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


A Series of Firsts, Part III: Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are perhaps the most often recorded body of music in the history of sound.  A quick search on Amazon reveals over 2,000 different items for purchase, on all sorts of media, analog and digital.  Beethoven’s culminating work in the genre of the symphony, his glorious Ninth, even had an impact on the design of the compact disc.  There is a great love in Japan for Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral finale, and it has become a New Year’s Eve tradition for orchestras in Japan to perform the work.  This tradition may have had its origin in a World War II prison camp, during a cultural exchange between German and Japanese soldiers housed together.

In 1979, over 150 years after Beethoven’s death, the first industry standards for the commercial compact disc were being formulated by executives at Sony and Phillips.  The initial thought was to create a disc with the capacity to hold 60 minutes of music.  This would not have been long enough to contain a complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on one disc.  The wife of Sony chairman Akio Morita insisted her favorite piece of music be accommodated on one disc.  The longest recording at that time was a treasured performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, which ran 74 minutes long.  Pressure from the Sony executives won out, and the Phillips preference for a 115mm disc was replaced by a 120mm disc, which would have enough capacity to contain the Ninth symphony.  (This conveniently also erased a head start Phillips had in manufacturing, as the Phillips corporation already had a factory set up to make 115mm compact discs.)

scoreAlthough few pieces are as influential as Beethoven’s last symphony, he entered somewhat cautiously into composing his first symphony.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major was premiered on April 2, 1800, and first published a year later.  The original manuscript is lost, so we are not certain of the exact date it was finished, but composition on the First may have begun up to five years before it was performed.  Beethoven was 30 years old at the premiere of his First Symphony. By comparison, Mozart had written 38 symphonies by that age, and Schubert died at the age of 31 with nine or ten symphonies behind him at that point.  In 1800, it had been five years since Haydn’s final symphony, and twelve years since the composition of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.  Beethoven was very aware of his audience in Vienna, and although other composers wrote works after Mozart and Haydn, very little had caught on.  Ludwig was an outsider from Bonn, and had earned a good reputation as a pianist and composer.  He wanted his reputation to continue to grow with his first efforts in the realm of symphonic composition.

In his First symphony, we hear Ludwig van Beethoven as a classicist, showing a mastery of the Viennese classical style handed down to him by Haydn and Mozart.  This is Beethoven, aware of his musical heritage and the expectations of the audience.  This is also Beethoven before he slowly began to lose his hearing, before the emotional turmoil of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and before his self-characterization as artistic hero against the forces of fate and destiny.  The First symphony is a brilliant work in its own right, but it is also impossible for modern listeners to hear it without knowing what is to arrive with the other eight.  If Ludwig had written a dozen more symphonies in the style of his first, he would still be an important composer of the day.  What we realize is that Ludwig is going to smash through the classical models that were the standard, and bring music into an entirely different territory.  In the First symphony, we see Beethoven giving the audience evidence that he has conquered the classical model.  We know he is going to burst free from the model later.

GroveBeethoven, that bad boy from Bonn, does give us a good measure of originality even as he tries to give the Viennese audience what it expects.  The first movement of the work is in sonata form with a slow introduction.  The very first notes are an unexpected dissonance, a dominant seventh chord on C that resolves to F major.  Next, a dominant seventh on G resolves to A minor, then D dominant seventh moves us to G major.  This harmonic ambiguity does nothing to establish the advertised key of C major, and has the effect of giving us a mysterious and groping introduction to the work.  On one level, sonata form is about establishing a home key, moving away from it and finding our way back to it.  Slow introductions were common enough, but being unclear about the key is not normal: as Professor Robert Greenberg says, “Haydn would not have done this”.  Our 21st century ears do not feel shocked by a simple seventh chord, but it was an original move in 1800.  George Grove wrote in his 1896 book, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, “The opening may not seem novel or original to us, but at that date it was audacious …..”.

After the much written about twelve bar introduction, Ludwig gives us a motivic first theme that firmly establishes the home key of C major in three phrases.  Interestingly, some of the underlying background harmonic progression of the first theme is exactly what was the foreground harmonic mystery of the introduction.  This is a brilliant bit of construction that integrates the wandering introduction into the body of the sonata form. It is even more impressive when this progression is expanded in the first theme when it returns in the recapitulation.  The second theme is built with two motives found in the first theme, a four note descending idea now elongated and traded between oboe and flute, accompanied by an arpeggiated triad figure in the strings.  This is Beethoven’s main compositional process, composing with compact motives in an economical fashion that creates a genius of architecture from these seemingly insignificant building blocks.  The development section of this movement is a classically restrained structure which primarily uses sequences of material from the themes.

