The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3 – Movement III

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.


(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 9: Movement III

Chaos: That’s what I hear in the third movement of the Mahler 9. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the mixed emotions of a man facing up to death. Movement II was a strange collection of odd dances.

Now we reach the third movement, which – just to warn you upfront – is one of the most difficult and thorny things that Mahler ever composed. It’s the fastest movement in the whole ninth symphony and it’s a highly successful representation of chaos. Like the previous two movements, it consists of a several musical ideas that repeat, varied slightly each time. At the risk of being far too flippant with a serious piece, I think of the three themes as:

  • Counterpoint From Hell (and counterpoint, just as a reminder, is where you have multiple melody lines or tunes stacked on top of each other; it’s like listening to several tunes at the same time, but they all work together)
  • Squeaks of Doom (because there are some pretty obnoxious sounds coming from the woodwinds)
  • The Last Movement Hint, because it’s really a theme to set up the music that you’re going to hear in the last movement

Let’s get cracking.

(0:00) Theme 1 – Counterpoint From Hell (CFH). How do you even describe this? It’s a chugging melody, mostly in the strings, but every other instrument group interjects over the top with angular and harsh-sounding melodies of their own. Somebody said that Mahler threw in so many different instrumental lines here that you feel the music is dense and constricting, as if you can’t move. I’m inclined to agree.

(2:04) Theme 2 – Squeaks Of Doom (SOD). A slightly milder theme arrives at the two-minute mark, but it’s still somewhat strange. Squeaky woodwinds, strange melodic leaps. Nobody likes this stuff. (Well, I don’t, anyway!)

(3:25) Theme 1 – Back to CFH, now with more attitude from the brass and a really horrendous melody line on the woodwinds.

(4:57) Theme 2 – Back to SOD, but this time the French horns take the lead.

(6:32) There’s a big cymbal crash at this point because, with this much noise going on, why not?

(6:39) Theme 3. The trumpet plays a plaintive little tune. This will be transformed into the main theme of the last movement (which, if you kind of like it now, is truly breathtaking when you hear it later, so do come back!). But for now we’ll just call this one the Last Movement Hint (LMH) motif. It’s easy to spot. One long note, followed by four shorter ones. It ends up in a sad collapse at (8:37) with the strings whistling away like monstrous kettles.

(9:11) The LMH returns with a most obnoxious squeak from the oboes.

(9:55) Once more we hear that Last Movement Hint in a more beautiful version (however, more beautiful in the Viennese schmaltz style – it still sounds a bit chintzy – and listen for the collapse in the oboe at 10:22).

(10:33) Things start to pick up and we make a gradual transition.

(10:37) And BOOM! we’re back in Counterpoint From Hell territory again. It’s big, it’s oomphy and it’s in-your-face and it continues for the remaining three minutes.

(12:19) The last minute is particularly spectacular as we reach what one conductor described as “the rush over the cliff”.

The overall effect is to leave you quite breathless …

But all that will change with the fourth movement. So see you soon for that one!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 9

If you’re still following along, we are down to the final three Mahler symphonies and because I’ve been tackling them out of order, you’ll know these are my favourites. While I like various bits and pieces of the other symphonies we’ve heard, these three are absolutely some of the greatest orchestral pieces of music ever written and an amazing experience. (Especially if you can hear them live!)

So we turn now to Mahler’s haunting Symphony No 9, the last complete symphony that he ever wrote. If you remember, the Mahler 10 was completed melodically – as in, he wrote down the main tunes – but was never fully orchestrated. The Mahler 9, however, was fully written and scored for orchestra but he died before he could hear it performed. Despite that, it works amazingly well. I’m always staggered that composers could just be so intimately familiar with the sound of different instruments that they could write it down, hearing in their head what it would sound like, and then – lo and behold – it all turns out to work in real life.

In terms of its sound and theme, if you’ve been listening to the other symphonies on this tour, it fits in very well with Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde because it is about the same thing – dealing with death, saying farewell to life, etc. But, for my money, the Mahler 9 easily outstrips the other two in terms of raw emotional power. It feels like this is Mahler, knowing he is going to die, looking death in the face and expressing all the emotions that go with it. It feels, in short, like a last symphony. (And given that Dvořák, Bruckner, Schubert and Beethoven all hit nine symphonies and then died, 9th symphonies always seem to have a special flavour to them.)

