Some thoughts about the music I heard at Severance tonight with Dan and Melinda Perttu. At the pre-concert talk Roger Klein quoted critics who found Mahler’s music, particularly the Seventh Symphony, banal. As I listened this evening, I realized that really isn’t other music like Mahler’s by composers of his own time. It is banal, and that is what makes it significant. Mahler may have been writing the world within his symphonies, but his basic musical language is exactly that of the commonplace, the street, the Gypsy camp, the shtetl, the nursery, the cathedral, the bedroom, the privy. His point is that the meaning of life is in the living, in the filthy, disgusting, degrading living, and that by living for our best even among the worst, we achieve the transcendence that Mahler saw in the human condition. Mahler acknowledges that we live in a world where children die young and are warped by abuse (or even well-meaning parenting), wives cheat on their husbands (and vice versa), governments persecute minorities, musicians care for their beer more than the music they are rehearsing, and wars, famine, pestilence and the rest are all realities. By taking the songs of childhood, worship, the poor, the illiterate into his music, he points out that the solution is to live life all the same, that transcendence can come from the common, the ordinary, the plain, and, yes, from the banal.
Archive for the ‘Mahler symphonies’ Category
We all have those concerts that we wish we had the chance to hear, but didn’t. In the Spring of 1996, I was talked out of going to hear the Cincinnati Symphony play Mahler’s Ninth, and as I’ve worked through the piece over the last two months, I’ve been regretting missing that experience. Nonetheless, coming to it late is better than never, and I only wish I had more time to really dig in–I’m already ten days later than I had hoped!
That said, before I begin my comments, I’m pleased to have come to the end of my Mahler cycle. I’d been considering spending 2011 with some great scores of the 194os, but I’m feeling the need to take some time away from this project–at least until May 1, which is the deadline for the textbook I’m working on for National Social Science Press. The book, to be entitled Music: Notation and Practice in Past and Present is inspired by a book that I picked up in the early 90s, when I was just beginning to become serious about music. That book, Introduction to Music by Roald Pen, was a reference and my first visit to many ideas in music and about music, and I hope to be creating a contemporary analogue to it. My posts for the time being will be excerpts from my drafts, as I plow through music theary and music history.
But–one last time to Mahler. This last movement–his final completed statement–unfolds and develops with a stateliness and slowness that I htink is most parallelled in the finale of the Third Symphony. Ending with an Adagio is somewhat atypically of Mahler. There are highly predictable, very tonal moments, and there are also very strange, very contrapuntal moments. Above that, I hear this piece as a group of deferred climactic moments, each of which allows the movement to expand in scope and makes the ultimate climax all the more satisfying.
After an extended dominant tone, the first presentation of the chorale appears in mm. 3-10. Mahler makes fascinating use of enharmonic equivalence–he can only be understanding these pitches as being equal-tempered, then, despite the ill-advisedness of playing them as such. The movement is filled with root motions by descending third, by deceptive progressions and, most interestingly, by progressions which cut against the grain of traditional functional tonality. Are they backward-looking, or simply intended to sound strange?
Following the chorale presentation, where there should be a confident, full-chorded cadence, there is, in m. 11, a single Db. At m. 13, the strings enter, again full-throated, with a fuller, clearer cadence in m. 17, where the first independent wind voice is heard. The horn has always been Mahler’s instrument.
The music changes from Db major to C# minor in m. 28, and the first violins have a quotation fro mthe last movement of the Second Symphony in m. 31. Measure 34 sees the reappearance of the solo viola–the signature sound of this symphony. The remainder of this minor-key section is a slower, transitional passage that ends with a return to Db major in m. 49, coupled with a return of the solo horn and the chorale theme, in variation.
Gradually, more and more instruments fill in the texture, as Mahler has held the winds largely in reserve. Measure 63, a dominant chord on D major, seems to herald a climactic moment, only to diminuendo to a return of the chroal material, again in the strings,with only the bassoons doubling the basses. This is perhaps the most string-dominated of Mahler’s work since the Fifth Symphony.
Over the next two pages, another climactic approach is developed, this time with the first entry of the trumpets, only to be deferred in m. 73. After a cadence in m. 77, another transitional passage leads to C# minor in m. 88. Of note, however, is the first passage in this movement for winds without strings, mm. 81ff.
The minor-key section at m. 88 has a degree of harmonic stasis unusual to this point in the movment, with an implication of the subdominant key in m. 97. From this point, the texture builds to the actual climax of the movement, but not before the first entry of the percussion combined with the first point at which the brass is fully-voiced.