The second movement is what passes for a slow movement, but in reality it is not all that slow.  It is marked Andante Cantabile con moto,  translated as, a walking pace in a singing style with motion.  Ludwig really does not want this section to drag in tempo.  The second movement is also in a sort of sonata form, with embellishment serving as the main technique in the development.  This sort of quasi-sonata form has a clear precedent in the slow movement of Mozart’s G minor symphony.  Beethoven was clearly aware of this, and likely most of the Viennese audience was as well.  It is a measure of respect and homage to Wolfgang Mozart, and Beethoven surely welcomed the comparison in the listener’s mind.

The labeling of the third movement as a Minuet is a bit of a farce, as this is clearly a Beethovenian Scherzo in disguise.  A Minuet is a stately, courtly dance in triple meter, but any dancing couple would have to ingest a large dose of methamphetamine to keep up with the fast and driving music of this section.  It is a positive whirlwind of a movement, far and away the most original of the four.  There is a connection to the first movement.  A rising chromatic motive from the introduction of the first movement, which is incorporated into the body of the first movement, now becomes the basis for the opening theme of this third movement.  Even if your ears don’t consciously pick out this connection, there is a subliminal unity created between movements when these motives appear transformed in other places of the work.  One of Beethoven’s greatest strengths is this sort of musical construction, and here we find it on display in his very first symphony.

HopkinsThe fourth and final movement is another sonata form, full of vitality and a fitting finale to the work.  The most striking feature is the humorous opening to the movement.  It is not terribly often that the word humorous is used in conjunction with the troubled, tormented, digestively challenged and emotionally suffering Ludwig van Beethoven.  Here in the introduction to the fourth movement, humor and a clear musical joke, in the manner of Haydn, is exactly what Beethoven was going for.  The opening grand unison G is followed by a passage in the strings, where they try to play a scale by building it one measly note at a time.  The listener is meant to smile, to giggle to themselves at this comedy of strings.  Antony Hopkins writes in his book, The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven, the strings are “like a bevy of hesitant beginners clutching unfamiliar instruments, the first violins make abortive attempts to play a scale, progressing one note further each time.”  After Beethoven’s little musical game, the movement takes off with a rising scale theme that serves as a fittingly vigorous finale to the work.

I have included below, two different performances of the symphony.  The first is by the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan conducting.  Karajan recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven symphonies on four separate occasions in his career.  It was a sort of personal obsession of his to create the definitive performance of Beethoven’s works with the best recording technology available.  As recording technology improved, Karajan got the bug to re-record the symphonies to create a cutting edge version.  The second recording is the Academy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood conducting, one of the recent recordings in the  “historically informed performance” approach.  The Academy plays on period instruments similar to those of Beethoven’s day, and more closely follows Beethoven’s metronome markings.  The result is a bit drier and cleaner sound, with no vibrato, and an overall quicker pace to the performance.  If you don’t particularly care for either of these recordings, look around a bit.  I assure you there are only a few hundred more editions in print from which you may choose.

Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic


Beethoven Symphony No. 1, Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music

All Four in One, or One For All

All Four in One, or One For All

When you pick up your smartphone and Google the definition of “symphony”, you will see this:


An elaborate musical composition for full orchestra, typically in four movements, at least one of which is in sonata form.

At the conveniently named website, you could find this definition for “symphony”

An extended musical composition for orchestra in several movements, typically four.

Merriam-Webster offers up this definition:

A long piece of music that is usually in four large, separate sections and that is performed by an orchestra.

The two necessary skills for an audience during an orchestra concert are, the knowledge to wait until after the last movement of a symphony to begin your applause, and the ability to turn off that smartphone so the darn thing doesn’t ring in the middle of the performance.  The four movement “sonata-cycle” (with an opening sonata-form, a slow movement, a dance-like movement, and finale), has been the “normal” convention since the time of Haydn.  Birds fly, fish swim and symphonies are big works in four movements.  Like a child’s parental upbringing, this symphonic convention is something that composers worked with, enhanced, expanded, rebelled against, loved or hated, but could not ignore.  When the late romantic composers Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss wanted to approach orchestral writing with a newer literary inspiration, they called the works “tone poems” or “symphonic poems”.  What they were composing was wonderful music, but could no longer be considered a “symphony”.

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

With this definition in mind, you can imagine my curiosity as a student, when scouring through the works of my favorite composer Samuel Barber, I find that his Symphony No.1 is in one movement!?!?  Barber had more musicality in his little finger than you would find if you cloned six versions of me.  What is a symphony in only ONE movement?  What could make it a “symphony” and not a “tone poem” or something else?  Where is the sonata form?  How could he give us a slow movement and a dance-like Scherzo in triple meter, all in one movement?  Fortunately, Sam provided a bit of a description of his Opus 9 first Symphony at the time of the premiere. (I have included this quote once before on Good Music Speaks.) Here is Barber’s own description, quoted from his biography “Samuel Barber, The Composer and His Music” by Barbara Heyman:

The form of my Symphony in One Movement is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro ma non troppo opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme in diminution forms the basis of a scherzo section (vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, thus serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony.

