The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement IV

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The last movement of the Mahler 9 – it feels like the musical equivalent of watching someone pass away. (Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the contrasting emotions of facing up to death. Movement II was a raucous dance movement. Movement III was a representation of chaos.

But the thing that has been eluding Mahler for the last two movements, was the one thing that he had just found at the end of the first movement: acceptance. This final movement, which showcases the strings especially, is probably one of the most powerful representations of dying ever composed.

One quick musical bit of jargon which I would normally avoid, but will help a lot with me being able to describe the music to you more easily, is the concept of a turn. A turn is a very particular thing that composers used a lot in the 19th century to make their music sound a bit more fancy. (The term they would use is that they were adding “ornamentation” to the music.) So instead of playing just one note, they would quickly play four, like this:

  • The note above the main note.
  • The main note.
  • The note below it.
  • Back to the main note again.

We’re normally used to hearing this in earlier classical music, but if you have a listen to the opening few seconds of this last movement of the Mahler 9, you’ll hear it’s a really intense long note, which is then followed by a quick set of four notes. Those four notes are the turn. (It’s also the Last Movement Hint that Mahler dropped in the third movement.) It occurs so often throughout this movement, that I’ll refer to it as the Turn Motif. However, unlike older composers who used it for a fancy effect, I think Mahler is drawn to it because the turn, with the notes grouped so closely together, starts to create a hypnotic effect after a while.

Okay, that jargon out of the way, let’s finish the symphony.

(0:00) Theme 1 – the strings immediately set the tone of this theme (and the whole movement) with lots of vibrato (which refers to the vibration each note makes), and an especial care to make sure that each note is connected to the one that follows. (We call this legato, which is Italian for “tied together”.) I call this theme String Intensity. It instantly gives the melody an enormous emotional kick, right from the start.  Tune-wise, this opening theme is a combination of two main ideas. One is the quiet idea from the middle of the third movement, which is the Turn Motif we’ve already talked about. The other idea, which arrives around the 0:24 mark, is a sad series of descending notes, which could very well be a hint of the famous hymn Abide With Me, often played at funerals. (And also written by a hymn-writer who knew he was only weeks from death.)

(2:00) For a brief moment, we hear a hint of a very sparse theme on the bassoon (but it will come back later) but it is swept aside very quickly by more String Intensity. It climaxes with an Epic Climb (3:54), stair-stepping up two notes at a time to reach …

(4:05) … a plateau with the Turn Motif repeating over and over again, this time in the minor key, but still quite recognisable.

(4:44) Theme 2 – This is like nothing else in all of Mahler. Super-high barely-there notes from the strings and a creeping bass line. The famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said this moment was like “transcendental meditation”, as if Mahler has managed to put all emotion and feelings behind him. I can understand why he would say that.

(5:32) Solo viola and flute as the music gets more spare. I really like this sound that Mahler creates.

(7:08) The String Intensity theme comes back, this time beginning on the French horns (which then makes me wonder whether I’ve made it confusing by calling it String Intensity!), but the strings soon return to the foreground (7:23). It continues on, growing in passion, like this bit at 8:54. Either way, the overall feeling I get is that Mahler has found his bravery. He has steeled himself up to do something, not with false heroics, but simply with acceptance. And now we are striding slowly but steadily forward into the unknown.

(10:59) I love this bit when the music works up to a massive climax and then …

(11:08) … just drops away to the strings playing quietly. It’s tragic and beautiful all at the same time. The Turn Motif continues on and on … At 12:29, we have our obligatory Mahler Chamber Music Moment. This is the one that makes everyone cry. Heartbreaking violin solo, a couple of woodwinds to close off the phrase and then …

(12:55) Chords on the high strings, with the Turn Motif on the lower instruments. Possibly my favourite moment in the whole symphony. This is where normally you might expect the movement to stop. But, no, it keeps going …

(13:32) … back to the Transcendental Meditation zone again with an off-kilter harp and a lonely sounding group of woodwinds.

(15:25) Return of String Intensity. Builds up to an even bigger massive climax …

(17:00) … which dies away to an extraordinary descending scale with the legato now so intense that each note seems to be clinging for dear life to the one in front of it. The full orchestra joins in (for the last time in this symphony), in another one of those majestic build-ups that seems about to hit the big ending note …

(18:33) … but then die away to softness, with that Turn Motif hanging in space alone. A bit more String Intensity and Abide With Me.

(20:06) There is one more final build-up …

(20:52) … and then one of the most extraordinary codas ever written. Over high whistling notes on the strings, the Turn Motif repeats over and over again, sometimes on solo instruments, but mostly on the strings.

Gradually, every instrument goes quiet except for the strings (minus the double basses). They repeat the same phrases over and over again, but getting slower and with longer pauses in-between. The only thing you can compare it to is a dying person slowly running out of life. Bit by bit, they slow down, and you’re not sure which breath will be the last one.