The climactic moment of the movement is in m. 126, with a cadence that begins a further variation of the chorale material. Measure 138 features a fantastic pianissimo tutti color, with the flutes an octave above the violins and the horns doubling the celli. An aftershock of the climax appears in m. 142, followed by a diminuendo to a long coda. Measures 153-5 have an interesting coloristic moment in which the line moves up while the instruments involved move “down”–violin to viola to cello.
The last page is masterful–it seems to fade into nothingness, just as the First Symphony began from nothing. There is as much silence on this page as there is anywhere else in Mahler’s preceding work. With a quiet Db major chord, Mahler’s work, and my comment on it, ends.
This “Rondo-Burleske” is yet another intriguing, tightly-wrought movement that reveals its secrets somewhat reluctantly but in fullness. A six-measure introduction reveals most of the motivic material for the movement, beginning with a three-note figure announced by the trumpet. This is answered by a five-note, arch-shaped cell played in octaves by the strings. The three-note motive returns in the horns, with a three-note rising response in the low winds and woodwinds. After a measure’s silence (m. 5), the introduction ends with a repetition of the final motive in the winds and brass.
What has really happened in the first six measures is a halting, hesitant version of the rondo theme for this movement. The material presented appears again and again throughout the movement, beginning with the first presentation of the melodic idea for the movement in full, confident form. The melody of the first six bars becomes a full-fledged Mahlerian rondo theme, rollicking and surging forward in two-measure segments until the end of the phrase in m. 22. The initial three-note motive is the primary melodic material. The next passage, mm. 23-43, is somewhat more conventional in nature, but Mahler’s scoring renders it a contrapuntal wonder, with the melody shared between first and second violins. This segment is essentially developmental in function and leads to a return of the first phrase, now varied in rhythm and texture, in m. 44.
At m. 51ff, the melody is again divided between first and second violins, and I have to wonder at the implications for the seating of these sections–are the violins to be separated for a stereophonic effect, or placed together for a unified sound? The overriding segmentation into two-bar ideas is maintained through this pertion of music as well.
A passage of fantastic string writing follows beginning in m. 66. A sequential passage breaks the two-bar hypermeter, in preparation for an imitative passage between strings and horns. The section breaks down to a notated key change (to D minor) preceded by conventional material presented in single-bar segments. The material continues to be halting, lurching forward from statement to statement. In m. 97, a fascinating coloration of the melody in the violins occurs as the flutes play off-beats. This leads to a transition to the first episode of the rondo form.
The episode, beginning in m. 109, begins in F major, and subsitutes 2/4 for cut time, with the instruction “L’istesso tempo.” The mood is significantly more relaxed than the refrain, with the lurching feel left behind. This material has an emphasis on root motion by thirds, initially descending, but later ascending. It is somewhat ironic, that in a harmonic system based on thirds, Mahler’s root motion by thirds seems to undermine the tonal system. The hypermeter here seems to suggest four-bar measures rather than the two-bar measures of the refrain, although with less regularity than before, with some three-bar measures making their appearance. This episode ends with no transition in m. 180 when the refrain again bursts forth.
This second appearance of the refrain is rhythmically modified, in that triplets are substituted for the eighth-note figures of the opening. The overall melodic structure is similar, as the hypermetric structure with its two-bar cells.
At m. 209, a motive I will refer to as the “chorale” makes its first appearance (it will later be presented by the brass in chorale style, but for now, it is more or less a countersubject in a fugato treatment of the refrain melody). The first downbeat of the refrain melody is also the first beat of the chorale, as in m. 209, where it appears in the trombones, which continue the refrain while the clarinets enter with the remainder of the chorale.
After this fugato version of the refrain, the first episode reappears in m. 262. In a Classical seven-part rondo, the first episode wouldn’t reappear until the end of the movement, as the next-to-last part of the form. Instead of the original F major, the episode is now in A major.
Another interesting aspect of this movement is Mahler’s extensive use of enharmonicism, particularly in this repeated episode. This allows rapid changes of harmony between remote areas, of course, but also conflicts with the nature of the orchestral instruments, which do not treat enharmonic pitches equivalently in the way that the piano does.
The next statement of the refrain begins in m. 311 and lasts 35 measures, in a typical truncation of refrain material. Less typical, however, is the manner in which the chorale melody begins to dominate this section, even in its determination of the medium-scale formal structure, which appears in nine-bar phrases.