Barber’s work has four distinct sections that correspond with the four movement scheme of the “normal” symphony, but they are all played without pause.  The work is unified by its thematic content, with the initial themes of the “exposition” serving (transformed) in the other sections.  This was a brilliant way for Sam to show off his musical gifts in the setting of a “symphony”.  At the core, Barber was a lyrical, melodic composer.  He didn’t often work in the manner, similar to Beethoven, with small motivic ideas that get developed in a musical cuisinart.  Barber had a gift for writing a long, flowing, gorgeous melody.  He very cleverly created his Symphony No.1 in a way that economically incorporated all the elements of symphonic writing, with the lyrical gift with which he excelled.

Some recordings of Barber’s first symphony play the work all in one long track, but others actually break the piece into four tracks (still played without pause).  I would recommend a recording that marks each section in this fashion, if you are looking to know where each partition starts.  One of my favorites is by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Samuel Barber, Symphony No. 1 in one movement, on Spotify

Barber Slatkin

One of the other bits of information I mined from Heyman’s biography of Barber is that he looked closely at another one movement symphony when he was composing his first.  The work he studied was the Symphony No. 7 by Jean Sibelius, which is also in a single movement.  I have to confess that I had avoided the music of Sibelius for a long time, a prejudice I picked up trying to emulate my mentor.  My teacher thought that Sibelius’s music contained some potentially bad habits for the developing composer to imitate.  At the time, I lived to please my mentor, so I immediately began scoffing at every note of the Finnish composer.  Knowing that Sam Barber had looked so closely at a Sibelius symphony gave me the mental permission to look closer at it myself.

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The idea of a one movement symphony by Sibelius is even more curious than the one by Barber.  Jean Sibelius is a composer that wrote BOTH multi-movement symphonies AND picturesque tone poems.  What made his Symphony 7 an actual symphony and not something else?  This is a question that Sibelius himself deliberated about at some length.  The piece was premiered with the title “Fantasia sinfonica” (symphonic fantasy), and only later on did Jean finally call it his Symphony No. 7.  It actually was the last symphony he completed, although he lived another 30 or so years after it was completed.

The form and construction of Symphony 7 is strikingly original, idiosyncratic, and truly unique.  It is somewhat ironic that it is composed in the key of C major, a tonality once thought to be used up with nothing left to offer.  Ralph Vaughan Williams commented, “only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh”.  Although there are several tempo changes in the movement, Sibelius moves through them seamlessly.  One really cannot break this work up into sections in the fashion we did the Barber composition.  Even the important themes of Sibelius seem to sneak up on you, like out of a mist.  The eminent Donald Francis Tovey wrote:

“In any tolerably competent performance of a typical work of Sibelius, the listener my rest assured that if he finds that an important melodic note has been in existence some time before he was aware of it, the composer has taken special trouble to conceal the beginning of that note.  If the listener feels that unformed fragments of melody loom out of a severely discordant fog of sound, that is what he is meant to feel.  If he cannot tell when or where the tempo changes, that is because Sibelius has achieved the power of moving like aircraft, with the wind or against it.”

Sibelius has hit upon a new approach to symphonic composition.  Careful study of the score could reveal ten or more actual themes, yet the work is unified and economical.  Sibelius has used just a handful of smaller musical germs that have become the DNA of all the themes.  These musical ideas are transformed, recombined, pressed into service as both main theme and accompaniment figures, and are all bound to the home key of C major.  It is a remarkably original achievement, and it serves as Sibelius’s last word on the subject of “symphony”.

Jean Sebelius, Symphony No. 7, on Spotify

Sibelius Bernstein

It is not that Jean Sibelius didn’t try to compose another symphony.  There were sketches and attempts at an eighth, but Jean was never satisfied with it.  I believe his attitude was that if he didn’t have something better to offer than his seventh, he wouldn’t publish anything more.  He must have believed this with great conviction, for his wife told a story of a day in 1943:

In the nineteen-forties there was a great auto da fé at Ainola,” she said. “My husband collected a number of manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the ‘Karelia Suite’ were destroyed—I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out—and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw onto the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood.

That fire insured that the world would not know what was in the attempts at an eighth symphony for Sibelius.  I must respect his wishes, for in any case his Symphony No. 7 is going to keep me busy for quite a while.