No matter how many times I hear it, unless I’m looking at the track times, I’m never sure when the symphony is about to end. It’s like it doesn’t really end, it just slips away. You look over, and the life is gone, the orchestra has stopped playing. If you see it live, watching the rest of the orchestra quietly wait while the strings die out feels uncannily like old friends gathered around a deathbed waiting for the last breath.

Over a century later, it is still one of the most moving moments in all music.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement III

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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 – Symphony No 9: Movement II

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Movement II is an increasingly raucous country dance. Perhaps something like The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Where We Have Been:  Movement I of the Mahler 9 was a massive trip through Mahler’s mixed emotions about death – peaceful farewells, heroic dreams of overcoming that die away to nothing, and ferocious inner turmoil. We arrived – but only just – at a moment of peace.

Which is then shattered by the next two movements, which can be somewhat grating – and, in fact, they’re deliberately constructed that way. One conductor I heard suggested that the middle two movements are where Mahler is testing the peace that he arrived at in the first movement to see if it can last. You might find that a helpful way to think about it.

Another way I like to explain it to myself is that he is looking over his life and realising how much of it is just meaningless and trivial grind. (And don’t we all have moments like that?) And so Movement II resembles the trivial and Movement III is most definitely the grind. But have a listen and see what you think.

The second movement, to listen to, is like a slightly crazy throw-back to the old minuets of the past (those early movements that later became scherzos), in that it features quite distinctive dance forms.

(0:00) Dance 1 – Who says that bassoons can’t be funny? It’s a fussy sort of dance that has the rest of the orchestra join in (0:18) to create a sort of big, galumphing country dance. (Or as Mahler says in his description: “Rather Clumsy and Very Coarse”.) It’s deliberately designed to sound unsophisticated and peasant. (Like the constant flicks on the French horns, as if they really only know how to play two notes.) It’s worth noting the little run-up that the bassoon begins with, because it recurs throughout the movement, almost indicating that the bassoon is going on a journey.

(2:33) Dance 2 – This is a much more vigorous thing that starts on the strings. It has a kind of strange, leaping quality to it. “DA. Da. Da-da.” (3:43) Especially fun is the raucous brass oom-pah that kicks in. (4:07) With a slightly cartoony effect, you can hear the little opening run-up from Dance 1, trying its best to keep up with the wildness of Dance 2. It reminds me of that bit in Fantasia where the little mushroom can’t keep up with the bigger mushrooms.

(5:10) Dance 3 – much mellower. But listen carefully, and you will note that it features the two-note Farewell motif from Movement 1, as a subtle nod to where we’ve been. (Lest you think Mahler has completely forgotten what this symphony is about.) (5:40) A positively cutesy moment in the middle with a ridiculous amount of trills.

(6:40) Dance 2. But it never quite gets back to the raucous brass part, which is a bit sad.

(8:01) Dance 3 again.

(9:44) Dance 1 again with even more woodwind silliness. This is also the chamber music bit because everything gets stripped down to just a few instruments.

(10:42) Things start to speed up and we sneakily segue into Dance 2. (11:50) Which gets more rude and brassy … because who doesn’t love cymbals?

(12:50) … until we somehow sneakily end up back in Dance 1 again. I can’t put my finger on how Mahler does it, but the dance just sounds a bit more worldly-wise. (14:18) It collapses in a strange little heap and then dies out in a strange nether-world somewhere in the region of a low bassoon and a French horn. (It’ll make sense when you hear it.)

(15:09) And then, like a determined little adventurer arriving home from a big day at town, but having learned a lot about life, the little Dance 1 ends gracefully and humorously.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement I

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The first movement of the Mahler 9 feels like a tragic farewell. (Farewell by Heinrich Vogeler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The first movement is like a series of waves, alternating between three main sounds: a beautiful but melancholy lullaby (Mahler’s calm farewell to life), an aggravated tormented theme that shows his frustration at having to die and, most terrifying of all, a heroic ending to the aggravated theme that collapses – showing musically that no matter how brave you are or how hard you fight, we’re all going to die some day …

Wave 1

(0:00) The motif right at the beginning is important. It’s a bit like Morse code, a Long-Short few notes. Somebody has said (and it’s a great story if it’s true) that Mahler composed into his symphony the sound of his own faulty heartbeat. (Did I mention that he’d been diagnosed with a heart condition shortly before?) We’ll call this the Heartbeat motif anyway, just to identify it. This is then followed by (0:10) a tolling bell sound, low, low on the harp. We’ll call this the Bell motif. They both become important later on.