In m. 347, a written key change to D major sets up the culminating presentation of the chorale, in the brass, which introduces a third episode. This is based on new motivic material, resembling a simple turn. This “slow” episode continues to build until m. 421. Which leads to a transitional section with a very interesting alternation of material from the refrain and the ”slow” episode. The refrain returns in m. 522 with the melody appearing in the trombones.
In m. 617, at the marking “Piu stretto,” the first of two codas begins, in the Romantic tendency to extend after-the-ending material. The first coda, and the second, which begins in m. 641, both are restatements of the refrain melody at faster tempi. The movement lurches to its conclusion.
I spoke too soon about the first movement of this piece, which I still feel is somewhat overblown and lacks the subtlety I’ve grown to love in Mahler’s music. The truth is that the second movement, the final scene from Faust more than makes up for what I was missing. Clocking in at about an hour in the recording I use as my reference, the sad truth is that in the month of October, I didn’t get as much listening done as I want to, but I do have some observations.
The piece opens with a wonderful unfolding of a theme introduced pizzicato in the low strings. In a choral symphony, the first voices don’t enter until for over 160 slow bars, but that isn’t at all strange here–I felt that development was shorted in the first movement, but here in the second movement, Mahler seems to be trying to make up for it. This pizzicato theme of the first bars is really put through its paces, and ends up being a major idea of the piece, which, I think, after all, is the point of the symphonic tradition–doing less with more, making a lot out of a little. Mahler, as is often stated, wanted to create worlds with his symphonies, and he certainly does. The scene seems very effectively set without staging and without saying a single word. A lesser composer may have required a narrator here.
An interesting orchestrational moment occurs at m. 214 (rehearsal 32) in the woodwinds–even for Mahler, this is unusual, but the addition of an oboe in m. 215, which then diminuendos as the flutes and clarinets crescendo is an orchestral feat that I might expect of a much younger composer. Stunning means of highlighting the subtle harmonic changes, as each chord has its own tone color.
In m. 219, then after much setting the scene, the first soloist enters. I’m uncertain as to whether this is symphony, cantata or opera. The text, of course, is in its way larger than mere drama, or even opera, and Mahler’s music makes it even more so–it is difficult to imagine a simple dramatic performance after hearing this piece.
At m. 261, the brass enter with a version of the opening motive, which we now hear to be related to material from the first movement. Once again, Mahler is being self-referential, or perhaps just unifying the entire piece with a common motive, as with the major-minor motive of the Sixth Symphony.
I doubt that it is possible to unify a 90-minute orchestral piece solely with motive, and there is much music–page after page, really–that does not refer back to earlier events. Mahler uses the same technique as many composers, i.e., a reliance on conventional material, as William Caplin puts it in his book Classical Form. The simple truth is that not everything can be characteristic in a large piece like this, and there must be variety as well as unity. Ironically, the appearance of motives in an otherwise conventional texture is, in the end, what holds this (and all of Mahler’s music) together. In much the same way, if every face in a crowd were familiar, we wouldn’t know who to talk to first, but every face has a certain familiarity because we know what a human face basically looks like. We know–whether from hearing his earlier work, or from listening to contemporary works by other composers, or just from hearing the titanic first movement–the basic ideas behind a Mahler symphony. If Mahler wrote something that was not of himself and not stylistically “correct,” we would prick our ears, dig more deeply into the score and try to understand what that note was doing there. If he had gone too far beyond some standard of “Mahlerness,” we would accuse him of being stylistically vague.
I want to pursue this line of thinking, because it applies directly to me as a composer, and that is the point of this series of blog posts: what can I learn from Mahler that will inform my own composition? At what point do I stop trying to form my compositional style and begin trying to write pieces that stay in my style? Does a twenty-first century composer have to manage his or her style in the way that, say, Mozart did? Where are the other composers who write music in styles similar to mine, and am I near the core of their style or somewhere on the edge?
I have written in styles that are not completely mine, I confess. I have discovered that I have the ability to write fairly good music that relies on more-or-less traditional tonal harmony, and from time to time, I find it necessary to trot out a piece that is a style copy or simply an original tonal composition. A part of me recognizes that these aren’t, in a full sense, “Matthew Saunders” pieces, but in another very real sense, they are. I certainly am not the first composer to have two different approaches to the craft, but I’m almost ashamed of writing these ditties that are not me, that are compromises with the music that is more popular, more familiar, more expected.
There is an iconic moment in the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which a young aspiring composer (living with his mother) plays some of his music, which sounds exactly like Beethoven or Chopin. It is eminently clear–and was clear in the 1960s even to filmmakers–that no composer can really write this way and be treated seriously (although he might make some money). Style, then, is what separates me, as a composer, from the crowd, for better or for worse, just as it separated Mahler from all the would-be Romantic symphonists of his day (Max Bruch wrote wonderful symphonies that sound just like Brahms did twenty-five years earlier).
