The Measure of Mahler (2)

In yesterday’s posting, you may remember, we entered the world of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (1903-4) — or, at any rate, the world of its finale, whose introduction we heard whole (but by itself). In case anyone’s memory quickly needs refreshing, we found that the introduction is not only 5 minutes long (!), but contains a fair bit of music whose expressive effect is surely that of a gloomy introspection…

But of course, not all of the introduction was gloomy and introspective: some of it was nightmarish, gloomy and introspective:

(Yes, this is a different performance: I like to plunder different recordings for these clips — partly on the principle that if the gods had intended us to live with just one recording, they wouldn’t have given us other recordings.)

Well, at the end of the introduction we approach the place where the ‘main body’ of the movement begins — and for this, Mahler needs the music to be moving at a faster tempo (though, as it happens, that wasn’t inevitably or necessarily going to be the case: Mahler more than once wrote a slow finale — as of course did Tchaikovsky in his own Sixth Symphony). He also needs — if his finale is not going to ignore the key of A minor that the symphony has mostly treated as its ‘battleground’ up to that point — to get out of the C minor into which this introduction seems to be located. And, expressively speaking, he’ll be doing all this to engineer a shift to a state where the music can take on a more active, fiery and combative character: this is going to be a big and decisive struggle…

What he needs, then, is a transitional passage that is a ‘lead-in’ to the fast music — something that picks up the gradually increasing tempo of the introduction and takes it from Allegro moderato to Allegro energico, at the same time as re-engaging us with his symphony’s grim A minor. And the way he does it is simply magnificent: it’s a passage that takes half a minute — and at the end it virtually yells ‘Chaaaaaaaarge!’…

What happens next is a big thematic statement — and, for my money, it’s one of the greatest thematic statements in all Mahler. It’s 26 bars long; largely made up of shapes heard in the introduction; and in its formal construction doesn’t seem to be like any other theme composed by anyone, anywhere (I have spent literally hours trying to analyse technically the way it works…). I’d say this is very definitely one of music’s ‘WOW!’ moments. Let’s hear this badass theme arriving as Mahler meant it to — following the lead-in that we’ve just heard separately:

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a newcomer heard that and thought the theme was ‘all over the place’– because it is: the tune alone covers an enormous range of pitch (that huge downward leap you hear is 17 semitones — an octave and a fourth!); and the number of instrumental colours and motivic ideas crammed into the texture is pretty huge. Yet, as I keep insisting, this all makes terrifically powerful sense — at least in a performance where the conductor has got the players to balance the lines against each other so you can actually hear everything that’s going on (and you’d be amazed at how often that doesn’t happen…).

Mahler doesn’t play this theme again for about another 18 minutes — at which point he recapitulates it, something like seven minutes before the piece ends. Needless to say — this being Mahler! — he changes it in various ways … not the least difference being that we now hear all sorts of things happening over the top of it, at any rate to begin with:

Well, I think that’s enough for now. I hope at the very least I’ve helped a few people hear that Mahler actually constructs his vast symphonies out of meaningful spans that do perfectly sensible things — even though they can sometimes be on a rather larger scale (and a higher level of emotional intensity) than their equivalents in other music. Though that long-vanished girlfriend must have heard the movement as simply half an hour of random madness that featured quite a lot of chaotic roaring, I hope everyone who’s followed me this far is finding that the bits actually fit together very compellingly. If she ever sees this posting, maybe she’ll see what I was on about, all those years ago…

MD

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