement I: Energetic opening with the first chord that shocked listeners; Movement II: beautiful little movement with the heartbeat on the timpani; Movement III: Beethoven’s first symphonic scherzo, so fast and furious it could never be mistaken for a traditional minuet (even if that’s what Beethoven called it); Movement IV: The joke with the slow scale at the beginning, like a worm poking its head out of a hole, clearly Beethoven’s sense of humour.

Symphony 2 – Movement I: unmistakable because of its fiery violin parts; Movement II: The slow movement with the intense climax at the end; Movement III: the scherzo where snippets of the tune get thrown between different groups of the orchestra like a football; Movement IV: The awesome one that sounds like a particularly crazy episode of Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner.

Symphony 3  – Movement I: 15 minutes of epic grandness, with a huge sweep from the opening theme to the barricade-storming final minutes of the finale; Movement II: One of the greatest funeral marches ever written; Movement III: The scherzo with all the flash and fire of a cavalry charge; Movement IV: One of the most clever things Beethoven ever wrote, a theme and variations, with a theme that sounds so light and fluffy, you wonder why he put it at the end of such a heroic symphony – until it spectacularly transforms into a thing of majesty and light at the end.


You get the idea.

But I found something had changed as well. With a knowledge of what the music was doing, combined with the enthusiasm of George, all of a sudden, my enjoyment of the music – which up until then I had already thought was pretty high on the scale – increased tenfold. Suddenly, I understood that when previously I had thought I was listening to classical music, I actually wasn’t. Now, for the first time, I understood what that sound world was that was inhabited by musicians and conductors and long-time fans of classical music. I understood why they went back to it time and time again.

And then, when I pondered a bit longer, a theory began to crystallise in my mind: Perhaps people aren’t walking away from classical music because they’ve had a listen and it’s not for them. Instead, they don’t actually really know what it is they’re hearing. The music is like a foreign film with no subtitles, a spectator sport where you don’t know the rules and can’t follow the game. It’s just meaningless sounds.

So – what if you could turn the subtitles on? What if you could teach the rules of the game to the ordinary person on the street, in language they would understand? Would more people then have the epiphany that I got from reading Grove?

it took several years for this idea to emerge, but that idea so took hold of me that I left behind my career path in maths and statistics, which I had studied at university, and spent two years trying any which way I could to get into the classical music industry. And after eight years in that field, it was the best thing I ever did.

So looking back, it was that trip to that bookstore, and picking up that book, that changed my life. But later on in life, I got curious about the man who wrote the book. Who was he? Clearly, he had a drive to share classical music with people as well, but where did that come from? How did he act that out?

I’ll talk about that in my next post about A Guy Named George.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement IV

Mahler once described this movement as being like the inferno vs. the paradise, which was almost the most awesome sort of fantasy story you could come up with in the 19th century. Thus, the movement reminds me a lot of this stunning illustration by Gustave Dore which he created to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – A happy walk through the fields; Movement II – A joyous dance; Movement III – a peculiar funeral march accompanied by Gypsies and a Klezmer band.

Which brings us to the final movement. You can call this a showdown between hell and heaven, evil and triumph, the inferno and paradise (as Mahler wrote somewhere in the early days before he decided to stop telling people what his music was about). Or just a battle between minor and major. Whatever your like.

The point is that when it came out, it must have been – by a country mile – the most violent, dramatic and heroic piece of orchestral music ever heard. It is so cinematic in its sound, that when I played it the other day, my four-year-old piped up and said, “Daddy, that’s Star Wars!” He was wrong, of course, but at the same time, there are ideas in here that film composers have drawn on so much over the next century (consciously or otherwise) that my amateur musicologist is also onto something.

It’s overall structure is a type of sonata form, which is how I’ve broken it up. But for this movement, following the different moods that the music travels through is the better way to enjoy it, I find.


(0:00) Epically nasty opening that leads into full-blown fury. (One commentator called this the Inferno theme, to be contrasted with the Paradise theme later.) Set the tone for the movie music in sword fight scenes for the next half century. Spectacular stuff.

(3:34) Beautiful romantic string moment to make the blue rinse set in the audience have a bit of a swoon.

(6:30) A return to the descending theme from the opening of the first movement of the symphony. Thunder appears on the horizon. Then back to the full-blown nasty music. (The Inferno theme.)