There is so much more to discuss about the Eighth Symphony, but I think that, more than anything else, this is what I’ve learned–more about myself than about Mahler: if the music is true to my style, then it is the music that I should be writing and promoting; music that is true to any other style can be written by someone else. Only I can write pieces by Matthew Saunders.
The Ninth will divide halfway through the months of November and December–fifteen days for each movement, more or less.
I was afraid that I would arrive at this piece and it would be absolutely overwhelming, but that hasn’t been the case. Not in the slightest. The problem I’m having is that I just don’t like what I’m hearing very much.
I don’t think this is Mahler’s best effort. Perhaps in writing a “Symphony of a Thousand,” he had to paint with broad brushstrokes: too broad, if you ask me. I hadn’t listened to this piece seriously in a very long time–at least fifteen years, and I knew much less about how to listen then than I do now. Plus, I think every college-aged brass player has to get excited about Mahler–any Mahler–just because it’s orchestral music that doesn’t involve counting quite as many rests. Let’s face it–Mahler was good to the brass section in a way that some other composers weren’t (although plenty were). So in my testosterone-fueled, late-teenage years, this piece may have seemed like a little bit of heaven. I have to admit, though, that there is a little bit of hell here, too.
One of the very exciting parts about studying Mahler has been getting to know his unique orchestration. He may call for quadruple woodwinds, but it isn’t so that they can all play as loud as possible at the same time. Rather, he mixes, blends and balances in a manner that could only be honed by a familiarity with the orchestra that I can only envy. As a conductor, he must have been literally analyzing scores as he was on the podium during rehearsal, committing every effect to memory.
Usually, this expertise shows through in the scores, but not here. There are quadruple woodwinds, and a large brass section, but they almost continuously used en masse, and usually in the sort of mixed scoring that band directors often derisively call “safe scoring.” Perhaps the simple truth is that the enormous choruses of the premiere required this, but it is disappointing in comparison to the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies.
This first movement is not without its merits, though. Mahler may have ignored his genius for orchestration (or perhaps not, as the music does succeed in overwhelming the listener with sound, just not the analyst). I can’t deny that, as art and as craft, this is an effective composition, just as is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Like 1812, though, it is unrellenting in a way that is somewhat off-putting. Both these pieces are great music, but they are great in the way that the Grand Canyon is great–their beauty and their appeal lies more in magnitude and sheer forcefulness than in greatness.
Just what is symphonic about this movement? Is it possible for a piece that is virtually sung throughout to be a symphony? Up to this time, Mahler had incorporated voices at the end of his symphonies–almost as though he had exhausted what instruments might have to say, just as Beethoven did in his Ninth, but here they appear from the beginning–from the second measure. The singing is nearly unrellenting for over one hundred measures–the first major instrumental interlude comes at m. 122. The material here–still fairly broadly scored–is related to the thematic material presented so far, and it is only 18 bars before the voices enter again.
I don’t understand the almost constant doubling of the voice parts–even the soloists–throughout this movement. This was not Mahler’s approach in the Second Symphony, at least not to the extent we see it here. I think perhaps that knowing the circumstances of the premiere–a festival setting with an enormous chorus–may have influenced his decision, and perhaps overly so. Is it possible that, if Mahler had lived longer, he would have revised this work, as he did so many of his others? Perhaps 1915 or 1916 would have seen a version scored with more reasonable forces in mind.
There does seem to be a basic sonata principle at work here. The instrumental interlude seems to suggest the beginning of a development section, and the harmonic pace of the movement quickens after m. 122. At m. 169, following a deceptive cadence, a second instrumental interlude begins, this one lasting until m. 217 (significantly longer). When the voices reenter, the music is in C# minor, and both key and text (which is recycled) continue to suggest the development of a sonata-allegro.
Beginning in m. 231, Mahler dwells on an important text: Lumen accende sensibus–Kindle a light in our senses. The Romantic yearning for a full feeling of existence is summed up in this line, and Mahler repeats the text several times, where he has mostly set the text much more plainly up until now. It reappears in a massive climax in m. 262.
At the pickup to m. 275, the children’s chorus enters for the first time, and at a moment where it seems as though nothing else could make this music bigger, grander, this entrance makes it clear that there can be more. The music now moves from C-sharp minor to E minor, and then to E-flat major, the home key. This is not the final return, though, and the key changes again, by sequence, to A major in m. 355, and then to Db major just a few bars later.
