Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts

_52193219_orchestra464_apNext month I will be attending one of the subscription concerts performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  My free time is frankly, very limited, but I still find it so very important to attend live music whenever possible.  There are so many different ways to listen to music in this modern world, but some music was written and intended to be consumed with one’s full attention.  The best way for me to accomplish that is to be in the concert hall, inaccessible to the rest of my life’s obligations for a couple of hours.  My focus is entirely on the performance, without any distractions.  

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra usually programs at least one weekend when they perform a big bloated late romantic symphony, often by Gustav Mahler or Anton Bruckner.  It is a highlight of the subscription series for me, and I try to make myself available to hear the performance.  This year features Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, his “Resurrection Symphony”.  It was first performed in 1895.  The Second is one of my favorite Mahler symphonies, and was one of the most popular during his own lifetime.  Our buddy Gustav often composed his symphonies over a two year process.  He did the bulk of his work over the summers, while he was off from his conducting duties.  He composed usually in a little private hut, with piano and desk, away from his main house.  The first summer he would write the music and generate a “short” score, and the next summer he would put the finishing touches on the work and create the full orchestral score.  His Second symphony did NOT follow this pattern, and actually took him much longer to complete the work as we know it.

The first movement of the symphony was completed in 1888.  On the title page of the manuscript, this movement has the heading “Todtenfeier”, which is german for “Funeral Rites”.  Underneath that, Gustav wrote “Symphony in C minor” and “Movement I”, both of which he crossed out.  For a few years, he seemed to have decided against adding more movements to the “Todtenfeier” and treated it as a self-contained symphonic poem.  Mahler was consumed with his thoughts on death and the afterlife.  Constantin Floros writes in his book on Mahler’s symphonies:

FlorosMahler’s thinking often centered around metaphysical and eschatological questions.  All aspects of metaphysics – ontology, cosmology, religious problems and existentialism – fascinated him.  The meaning of existence and the paradox of death and dying preoccupied him to such an extent that one might speak of a metaphysical agony.  In order to find solutions to metaphysical and eschatological problems, he engrossed himself in philosophy and the natural sciences.”

Mahler’s thoughts on eschatology (of death, judgement, heaven and hell) are what are on display in the 85 minute long Second Symphony.  Lighthearted little romp in the concert hall, I know, but really pretty concise given the scope of what Gustav was trying to convey.  Mahler vacillated over time on whether he wanted to provide programs for his symphonies. Originally, he provided some form of a story to go with each of his first four symphonies but then, withdrew them.  He came around to the idea that his music should portray such programs so effectively that the listener did not need to be provided with a written cheat sheet spelling it out.  When he did provide some written words for Symphony No. 2, they generally focused on the questions “Why have you lived?  Why have you suffered? Is this all just a terrible joke?”.  

The first movement “Totenfeier” therefore is a Mahlerized vision of death, the inevitable gateway to any form of the afterlife.  It is a sprawling, dramatic, fist shaking death, not going gently into the good night, and laid out in a long sonata form.  There is exposition, development, more development, recapitulation and coda all over 20-22 minutes in performance.  Since Mahler wrote almost exclusively orchestral songs and symphonies, I always looked at how he drew from the past symphonic repertoire.  There is a clear comparison of Mahler’s second and Beethoven’s ninth, for example, as both end with a choral finale in the last movement.  What I have recently thought about is how much Mahler was aware of Beethoven’s late music, particularly his last string quartets.  The expanded number of movements, and the apotheosis of sonata form seem to be things that Gustav found in Ludwig’s late quartets.  The intensity found in those chamber works are now used by Mahler with a full orchestral palette, constantly developing the musical material.  Even the recapitulatory material is not an exact repeat of the exposition, and dramatic expression becomes much more important than clarity of form.  

