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.