A return of the accende lumen text leads back to the true return to the home key in measure 385. Over the next twenty-eight bars the music builds to a truly titanic climax that is the recapitulation. It appears over a dominant pedal that leads to a long frustration of the tonic chord–we have recaputulated melodically, but not harmonically, and there is no clear tonic chord in E-flat until m. 525. At some point, there is a transition to coda material–the plagal-function harmonies in m. 564 confirm this–and a final push to an enormous last page.
On, then, to the second movement, the final scene of Faust. And then to the piece in this set that I know the least, the Ninth. After that, I have decided to send myself into some of the best works of the 1940s by several different composers. I’m not certain yet precisely which pieces these will be, but I know that 2011 will see me in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata.
Every entry here brings me one step closer to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, perhaps the most daunting of these works. Instead of neat little movements, two giant parts, more cantata, or even opera than symphony. But that is still two weeks away. For now, a look into a lovely little serenade.
In some works, the choice of orchestra plays as much a role in the character of the piece as does the motivic material, and Mahler’s decision to include guitar and mandolin makes this movement stand out from every other so far. In addition, Mahler omits all the heavy brass and percussion, giving a light texture rare in Mahler.
The first section is harmonically very conservative–the first 93 measures are very dedicated to the key of F major, with fairly regular cadences and a great deal of melodic repetition. The theme introduced by the horn beginning in mm. 8-11 is not just the basis for the material to follow, but the starting gate for the melodic structure of the movement. Each phrase opens with this theme, and its motives pull apart to become the phrase endings.
Measure 28 sees the beginning of another notable technique in this movement. The melody in the first violins is shadowed by a simultaneous variation in the violas, a manner of heterophony. Measure 38 has a return of the horn theme, now with an F major chord in the fourth measure, instead of the original F minor. Measure 53 is the beginning of a dominant pedal point that lasts until m. 71, when the bass descends to a G, allowing a half cadence in m. 76, at which point the original horn theme reappears in the oboe, now beginning with a step up instead of down. The pedal point continues, finally resolving to the tonic in m. 85.
This transitional material is the beginning of a developmental section–this movement cannot be understood as a sonata-allegro because of the lack of a secondary key area, but it follows the basic compositional plan of sonata-allegro. Sparse material–quarters and halves, with interjections based on the horn theme–lasts until m. 125, when the music changes key for the first time in this movement, to A-flat.
The music moves quickly to F-minor, and in m. 150, the horn theme appears in the bass, in rhythmic augmentation. The next bars move quickly–to a dominant chord on Eb, which resolves deceptively in m. 162, leading to G-flat major in m. 170. and beginning in m. 176, the music shifts again to B-flat major. At measure 187, the horn and cellos begin presenting melodic material in unison, and this unison doubling becomes a contrapuntal treatment in m. 195, another iteration of the heterophony technique noted earlier.
Beginning in m. 211, Mahler presents a developmental core that, strangely enough, doesn’t modulate. Two seven-measure sections begin with the same four-bar material, but then end with passages that leave them in different keys, the last using a phrase extension to return to F major. In m. 253, the music seems to arrive in A major, but modulates directly to F major in a recapitulation of the opening section.
In the recapitulation, the same phrase structure, exclusively in F major, is featured, with a very close correspondance to the beginning of the piece. True to Mahler’s style, there are changes of scoring, and the addition of obligato lines, as at mm. 273ff. The music moves to a long dominant chord, beginning in m. 308. This dominant chord has a long neighboring section, beginning in m. 320, and resolves in m. 332.
The remainder of the piece is coda material, built from the horn theme and other material of the movement. Unlike the previous “Nachtmusik” movement, the music ends on the tonic of the piece.
The central movement of this five-movement symphony is in the keys of D major and D minor and is structured as a scherzo-trio. The scherzo material has the feel of something of a moto perpetuo, and this is not Mahler’s first effort in this vein. It grows from the tiny seed of a half-step (Bb-A) in the timpani and low strings, gathering momentum over the first twelve bars, with each new aspect of the texture–first the horns, then the woodwinds, then a dotted-note flute motive, and finally the arrival of a theme in m. 13–seeming to grow out of the existing material. If the goal of this study is to unlock some of Mahler’s compositional secrets, I think I have started to find them. Just as Mahler’s Mahler-ness–his cliches, the predictable aspects of his style–begin to pile up in my mind, I am coming to see how it is that he is able to structure large-scale pieces and more importantly, to maintain the interest of the listener over what may seem an excessive length of time.