All of the stormy portrayal of death in the first movement is very strongly contrasted with a very pleasant second movement, an Andante moderato in a five part song form with coda.  It is typical of Mahler to include music of huge contrast in the same symphony.  The great aesthetic challenge for Gustav is to create at the same time some sense of unity, and the feeling that all of this extraordinary contrasting movements belong together in some way.  Through the second movement and raucous third movement scherzo, I think Mahler is still relying on some of the conventions of a standardized symphony cycle (with Sonata form, slow movement, minuet or scherzo, and finale).  These are the elements that were still part of his conception of what made a symphony a symphony, and not something else.  

It is the fourth movement where Gustav takes a left turn away from conventional expectations.  Here Mahler gives us an orchestral song, “Urlicht” (Primal light), with a text taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of anonymous German folk poems.  Mahler set ten or twelve of these poems to music at one time or another, and included material either from Wunderhorn or based on Wunderhorn in each of his first four symphonies.  The German text reads:

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

and in English Translation is:

O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

The song is a brief five minute movement that almost seems out of proportion to the other long-winded movements.  By including it in that very place in the symphony , Mahler introduces the voice to his orchestral toolbox for this work, and the song functions as a sort of prelude to the big box finale movement.  The five minutes of the song are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2,  fourth movement “Urlicht”

The massive finale is itself in two large chunks, the first dealing with judgement day, and the second containing Mahler’s choral vision of resurrection.  Mahler spent a good deal of time contemplating the finale, and was concerned with creating a movement of equal weight to the opening movement to balance the symphony properly.  It was in March of 1894 that Gustav made the final decision to include a chorus in the last movement.  Mahler had attended the memorial service of his friend and fellow conductor,  Hans von Bülow. During the memorial, a choir sang a setting of a German poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.  In Mahler’s words, “This hit me like lightning, and everything appeared clearly and distinctly before me!”.  The inspiration for the finale was crystallized in his mind, and Gustav went directly to work.  He used the first two strophes of the poem by Klopstock, and added six more of his own.  The text became the basis of a cantata that is the second half of the finale.  Two vocal soloists and a full chorus are featured along with the full force of a large orchestra.  The words are critical to understanding the true message of Mahler’s composition.


In Original German:

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
Wirst du, Mein Staub,
Nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird der dich rief dir geben!
Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!
O glaube
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
Was entstanden ist
Das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör’ auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd’ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!


In English Translation:

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

The large scale musical voyage from darkness into light is something that you can find in more than one symphonic work.  Beethoven did it in his Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and Mahler takes us on this trip again in his own Fifth and Eighth symphonies.  I look forward to visiting Orchestra Hall and hearing the cathartic live performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony.  It is definitely one of those things everyone should have the chance to do at least once.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “The Resurrection”, Leonard Bernstein conducting London Symphony Orchestra




The Fifth is an accursed work.  No one gets the point

  • Gustav Mahler

Gustav+Mahler smilingI think Gustav may have been a little hard on himself in this case.  The form of the last movement is surely difficult to describe.  Well, maybe not.  If one is looking for a classical Rondo, the form of this movement is a big sprawling hot mess.  The form, however, is not the point.  The expressive qualities of the music is the real point, and here the Rondo-Finale is a great success.  Anyone can get the point of the finale.  Paul Bekker saw it as a “crowning affirmation of life”,  and Heinrich Kralik called it a “musical declaration of joy”.  The Fifth Symphony balances the grief and anger of the opening by closing with positively ebullient, joyous music.  This is Mahler with a happy face.

The hyphenated name that Mahler provides, Rondo-Finale, should alert us that the form of this movement is a very individualized hybrid.  The last movement of many symphonies in the repertoire take the form of a Rondo.  The defining element of a Rondo is a section of music that keeps coming back to us after a contrastic section.  If the “rondo” music is labeled “A”, then a Rondo form movement might follow the pattern A-B-A-C-A-D-A.  The point is you have this familiar stuff returning several times in the music.