It consists of four movements, but unlike regular symphonies, the first and fourth movements are slow movements (and massive slow movements at that) and the two middle movements are the fast ones. So there’s nothing really resembling the epic fast opening or closing movement that you would get in a Brahms or Beethoven symphony. So why this unusual structure? Well, it really gives him a chance to express philosophical ideas without using words.

Movement I starts out as a gentle farewell to life and turns into a massive life-and-death struggle against mortality. Movement II is an increasingly crazy dance. Movement III is a harsh, chaotic scherzo. Both of these seem to be looking at life and seeing chaos and meaninglessness. And then, finally, Movement IV – one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written – expresses a calm and resignation in the face of death and contains one of the most astonishing musical representations of dying ever composed.

For the recording, I’m showcasing a beautiful performance done by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who I am privileged to currently work for), conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!

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 – Up Next: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)


We have four Mahler symphonies left to go, and hopefully in this homeward stretch, blogging about them out of order will all pay off. Like the long-awaited dessert at the end of a meal, these last four symphonies are all musical gold. They’re huge – both in length, size of the orchestra, massiveness of sound and the philosophical and theological concepts that they touch on. (Don’t worry, if that sounds too scary, you can just dip in and like it as pure music – many people do.)

But when it comes to size of an ensemble, the Mahler 8 – the next symphonic stop in our guided tour of Mahler – is a thing of legend. Mahler had experimented with putting choirs in symphonies (you’ll hear that in the Mahler 2 and the Mahler 3). But for the Mahler 8, he decided that he wanted to try something completely different – a symphony for orchestra, solo singers and choir, and the singers and choir would sing throughout almost the entire work. (This almost makes the piece a cantata, which was the name for – mostly sacred – works for choir and orchestra that were popular in back in the 1700s.)

It was first premiered in Munich. For that performance Mahler assembled a massive orchestra, eight soloists, a large choir and a children’s choir as well. The over-enthusiastic guy who was spruiking the concert (channelling the spirit of classical music marketers all the way into the future) came up with the tagline to end all taglines: “Symphony Of A Thousand”. Mahler never authorised this subtitle and the reality is that you can quite adequately perform the piece with half those numbers, but it was too late – the nickname has stuck ever since and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recording or a concert advertisement of the Mahler 8 that doesn’t slip it in somewhere. (That said, because it does require such massive forces to perform, it is the rarest Mahler to hear performed live. If you do ever see it advertised by your local orchestra, don’t muck around getting a ticket – hordes of Mahlerites will be scrambling over themselves to snap up the seats.)

So what’s it about and why does it need a choir? Essentially it’s because Mahler came across two ideas that he really liked – one an old Latin hymn tune and the other the end of Goethe’s famous epic poem Faust and he wanted to set these particular pieces to music. Structurally, it is different from any other symphony he composed. Essentially, there are no movements – just two parts.

Part One is in Latin and is an ancient 9th century hymn known as Veni, creator spiritus or “Come, Creator Spirit”. Part Two is the final scene of Faust.

I might just pause here to do a quick potted version of Faust, because while it’s a name that crops up a fair bit in 19th century music, I don’t know of too much popular culture that references it. Faust was the name of a doctor in an old German legend who sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for all the wisdom and experiences that this life could offer. This legend has been the inspiration for plays, operas, songs, etc. but the most famous version of all is the one by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a play in verse of the Faust legend (known as Faust, Part One) and then later in life came along and wrote a much more metaphysical extension of the Faust story (known as Faust, Part Two).

At the end of Part Two, various angels, holy women and finally the Virgin Mary come down from heaven and transform Faust’s soul in order to draw him to Heaven. I find that every translation of the German I’ve read of this final scene is tortuous to read, so I’m half-suspecting it could be difficult in the original German as well.

The main point you need to know is that that final scene of Faust spoke to Mahler and he was clearly interested in the concept of spiritual transcendence and the transformation of the soul. So when you look at the lyrics to the Latin hymn in the first half, Veni Creator Spiritus, you can see that it’s a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to “take possession of our souls” and contains lines such as: “O guide our minds with thy blest light, with love our hearts inflame.”

So if you think of this as a massive exploration of the theme of human souls being transformed by a Divine power, you’ll be on the wavelength of what this symphony is about. And when you hear the music that Mahler used for this symphony, you’ll understand what an awe-inspiring concept he found that to be.

From a musical perspective, Mahler managed to tie these two parts together (both written centuries apart and in different languages) by having some common musical themes that are shared across both. So whether or not you think he successfully tied the two texts together, you’ll probably agree the musical tunes are united together very well.