A summary, then, of what I’ve learned thus far:
- introduce new material sparingly, and base new ideas on old ones. The first 100 bars of this movement are a fantastic example of this. The first 24 bars are based on Mahler’s elaboration of the material presented in the introductory passage. That material is then used to preface a new theme beginning in m. 24, and accompanied by motives that have already been stated. The suggestions of hemiola made by the opening statement–does it begin on an upbeat or a downbeat–are played out in this theme, as in m. 30ff.
- Use harmony sparingly. Mahler extends the horizons of his pieces by avoiding, at all costs, things that I encourage my undergraduate theory students to pursue with a vengeance, in a harmonic sense. While my students–and admittedly, I myself–tend to write one chord per melody note (chorale style) or one chord per measure (probably an anachronistic reflection of our familiarity with 20th-century popular styles), Mahler tends to have long swathes of music that are based on the same chord. These aren’t exactly pedal points, but Mahler is thinking in terms of a chord being a key area rather than a single harmonic event. In some ways, the harmonic rhythm present in much of Mahler is more reminiscent of Mozart or Haydn than it is of composers closer to Mahler in time. Even Brahms tends toward a more regular harmonic rhythm that I would consider to be a hallmark of the Romantic style.
- Repetition is not a dirty word for Mahler, even though exact repetition is rare. When material returns, it is almost always reorchestrated, if not completely reworked. There is a great deal of repwithout insipidness as a result. Repetition is welcome in this music.
- At the same time, Mahler’s music is filled with variety of every type. Even when he is being his most Mahleristic, there is no sense that we have heard this before. While I have always perceived the Seventh Symphony as being third in the middle grouping of Mahler’s symphonies, a rehashing of the previous two–the bold Fifth, the cataclysmic Sixth–as I dig deeper, there is less evidence of that.
So, that said, here are some interesting spots in this movement. I have Schenkerian training, and some might consider me a Schenkerian, but I am always open to other explanations. However, the passage in mm. 54-62 is so striking an example of an upper neighbor being used to extend a melody that it can’t go without comment. There is literally nowhere for the G in the violins in m. 58 to go except back to the F# from whence it came, which it does in m. 60.
The transitional section beginning in m. 108 is sublime. Again, Mahler is being tight with his material, but we see much of the motivic material used thus far in this little passage that also brings the music to D major in m. 116. The quasi-echo effect of this phrase is a wonderful transitional device.
As mysteriously as it appeared, the scherzo vanishes beginning around m. 155. Triplets have been replaced by eighths, drifting away into an awkward contrabassoon solo in m. 159. When the triplets reappear, it is in a muted allusion to the opening material beginning in the following bar.
The Trio material, beginning in m. 179, is a reworking of the woodwind theme first stated in m. 38, only now in the major mode, and in inversion. As always, Mahler is somewhere between major and minor, and steadfastly refuses to commit to either.
Beginning in m. 210, a persistent call-and-response begins, first between solo viola and celli, then between violins and horns (m. 218ff), then bassoons and brass (m. 226ff), then between trombones and horns (m. 236ff) leading to a climactic moment in m. 243 (marked “Pesante”). This build-up, however, has not been to some grand release of tension that we would expect of Mahler, but to a prefunctory gesture that dissolves into a new theme (composed of old motives) in the horns and celli. This theme, begining in m. 246, is a parody of material from the Third Symphony, as if Mahler is poking himself in the ribs. A further question–is this self-parody, or self-plagiarism? Unlike some composers (including me), Mahler was a tireless revisor of his own works, and the Third Symphony was foremost among these, so at any rate, it could not have been accidental. As a composer who engages in a fair amount of quotation, both of others and myself, I always hope that the listener will catch it–surely an act of parody rather than plagiarism.
The trio ends with the indication Wieder wie am Anfang (“Always as the beginning.”) Unlike earlier composers (even as late as Brahms and Dvorak), Mahler does not simply indicate a Da Capo and repeat the Scherzo verbatim. After a transitional section in E-flat minor, which is the perfect setup for preparation for the Bb that begins the scherzo proper, a significantly expanded introduction ensues (m. 293ff). This allows Mahler to incorporate material from the trio (the call-and-response motive in m. 306ff).
An orchestrational concern–if Mahler could have written a timpani solo in mm. 323ff, would he have done so? The basses seem to be covering the unavailable timpani notes.