(9:13) A triumphant brass fanfare with a spectacular leap upwards. Now Mahler wrote this music to change key at this point. (The “key” of music has a lot of complicated meaning, but the simplest explanation is that the key defines the set of notes and note groupings that the composer is using in a particular section of the music. When you change key, you suddenly shift to a different set of notes. For pop songs, a key change usually means they take the same tune and shift it higher up the scale, suddenly making that section stand out – for instance, the most famous key change of all time (if nothing else, for its cheese value) is still probably the last verse of “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, where Celine Dion changes key in the last verse and starts singing the song much higher.)

But to get back to classical music, normally when a composer changes keys, they move to the next key in a few steps (called a transition) so the listeners can tell that’s what they’re going to do. Not Mahler. Right at the (9:25) moment, the orchestra leaps up into the new key – which turns it into another one of those breakthrough moments that we discussed in the first movement. You may not have realised it was a key change, but you will have hopefully caught the excitement of the moment.

Finally, this new triumphant music is our Paradise theme, the opposite of the Inferno theme.


(10:41) The Development of symphonies in Mahler’s day often involved playing around with the themes you had just set out in the Exposition, but Mahler boldly takes us right back to the opening music of the first movement. It’s almost as if, in the midst of a serious trial, our thoughts turn to the nostalgia of the past.

(12:15) The rising ominous theme from the opening movement, and even a hint of the song about walking across the fields.

(12:59) Another beautiful romantic string moment – even more fragile than the last one. It has a really nice crescendo (another bit of Italian jargon that means “a gradual increase in volume”).


(14:46) Back to the Inferno music, but this time played very quietly as if it’s a long way away. The sting is gone.

(16:49) The brass breakthrough transition we heard in the first movement followed by the Paradise theme, bigger and better than ever. By the way, if you have super-sharp ears, you may notice that this is simply a joyous major key version of the descending motif from the first movement. Even if you didn’t notice it consciously, it’s kind of cool to know that Mahler is bringing not just the movement but the whole symphony full circle. From here on in it’s epic all the way to the end.

If you see this live, one thing to look out for is that Mahler instructs the French horn players to stand up at this point. Not every conductor does this (perhaps figuring it’s a bit of a novelty act), but I can’t describe to you the electric thrill that runs through the crowd when this happens. Anyway, enough of my words. Enjoy the finale!

How awesome was that?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement II

Who’s up for a bit of country dancing? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a mix of atmosphere and chirpy songs with a bit of drama at the end.
And now, in the second movement, which is the scherzo of the symphony, Mahler pays homage to that very famous Austrian dance style, the ländler. This movement is probably the most straightforward of all Mahler movement in any of his symphonies. (At least if you’re trying to write about it.) It doesn’t necessarily carry any double meanings, it’s not tricky to follow – it’s just a Scherzo theme with a Trio theme in the middle and both of them are about the joy of dance.
So here we go.
(0:00) The Scherzo is a slightly clod-hopping but enthusiastic country dance. But don’t be fooled. Even though the dance itself might be simple, the orchestral colours are amazing. Muted trumpets, big bursts of timpani playing, swirling strings, pizzicato (plucked strings). Crank it loud, people. Your neighbours could do with the happiness anyway.
(2:52) The Trio is a much smoother, more Viennese affair. I could see Andre Rieu programming this bit into one of his concerts.
(5:43) Then back to the Scherzo, this time in a shorter version.
See, how much fun was that?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 6

So for our next stop on the tour, we’re returning to the “middle” group of symphonies (the 5, 6 and 7) and the last one that we haven’t yet listened to – the tragic and epic Symphony No 6.

You’ll be familiar with its style after having heard 5 and 7 – big, dense orchestrations, no choirs or singers or anything peripheral. It’s not quiet and introverted like the later ones, and it contains all sorts of music.

However, it is unusual amongst all the Mahler symphonies, because it contains (spoiler alert!) the only really solid unhappy ending. Mahler symphonies either end in huge explosions of sound (especially the ones we have coming up to listen to!) or find peace and acceptance and fade out, like Das Lied von der Erde and Symphonies 9 and 10.