As far as recordings go, it was tricky to know which one to choose. All the recordings seem to bring out lots of different details, and some people lean towards the dramatic, some people like to go more calm and spiritual. (I will tell you now, there is nothing quite so convoluted as reading reviews of classical music online. One reviewer will be telling you it’s the definitive recording, sounding absolutely amazing, but the next reviewer will say, no, it’s pretty lackluster, actually. Proving yet again that, even among people who all love the same music, everybody can hear different things.)

The recording conducted by Georg Solti is one that crops up on favourite lists all the time (and I’d recommend tracking it down), but because we used him for the Mahler 6, I’ll run with another conductor who shows up quite regularly on Mahler 8 favourite lists: Klaus Tennstedt, with his live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I haven’t listened to all of it myself, so it can be something new for both of us.

See you soon for Part One!



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 – Symphony No 1: Movement I

I have no idea if this was the kind of field that Mahler was talking about when he wrote the song about walking in the fields that features in this symphony. But it’s a nice picture, don’t you think? (Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

This movement is more or less in sonata form, but I find the most interesting part of the whole thing is the unique sound world that Mahler creates with his orchestra. When most other composers would be thinking about melodies and harmonies at the beginning, Mahler focuses in on sound effects to set the scene … It’s amazing. Have a listen.

(0:00) Long, static introduction. Some have said this is the sound of Mahler’s childhood – high strings for the wind, bird calls, the sound of a military base in the background (the trumpet calls) and mysterious two-note upwards motifs  on the woodwinds, and then an even more mysterious descending motif in the flutes.

(1:41) Bit of a French horn moment.

(2:27) Steadily growing cello melody. This rises up (ominously) and turns into …

(3:08) An orchestral version of a song Mahler wrote called “I went out this morning into the fields”. The wordless song strolls merrily along, getting steadily louder and more enthusiastic.

Now, at this point, I have to apologise to any Mahler purists that follow this blog. In nearly every other recording out there, there would be a complete repeat of the song. Apart from the Mahler 6, this is the only known literal repeat in a Mahler symphony, where he asks the orchestra to play the same part over exactly the same. In every other symphony, even if he was repeating a theme, he would always vary it. After all, no experience in life is ever exactly the same as a previous one, is it?

However, perhaps because this was a live recording, Rafael Kubelik (who definitely played the repeat on his more famous recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label) has decided to make a liar of me. He’s skipped the repeat and gone straight into the Development section. Hey, at least we’ll be finished quicker.


(5:10) Back to the sound world of the intro. High strings, cuckoos, etc. It feels as if time is standing still.

(6:48) The mysterious descending motif comes back again mixed with a stealthy climb on the low end of the harp. (May I say, this is probably the best I’ve ever heard this section.)

(8:00) A powerful brass theme enters – but very quietly.


(8:28) This quickly morphs into a return of the song.


(10:17) The music starts to get more agitated, until some spectacularly dark-sounding chords (10:34) arrive on the strings, accompanied by a much closer and louder brass fanfare. Things look pretty grim …

(11:24) … until a classic example of a Mahler breakthrough occurs. Most composers work out musical transitions to logically move the music from one theme to the next. But Mahler, right here in his first symphony, developed his own way of doing things. Instead of a transition, the other theme (in this case, a spectacular brass cavalry call that leads to a loud, joyful recap of the song) bursts out of nowhere – like it’s broken through a wall – into the dark sound world, dispelling the cobwebs and taking us all the way to the end. The movement ends with a bit of a playful joke with the timpanist and then we’re done.

It’s a strange mix – an atmospheric intro, a cheery song and a dramatic brass finale, but you’ve been listening to enough Mahler with me to know that the man likes to throw in everything.

What did you think?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Slow Movement

Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sorry about the delay between movements – it’s all getting a little busy lately.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – The militaristic sound of the opening movement, sweeping all in its path. Movement II (old scheme) or III (revised scheme) – the scherzo, with its combination of the military sound and the off-kilter running of toddlers.

And now we come to the slow movement, which could either be in second or third place, depending on your preferred order of movements.

I have always found this movement to be incredibly moving, both by itself, and even more so as an oasis in the otherwise quite strident chaos of the other movements. There’s not a lot to describe, really, because it mainly consists of two main sound worlds- one in the major key and one in the minor key. (But even then, that’s the general idea – so the major key area might have an occasional dip into a minor key for a couple of seconds, etc. This is Mahler – nothing is ever set in concrete.) But in the course of about 15 minutes, it will take your ears to some pretty amazing places. By turns it is intimate, beautiful, vast, epic, sad. You name it, you can feel it coming off this movement. I’m a bit of a fan.