Measure 408 includes the first use I am aware of of the “snap” or “Bartok” pizzicato; certainly the first in Mahler, and an interesting reworking of the introductory material, now being used to introduce a coda. Trio material appears, now fully voiced, in the form of the Third Symphony quote in m. 417, and from this point, the movement peters out as gradually as it faded in. If the idea behind this piece is night, then this movement steals in and out in the manner of a dream. As for myself, I am a night sleeper, and when I remember a dream, it is almost always just before waking. Perhaps Mahler would have a more receptive audience for this Symphony in my wife, who frequently naps in the evening, only to wake for quite some time around midnight. I barely know that night happens, but Becky lives a great deal of her life there.
Once again, I find myself with less time than I would like to write. Hopefully, brevity will make me make each word count.
This movement has some fascinating aspects. I begin with Mahler’s use of texture, which is more intricate and highly developed here than in much of his previous music. Immediately following the horn solo that opens the movement, the woodwinds begin to build a complex sonic scrim more akin to Ravel or Stravinsky than to Mahler (mm. 10-27). While motives from the horn solo appear throughout this passage, it is really an orchestral crescendo that leads to a climax in m. 28. In mm. 28-9, the major-minor motive from the Sixth Symphony reappears, here in the home key of C (I should note that this motive doesn’t really “belong” to the Sixth Symphony, as it appears frequently throughout Mahler’s work).
There follows a harmonized repetition of the theme introduced by the horns, with an immediate variation, beginning in m. 37. In m. 44, there is an example of Mahler’s interesting use of color in the solo oboe and horn. The oboe colors the repeated horn notes, lending body and renewed interest to the opening theme.
Measure 62 presents the main theme yet again–this is a highly thematic movement. It is now coupled with a figural countermelody in the woodwinds, a running triplet idea that will reappear frequently in this movment. In m. 69, Mahler uses a cadential pattern that is somewhat quirky. Having arrived on a half-cadence, a subdominant chord is inserted before the return of the tonic in m. 70. The iv chord is highlighted with a dynamic accent, and is somewhat reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s tendency to begin phrases with a subdominant harmony, as though we were joining the music already in progress.
At m. 83, the first significant change in mood appears, with a change in both tempo and key (to Ab major). The melody here is linked to the main theme by its opening motive, a rising interval from the triad in question, beginning on the anacrusis. An extension of this initial phrase leads to a half-cadence in m. 81. Mahler’s frequent use of the half-cadence in this movement suggests a more open, fantasia-like conception. This dance-like music continues until an authentic cadence in Ab minor in m. 121, followed immediately by a reprise of the opening horn solo, leading into a modulatory passage that brings back the main theme in C major in m. 141.
In m. 144ff, the horn and oboe are again paired, a favorite color choice for Mahler in this movement. This section is very much a restatement of the first section (up to the key change to Ab). In m. 161, the fascinating texture from the opening is revisited, culminating with the same CM-Cm chord (more lushly scored this time) in mm. 187-188.
Measure 190 marks the beginning of new material in C minor, roughly based on the inversion of the main theme. Mahler’s color choice is again interesting–oboe and English horn each doubled by a solo cello and then, when the range becomes excessive, byh solo violas (m. 198ff). In m. 211ff, there is an interesting diversion to the key of B minor, strikingly remote from each harmonic destination thus far, with a swing back to C major for the return of the main theme in m. 223, now stated by the full orchestra.
The A-flat major theme reappears in m. 262, now with a countermelody in the woodwinds (two flutes, two oboes and two clarinets in unison). The amount of thematic repetition in this movement is impressive–and highly suggestive of seven-part rondo form, although Mahler chooses not to state this explicity. This places the A-sections in C major-minor, the B-sections in A-flat major and the C-section in C-minor.
At m. 317, the typical Mahlerian approach to coda begins–the opening theme begins to unravel, with reminders of earlier textures and ideas intertwining. By the end, all that is left is the triplet accompanimental idea, which dissolves into not the tonic pitch, but rather the dominant of hte movement, G, leaving a sense of incompleteness that the beginning of the next movement fails to resolve.
I will be the first to admit that I have not done my homework to the extent I would ideally like to over the past two weeks. Perhaps I should have allotted more time to the 822 measures of this movement, but truthfully other things have got in the way. To allow myself an extension would simply impinge on the three remaining pieces, and since by the time I am ready to write the next blog entry, we will also be on the cusp of moving, it seems better to summarize my observations and move forward today.