But in some ways, the Mahler 6 is a different beast to the 5 and 7. Both of those symphonies had devastation and blackness, but it was also offset with beauty and uproarious celebration in the end. There’s none of that here. In fact, what I hear – and what some other commentators have noticed as well – is the sound of war and battle. The first and last movements have a persistent marching motif (i.e. a musical idea) that keeps returning over and over.

But, look, they say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Here is probably the best visual description that I could give you of the Mahler 6. Below is a clip from the Russian film of War and Peace, made in the late 60s in Russia. (Not to be confused with the American version with Audrey Hepburn made in the 50s.)

The scene is the battle of Schöngrabern and the Russian army is fighting against the French army, led by Napoleon. There are no subtitles in this clip, but that doesn’t matter too much. The Russians march from left to right. The French are either marching straight towards the camera or they go from right to left, so that’s how you tell them apart. But have a watch and then I’ll come back with some comments. (Note, due to restrictions, you’ll have to pop over to YouTube to watch this; it won’t play on my blog.)

BTW, the whole film – which runs for about seven hours – is completely worth watching. But what is striking about this particular clip is the way the sound and the visuals collide. We have the swirling mist at the beginning that suddenly clears to reveal thousands of French soldiers marching down the hill. In a similar way, there is a swirling misty feel at the beginning of the final movement to the Mahler 6, before a similar onslaught begins.

Likewise, there is the striking drumbeat to which the Russians march. It is relentless, driving the forces ever onwards, even though for many soldiers, it will mean certain death. There is the clash of music, the Russian music mixing with the rather chirpy tune of the French as they march. And, as the individual soldiers on the ground move, arcing over the top of them are the cannonballs, landing and causing such savage devastation among the forces.

I have always found that this sort of imagery comes to my head when I hear the Mahler 6.  Obviously, Mahler was dead long before this Russian film came out, so there is no indication that this was what he was thinking of, but it certainly provides a good analogy to the kinds of sound you will hear. (And, speculating wildly here, maybe Sergei Bondarchuk, the director of War and Peace, was influenced in his visual style by listening to the Mahler 6?)

However, one final inspiration which I can’t help but think also featured in this symphony was a song that Mahler composed in 1899. (The Symphony No. 6 itself was composed in 1903-04.) The song was based on another one of the old Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn) poems that Mahler drew on so much in his early symphonies. (You’ll remember that one of those poems appeared as the final movement of Symphony No. 4.)

This particular song is called “Revelge” (Reveille), and tells the tale of a regiment of soldiers marching to their death. They all die, but then the drummer-boy leads them in one last ghostly march. It too has a relentless marching element to it. This rendition is pretty bad video quality, but it has subtitles, and it’s sung by the always-awesome Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so it’s worth watching:

I think you’ll hear clearly elements of this song all through the movements of this symphony.

Speaking of movements, no introduction to the Mahler  6 would be complete without a bit of a spiel on which order the movements are in. (There’s a fierce debate that rages about this one.)  But this will take a bit of time to explain, so I’ll leave that to the next blog post.

Let me say to finish this one that the recording we’ll listen to is the always brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra, being conducted by the legendary Georg Solti. Solti’s box set of Mahler symphonies (everything except Das Lied and the Mahler 10) was the first box of Mahler symphonies I ever owned and listened to. Solti is not my favourite for a lot of them, but he opened my ears to the symphonies and if there’s one thing that Solti likes to do in a recording, it’s have an aggressive, sharp sound. It sometimes lacks subtlety, but for something like the Mahler 6, which has an awful lot of sharpness and aggression, it works really well. So that’s the one we’ll listen to over the next few weeks.

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

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“To live for you! To die for you!” and “Almschi!” – scribbled notes by Mahler on the final page of his Symphony No 10.

Apologies: Sorry for the gap between movements. I was on holidays. But here we go with the finale of the Symphony 10 …

Where We’ve Been: The 10th symphony is a symmetrical arc structure, so Movement I was a long slow movement, Movement II was a chaotic dance, Movement III was the quirky Purgatorio in the middle, Movement IV mirrored Movement II and so was also a chaotic Scherzo-type movement.

And, finally, Movement V mirrors Movement I. It’s another long, slow (but certainly not boring) movement. Again, it features an epic struggle, with calm resolution at the end, but this time with a much greater air of finality.