But have a listen and see what you think.

Major Key Section
(0:00) Starts slowly with a long song-like melody on the strings.
(1:45) Rocking flutes lead into an alternate melody on the woodwinds, very plaintive. (Mostly this is because Mahler uses, in this section, a woodwind instrument known as the Cor anglais – or English horn – which has a melancholy sound all of its own.)
(2:20) Awesome French horn solo, as the melody is passed around the orchestra. It fades out towards the end with the gentle rocking sound again. (3:41)

Minor Key Section
(4:38) An even more fragile moment, with very high strings. Mahler hints at the rocking sound from the major section. This completely intimate sound gradually leads into (5:23) an increasingly loud and passionate type of music.
(6:50) But then this transforms into a beautiful moment with Mahler’s mystical favourites – the cowbells.

Major Key Theme
(7:47) Back to the beginning again, but re-orchestrated.
(9:09) And then there is this bit – possibly one of my favourite Mahler moments of all time. The sound drops away to a woodwind chorale (an old classical music term which means they sound like a choir singing a hymn), with the cellos deep underneath, then a solo violin comes in. The mix of sounds is Absolutely. Amazing. No matter how many times I’ve heard it, it gets me every time. I’m not sure why I love it so much, but I think it’s because of the massive harmonic space between the orchestration – the mix of highs and lows with nothing in between. A bit later the French horns return and the theme continues and it’s all over.

Minor Key Theme
(10:52) Back to the minor key alternate melody sounding even more fragile. Again, that massive space between highs and lows. The orchestra soon fires up and this section works its way up to …

Major Key Theme
(13:09) … a stratospheric return of the opening theme. Totally epic.
(14:43) Dies out very, very quietly.

How awesome was that? And that absolutely transcendent slow movement then sets us up for the tragedy that is about to unfold in the final movement …

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Scherzo Movement

Mahler’s wife, Alma, described the Trio of this movement as “the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand”. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a powerful opening movement that contrasts a marching militaristic sound with a sweeping romantic second theme. We felt as though we had won the battle, but not sure if we were going to win the war.

Now, at this point, you would either head into the slow movement (if you’re part of the raft of modern scholars who follow the slow movement/scherzo order) as the second movement. Or, if you follow a lot of older recordings and my personal preference, this scherzo movement follows next.

(0:00) The scherzo is in the military style we’re familiar with from the first movement.

(0:56) Note the strange little off-kilter interlude here. This theme will turn into the Trio in a minute. The Scherzo continues on in a creepy way. Finishes with the decaying Major/Minor Seal (1:54) from the first movement.

(2:06) The Trio is a strange innocent-sounding thing with a rhythm that is all over the shop. Alma Mahler once described this arrhythmic sound as children playing and “staggering through the sand”. Given that one of Mahler’s daughters had died, this would make it quite a tragic sound to create with music. (Though scholars, of course, debate whether this is really what he intended.) Either way, the innocence of the Trio is a stunning contrast with the ominous sound of the Scherzo.

(4:33) The Scherzo starts again with the incredible sound of a mocking brass section, followed by a Halloweenish skeleton dance, and then back to the full-blown marching sound. (Notice the creepy xylophone again back from the first movement.) Listen out also for the Major/Minor Seal.

(7:04) Hesitating woodwinds introduce the Trio again, this time sounding even more innocent.

(9:23) The Scherzo, now starting to sound less monstrous and almost a bit comical. (I think of a cranky duck when I hear this music, but I’m pretty sure that’s my own impression, not Mahler’s …)

(10:57) The movement fades out with the sound of the toddlers, but listen in the background and you can hear that decaying Major/Minor chord, repeated over and over again from about (11:51) onward. Again, we are reminded of that tragic inevitability of fate that’s never too far away.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: Movement I

I can never hear anything other than a relentless military march in the opening of the Mahler 6. (Painting by Alexander Pock (Nutzungsrechte: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum Wien), via Wikimedia Commons)

So to listen to the first movement, a couple of things you might want to review because I’ll be referring to them throughout this post:

The latter are particularly important, because right near the beginning, Mahler introduces a motif (a musical idea) that consists of a chord (a group of notes) that starts in major. Then one of the notes slides down and converts the group into a minor chord. This particular motif is known around the traps as the Major/Minor Seal of the 6th Symphony. It all happens in a couple of seconds, but the slide makes the difference between a feeling of determination (the major chord) and a bad feeling that everything is going to go wrong (the minor chord).