With this movement, it seems very difficult to get past Mahler’s symbolism–the hammer blows, the major-minor motive and the rest. Tony Duggan, in his excellent summary of recent recordings of this piece, deals with some of the many performance issues, such as the ordering of the movements (which differs from my edition, the Dover miniature score and from many recent recordings), and the precise number of hammer blows (Mahler’s final decision appears to have been two, while my score, a reprint of the 1906 Nachfolger edition, calls for three). He also suggests that this piece is the most classically ordered of all of Mahler’s symphonies, and I find myself tending to agree with that statement.
In an interesting way, the two hammer blows that Mahler retained seem to delineate the exposition, development and recapitulation of a sonata-allegro form, with the third (missing) blow indicating the coda.
Mahler opens this movement with an interesting texture and harmony–a German augmented-sixth chord that resolves deceptively to the tonic in m. 9, the first appearance of the major-minor motive in this movement. The motive is presented as it appeared in the first movement, in the brass, and accompanied by timpani and drums, but with the strings offering a countermelody that contains material of motivic importance for the rest of the movement.
In m. 16, a tuba solo introduces further new material, including an octave leap. Throughout this symphony, the octave leap has been an important element, and part of the cohesiveness of the work as a whole is Mahler’s use of the octave (and sometimes larger intervals) to create a sense of drama and pathos. Rodney Winther teaches that small intervals build tension, while large intervals build drama, and Mahler employs both, but the drama of this movement is the aspect that wins out, I think.
The tuba solo is accompanied by a descending chromatic bass, which is highly typical of Mahler. In mm. 19 and 22, the clarinets and horns have an interesting effect that I typically associate more with later composers, such as Stravinsky. The clarinets articulate the beginning of a phrase, but the horns sustain the final note, as though the echo has a different timbre than the initial attack. In the end, it is this sort of synthesis and blending that makes for fantastic orchestral writing, and Mahler is transcending the German orchestrational style in this instance. A comparison with the scoring techniques used by composers of a generation earlier–Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner–reveals a much more conservative approach, with much greater use of simple block and mixed scoring techniques. Composers of the same generation and younger, however, start to show this sort of adventurous approach to orchestration–Richard Strauss and Schoenberg, for example. Strauss would seem to be the first of these new orchestrators to achieve notoriety–before Mahler, perhaps?
I don’t often wish that I were a trumpet player, but m. 46 has an absolutely fantastic line that makes me a little bit envious. This is followed by another typical descent to the cadence, as the music shifts to C-minor in m. 49 for a chorale setting, first in a very dark woodwind and horn timbre, then in a lighter timbre that uses the middle, relaxed registor of the horns. Again, Mahler is being expository here, and this material reappears later in the movement in a drastically transformed body.
From this point, the tempo and scoring become faster and fuller, and by m. 114, the written tempo is Allegro energico, the tempo of the first movement. The martial, mechanistic feel of that movement is carried forward here in a section that, if not quotation, is at least style-copy.
In m. 182, marked pesante, the low brass state a theme that begins with a decsending octave, here on A. This theme reappears after both of the hammer blows, and as the dark coda, which would have followed the third hammer blow in Mahler’s sometime plan for this movment.
Measure 228 sees the harmony move from D major to D minor, with both the descending octave idea and a texture that is reminiscent of the material in the first few measures of this movement. This portion of the piece is developmental in nature, and as it builds to the first hammer blow (m. 336) the music becomes more an more rhythmically compelx, particularly around m. 290, where Mahler juxtaposes several divisions of the beat as the music leads to a cadence in G major in m. 296.
A trend that I have detected in Mahler’s work is a growing concern with counterpoint. Almost nowhere in this movement does Mahler use a simple “melody with accompaniment” texture. Whether imitation or inversion or augmentation, Mahler seems to have come to a more “crafty” approach to his art. At the same time, Mahler’s counterpoint does not adhere strictly to the traditional “rules,” and dissonance is often freely introduced without preparation. For an example of this tendency, see mm. 302ff, wherein a two-measure motive is passed around imitatively, often with strikingly dissonant results.
I find myself shorter on time than on ideas about this piece–again, I refer myself to my notes on it. The last three canonical symphonies remain–I am undecided about the Tenth, Das Lied von der Erde or some of the other pieces I might work with. The Seventh, Eighth and Ninth are enormous compositions with which I am somewhat less familiar with than the first six symphonies, and come December, I will have to see where my thinking about Mahler lies. If I have learned what I need to from this master, I may move on (to what, I am not certain).
Schedule for the Seventh will be as follows:
- July 1-12: Movement 1
- July 13-24: Movement 2
- July 25-August 5: Movement 3
- August 6-17: Movement 4
- August 18-31: Movement 5
Hope to have you with me!