Other finale movements, many times the serious ones, will follow a Sonata form similar to most first movements.  This especially happens when a composer still has some things to work out in a development section.  Gustav has given us a combination of both, with elements of a Rondo and lots of heavy development.  As if that weren’t complicated enough, there are several fugato sections of music, those highly contrapuntal chunks of music in the style of a fugue.  Clearly, happiness for old Gustav is no simple thing.

We, as listeners, have traveled through an hour of music to this point.  The despair of the opening funeral march, and the anger of the second movement sonata form.  We recovered from grief a bit in the Scherzo dance movement, one that declared life must go on.  We saw Mahler’s love note to his future wife in the famous Adagietto fourth movement.  In this closing music of unbridled joy, Gustav is going to give us his compositional everything.   He is going to leave it all out there on the podium, and that notion deserves a bit of my respect.

Leonard Bernstein Conducting Boston Symphony

The Rondo-Finale starts out with some preparatory measures, then right into the bright Rondo music at bar 23 of the score, 0:42 in the video.  The first fugato style music is at bar 56 (1:16), and the Rondo theme returns to us in bar 136 (2:38).  More fugato, more thematic sections until we come to some sort of punctuation at bar 240.

What follows from bar 241 is a long development section that flows for about 265 measures, a full four minutes of music until the main Rondo theme returns to us (altered) in the original key of D major at bar 497 (8:33).  One could spend hours pouring over the score and learning all the details of craftsmanship that Gustav has included in this final movement.  For our purposes, it is sufficient to quote Constantin Floros in saying “the music displays great brilliance”.

sunshineThe highlight that we cannot miss, the exclamation point on Mahler’s declaration of joy, is the appearance of the gorgeous D major Chorale that we first heard a snippet of in the second movement.  This occurs at bar 711, about 12:16 in the video, but don’t worry about the time.  You can’t miss it.  In the second movement, we were not completely ready for the joy of the Chorale, and it faded out.  That was 40 minutes of music earlier, and we have healed since then.  Now the Chorale can take hold, blossom, and reach its full potential in capping the bright euphoria of this music.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement V, Rondo-Finale

There we have it.  It has taken me 7000 or so words, and six blog posts, to simply summarize Mahler’s Fifth.  It has remained one of my favorite works since I first listened all those years ago with a used LP in my parent’s house.  The Fifth pulls us along a journey whereby the “emotional progression of the symphony has marched from deep despair and anger to love and then pure joy” (to quote Kelly Hansen).  If all of this joyful euphoria is a bit too much for you, then I would have to recommend Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.  That work is labeled the “Tragic”, and also starts off with a funeral march.  The mood of the work just deteriorates from there.  The final moments of the Sixth are some of the most brutal in all of music.  Alas, that would be a subject for an entire different set of blog posts.  Another time, perhaps.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic”, Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic




“Strange enough Mahler took note of me immediately; not only because of my face, which could be called beautiful at the time, but also because of my sharp, tense manner.  He looked at me through his glasses long and searchingly.”

  • Alma Mahler, on her first encounter with Gustav

If you have only heard one piece of Mahler’s music, it likely would have been this slow movement from the Fifth Symphony.  Scored for just strings and harp, it has garnered a life of its own as a separate piece.  It has been used in films, most famously in the Luchino Visconti film,  “Death in Venice.”  A number of first rate choreographers have used the music in their dance programs.  Leonard Bernstein played it at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy.  Bernstein played it in a memorial for his mentor Serge Koussevitzky.  When the news of Bernstein’s own death traveled in the fall of 1990, orchestras around the world played this music in his honor and memory.


It is easy to think of the great solemnity of this music as another vision of death, in the middle of this Mahler-led journey through an emotional grieving process.  We started with a funeral march, of all the dark places to begin things.  However, the origins of this Adagietto may be quite different than a lamenting dirge.  This might actually had been a love song without words, or at least one of the most successful pick up lines in human history.