With regard to its structure, the easiest way to understand this one is to see it as a rather violent clash between two themes. After a rather extraordinary introduction, Theme I enters, which is absolutely beautiful, but it soon gets ruined by the dreaded “ha-HA-ha” motif (or musical idea) which has cropped up a few times in earlier movements. The “ha-HA-ha” motif takes over and becomes its own theme, which I’ve called Theme II. This then leads, via a few twists and turns, to another repeat of the horrific 9-tone-chord which we heard about in Movement I. But once the music gets through the crisis, finally we get peace.

(0:00) The sharp drumbeat that we heard at the end of Movement IV opens the fifth movement. (Some people believe that perhaps Mahler’s intention was just to have one drumbeat and that the fifth movement would then follow on seamlessly from the fourth, but most recordings – which split the movements into two tracks, of course – have two separate drumbeats.)  This is immediately followed by a string of low notes on the tuba rising darkly upwards.

(0:26) Within seconds, the “ha-HA-ha” motif has appeared, sounding ominous. It grows in strength and flocks in clusters, kind of like the creepy gathering of crows and seagulls from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Theme 1
(1:59) So it’s quite a relief when Theme 1 arrives with a gorgeous flute solo, with some nice harp moments underneath.
(3:12) All this is made even more beautiful with the arrival of the violins. This moment is so peaceful that it almost feels like this could be the finale. But Mahler is not going to let us enjoy peace that easily … It carries on building until it reaches a great climax at around (5:16). But at (5:25), shockingly, the drumbeat and the “ha-HA-ha” invade and the climax is ruined.

Theme II
(6:28) Now, a quicker second theme begins, slightly light and fluffy (which is surprising, considering that it’s build around the “ha-HA-ha”). If you have sharp ears, you might hear some bits that sound like the Purgatorio third movement and the big slow-down at the end is actually similar to the fourth movement. (Don’t worry if you don’t hear all these similarities. It took me quite a few listens to hear them all, and a lot of it is dependent on how easily you can remember themes and sounds from earlier movements. It’s enough to know that a) Mahler is tying everything together in this last movement and also that b) the more you listen to his symphonies, the more details you will hear.)

Theme I
(8:37) A blah version of the slow first theme, sounding really exhausted and tired on the brass, with the “ha-HA-has” flitting around like a swarm of mosquitoes.
(9:38) A slight moment of peace, and a beautiful trumpet solo.

The Crisis
(10:15) Theme II comes back again but soon collapses into the dreaded 9-tone-chord from the first movement, a truly diabolical sound, especially, with the “ha-HA-has”.

(11:30) A repeat of the unison viola theme from Movement I, this time on the French horns. Truly bleak part of the symphony. But the worst is over and the trial is behind us.

A Long Coda
(12:27) Theme I comes back, even more beautiful than ever. The rest of the movement is essentially one glorious coda, becoming more and more transcendent and strong. (18:22) In the Barshai version, the music returns one final time to the chamber music sound of just a few instruments, which is a really nice touch. (You don’t hear that in every version.)

In the sheet music that we have, near the end of the movement, we can see that Mahler scribbled “To Live For You! To Die For You!” (see picture above) and a little bit below that …

(20:o8) … at this moment, where the music does a solitary flare-up out of the quietness, he wrote his wife Alma’s nickname, “Almschi!” We know that their marriage was in serious trouble this by stage, and Alma was in love with Walter Gropius, the famous architect. So knowing this when you hear the music makes things even more poignant as the curtain closes on this, Mahler’s final symphony.

I find it a very simple yet moving ending, and I always come away feeling like I’ve had a cathartic moment at the end of the symphony. So I hope you enjoyed it as well. I think the biggest difficulty that the Symphony No 10 is up against (apart from all the issues to do with whether you should perform it and which version to use) is simply that Mahler’s 9th Symphony is also a symphony that begins and ends with two long slow movements and is also about turmoil, farewells and peaceful acceptance. And, if I had to pick, the No 9 does it better.

But, when you get a chance to hear it in isolation from the 9 (and not straight after – thus the reason I’ve been tackling this Guided Tour out of numerical order), it still has a lot to say. I am very glad that Alma decided not to destroy it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(3:59) Before the brass sweep in …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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