(0:25) Theme 1 begins. This is the Lullaby. Listen to it’s two-note falling motif. It’s like a combination of the “Ewig, ewig” from Das Lied, or you could also hear it as a two syllable “Leb wohl” (German for farewell). I like to think of it as the Farewell motif. Either way, you can feel that it’s a goodbye. The emphasis is on beautiful-sounding strings in this part.

(2:05) Theme 2 begins. The Aggravated Theme. Still string-heavy to begin with but angsty stuff. Morphs into:

(3:05) The Heroic Theme that fails.

Wave 2

(3:20) Theme 1 again. Much richer and fuller. The brass and woodwinds start to play a larger role here and the music has a grand sweep to much of it.

(5:33) The Aggravated Theme skips straight to the Heroic Ending part. It journeys on in all its magnificence, still giving us hope that maybe this time … ? But, no, it collapses into silence …

(6:43) … and out of the silence come the Heartbeat and the Bell motifs, but now sounding sinister and nasty, on muted trumpets, timpanis and other unpleasant instrument combinations. Notice also that the two-note descending Farewell motif is also present, but it too sounds harsh on that muted trumpet. This snarky-sounding section gradually morphs …

(8:30) … into a hypnotic, woozy section on strings which repeats over and over, while gradually rising. In this symphony, probably more than any other, Mahler takes us to some truly strange places.

Wave 3

(9:01) It then transforms into a gentle, Viennese waltz. This plays as a counterpoint above Theme 1 (meaning that they are two separate tunes layered on top of each other), which is now performed on the horns. The lullaby continues on for a while.

(10:14) The agitated sound breaks through, heralded by some trumpet fanfares on the way. It all gets very big and brassy. I personally find it very exhausting to listen to (too much piccolo maybe?) but then I can’t help wondering, maybe that’s the effect that Mahler wanted this music to have on his listeners? To feel the exhaustion of being stuck in his head?

(11:23) You feel like the fanfare is almost going to make it … but within seconds (11:36) it’s all collapsed in a heap again.

(11:46) Everything goes woozy – murmuring woodwinds that sound as if they’re losing it.

(12:00) So the struggle starts again in a really heavy cello section. Something is trying to rise up out of the strings, but never quite making it. It’s just all-round depressing. It’s very contrapuntal (lots of that counterpoint I mentioned a minute ago), with lots of moving parts, which give you a feeling of complexity that traps you. Like a maze with the walls moving around you or an endless snowy landscape.

(13:17) Almost gets triumphant again in the brass. But, again, not quite. Dies out in misery and meanders into no man’s land. Never has muted brass sounded so nasty, almost as if it’s throwing the fanfare music back in Mahler’s face.

(14:39) Another woozy rise in the strings, similar to the end of the second wave. Listen and you’ll hear the Farewell motif come in on the horns towards the end.

Wave 4

(15:33) As you’re probably used to with Mahler by now, there is usually a chamber-music version of his themes somewhere in the middle of a movement, and this is no exception. Light strings, flute, French horns play us the Lullaby.

(16:27) The Heroic music pushes back in with a trumpet solo on top of the stormy waters of the strings.

(17:48) MASSIVE collapse. The Heartbeat motif, huge and domineering on the trombones. The Harp motif, beaten out on the timpanis. The music then turns into a bitter funeral march. (After all, it’s not a Mahler symphony without a funeral march, is it?) Listen to the awesome sound of the tubular bells at (19:04).

Wave 5

(19:32) Back to the Farewell Lullaby music.

(20:44) The theme builds up and becomes more romantic and lush.

(21:19) But still collapses into the Aggravated sound world for a few seconds, before dropping into a chamber music no man’s land of flutes and distant French horns. It’s a strange little moment that almost doesn’t fit, but there are so many changes of mood in this movement, we’ve come to expect almost anything.

(22:33) The full strings come back and lead up to another big climax, complete with ringing bells. Is the heroic sound finally going to win?

(23:24) But no, everything just sort of fades as if it’s going into nothing …

Coda

(23:41) … but then, miraculously, we move into a beautiful coda. It’s bizarre, because normally you would expect Mahler to have a massive climax, but there was no build-up to this. And I think that’s the point. For Mahler, to struggle and try to overcome, leads to nothing. (Which is why the music has kept collapsing until now.) But when he finally gives up and accepts the situation (that he is going to die), then and only then is he able to find peace.

(25:17) The Viennese waltz returns, this time in a version that is genuinely peaceful, with solo violin and distant French horns. This might sound like it’s all a bit Johann Strauss, but it is a really beautiful orchestral moment. The farewell two-note motif repeats over and over again, until finally it hangs on the first syllable … suspended in space, followed by a single note on the flute.

We’ve achieved a sense of peace – but can it last?

Apologies if that movement was a bit of a long, hard struggle – but then, if you’ve ever been in a place of grief and anger and had trouble moving beyond it, this does rather sound like what that feels like, doesn’t it?