And that is essentially the drama of the symphony right there, in a nutshell. The whole thing plays around with the idea of heroism (which is why I think the military sound is so prominent – warriors and soldiers continue to be held up as a symbol of heroism, even to this day) and the idea of an Inescapable Doom. While in real life, much tragedy is unexpected and shocking, if you think of the great tragedies of the past – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance – what makes them particularly poignant is that we can see the bad ending coming from a mile away. It is, in fact, the build-up that makes the sad ending work so well. And that’s what is happening here.

But let’s get started …

Exposition: Theme 1
(0:00) Marching theme, very military in sound. This symphony uses the largest orchestra of any of the Mahler symphonies, and you can hear it (especially in the Solti recording). The strings provide the tramping of feet, the woodwinds feel like pipers out the front leading the charge and the brass simply crush everything in their path. Listen especially for the Major/Minor Seal that I mentioned earlier (1:52).

(1:56) The march goes away but not the rhythm for this next bit, which is an awesome moment for the woodwinds and pizzicato (plucked) strings. This serves as a sort of transition into:

Exposition: Theme 2
(2:28) This theme is much more sweeping and romantic. Some people have called it a love theme for Mahler’s wife, Alma. I’m not 100% sure about that, but it’s definitely a bit Gone With The Wind. So Love Theme will do to give it a name. It’s a marked contrast to the first theme. It builds up to its own little joyous climax, but notice that elements of the first theme (especially the military beat) are never too far away.

Exposition: Theme 1 Repeat
(4:20) Back to the march again. It wasn’t uncommon in older symphonies to repeat the Exposition exactly note for note the way it was played the first time. Most of the time, Mahler never repeats anything without varying it. But in this symphony, he calls for an exact repeat of the Exposition as we’ve heard it. It thus clearly establishes this symphony as being very “classical” in form. The only other symphony that calls for a straight repeat of anything is his first symphony. It also increases the sense of inevitability.

(6:02) The Major/Minor seal.

(6:09) Pizzicato strings and woodwinds again.

Exposition: Theme 2 Repeat
(6:43) The Love Theme again, with its rapturous strings and big climax.

(8:35) The Development begins with the dum, dum, da-dum-dum-dum beat that’s so familiar to us now. Everything is quiet, but the mood is still sinister.
(9:12) AWESOME loud version of the March Theme on the brass. (This is why I picked Solti and the astonishingly precise brass of the Chicago Symphony  Orchestra!) There are mocking xylophones in reply, followed by a plaintive song from the strings above it all (9:38). The strings are playing in the style of Theme 2, while the rest of the orchestra is marching along in the style of Theme 1, which is just one more reason this development is so great.
(10:13) This is very clever. We still sound like we’re in the march, but the low strings are playing snippets of the Love Theme. Everything comes to a nasty head, and then fades out into …
(10:44) … another one of Mahler’s great mystical quiet moments (with the ever-present sound of the cowbells, which he always liked to break out in his most mystical sections). These moments are so well done, that they’re just luxurious to listen to. If you notice, the woodwinds soon begin to play a very beautiful, delicate version of the March. So if the opening of the development was the Love Theme being transformed into the March, this section is the March being transformed into the sound world of Love. It all builds into a beautiful song without words on the flutes (13:02), which is a close relative of the transition theme.
(13:34) Then we’re suddenly thrust back into the world of the marching, but slightly more intense and spiky, and re-orchestrated yet again and this all builds up …

Recapitulation – Theme 1

(14:37) … to a huge brass moment as the proper recapitulation begins.

(16:02) The Major/Minor Seal, followed by a varied version of the woodwind interlude, now with a slightly twitchy gait to it.

Recapitulation – Theme 2
(16:32) The Love Theme sneaks in a little bit quietly, but then slowly builds. It’s not quite as majestic as the last time we heard it.

(17:52) The March theme builds up slowly and then takes off. It’s like a recap of every marching idea we’ve ever heard and is so long that it almost counts as another repeat of Theme 1.
(19:57) A triumphant brass version of the Love Theme breaks through and leads into a rather upbeat ending. It seems like the dark side has lost this time. But for how long?