Alma Schindler Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler

Gustav met the then 22 year old Alma at a party in November of 1901, when he was halfway through the composition of the Fifth Symphony.  She was 19 years younger than him, beautiful, smart and musically talented.  She engaged the already esteemed conductor in a conversation about opera, and held up her point of view with the bravura of youth.  As the story goes, shortly after this meeting, Gustav sent Alma the manuscript of the Adagietto without any further explanation.  The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Fifth Symphony, wrote: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was “love, a love comes into his life.”  Some girls get flowers and candy, other apparently get Adagiettos.

As a profession of love, the Adagietto was very successful.  Gustav and Alma were engaged only one month after their first meeting.  Four months after that dinner party, the two were married and Alma was already pregnant at the time.

So how does this love music get turned into a lament, a dirge associated with loss and funerals?  Admittedly, Gustav is giving us an outpouring of love of the “I would die for you” sort. But how does one get from that to music for a memorial service?  The metamorphosis is accomplished with a change of tempo.  Mahler is recorded as having performed the Adagietto in a little over 7 minutes.  Mengelberg and the great Bruno Walter, who both knew Mahler, performed this movement in 7 ½ to 8 minutes.  Walter also had attended the premiere of the work with Mahler conducting, so he would have known the composer’s intentions  In the years since Mahler’s death, conductors have performed the Adagietto at slower and slower tempos.  In my collection of recordings, Solti clocks in at 9:51, Bernstein at 11:02, and Karajan at 11:53.  Some performances have stretched the fourth movement to 13 and 14 minutes long.  At that speed, we definitely get a vibe that is more lament than love. It is a testament to the genius of the music, that it can withstand such varied interpretations.

Compare the two performances here.  First Bruno Walter, with an 8 minute Adagietto.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement IV, Adagietto, Bruno Walter conducting

And now, Leonard Bernstein in the performance with the Vienna Philharmonic we have been working with in these posts.  Here Lenny gets it done in 12 minutes.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement IV, Adagietto, Leonard Bernstein conducting

Gustav himself is partly to blame for the confusion of tempos.  He has titled the movement “Adagietto” (less slow than Adagio), and then marked the first measure “Sehr langsam” (very slowly).  You are free to prefer whatever rendition you choose.  Currently, I tend to think I would conduct the Adagietto at a tempo closer to the Bruno Walter version (no disrespect to Lenny).  I have three reasons for my line of thinking.  First, it is closer to how we think Mahler performed it, and the composer’s intentions should hold a fair amount of weight.

Secondly, Medgelberg wrote a short poem into his conducting score, which are the words to go with our “song without words” melody in the first violins.

Wie ich dich liebe,
Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen
Nur mein Sehnsucht
kann ich Dir klagen
Und meine Liebe
Meine Wonne!

How I love you,
You, my sun,
I cannot find words to tell you.
Only my longing
Can I lament to you,
And my love,
My delight!

That clearly puts me in the love song camp of the slightly quicker tempo.  The third bit of evidence to support the love song argument is a quote of music from Wagner.  In the middle section of the Adagietto, Mahler includes a motif from Tristan und Isolde, and then Mahlerizes it a few times.  Tristan und Isolde is a great love story, and the motif Gustav borrowed is known as the “gaze” motive, sort of a “love at first sight” moment in the opera.  Alma was a knowledgeable enough musician to have gotten the reference and understood the hint.  Or maybe it was some sort of test, whereby,if she was clever enough to get it, she was worthy of Mahler’s attention.

There are hundred of recording of the Adagietto, both as the fourth movement of the symphony and as a stand alone piece.  I have collected five performances in a Spotify playlist, with performance times ranging from 7:39 to a stretched-out 16:48!  I think an 8 or 9 minute version keeps the balance of the movement within the symphony as a whole, but please enjoy your favorite from beginning to end.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Adagietto   Spotify Playlist

Next up, finally, the fifth movement Rondo-Finale