The Measure of Mahler (3)

Mahler-Gustav-11[1888]Before putting this topic away for a little while — yes, it’ll be coming back, don’t worry! — there’s another of Mahler’s ‘great thematic statements’ I’d like to nudge beginners towards, if they’ll allow me. It’s one from slightly further back in time: unlike that bit of amazingly powerful musical construction from the Sixth Symphony (1903-4) — which hails from the ‘middle period’ of Mahler’s symphonic career — this theme comes from the very start: it’s found in his First Symphony, an early version of which was first performed as long ago as 1889.

To be honest, though, I don’t know whether I’m correct in calling the thing ‘a theme’. You see, it’s really more of a ‘musical paragraph’ or ‘thematic complex’ than a simple thematic statement — as it goes from bar 55 to bar 166 and takes around two minutes to do so. Still, let’s see what we can do with it…

As in the case of the Sixth Symphony’s finale, there’s an introduction before the ‘main body’ of the movement gets going — and, just as in that work, Mahler packs that introduction with gestures and shapes that the theme (or thematic complex, or whatever) will take up and use once it arrives. As opposed to the Sixth, however, this movement’s introduction is every bit as fast and loud as the statement that follows it: there’s no need for a ‘lead-in’ or other transition to conduct us to the new section. All of which means that, here too, I really ought to let you hear the entire introduction on its own, before presenting the statement I admire.

Mahler himself referred to this movement as opening with ‘the cry of a deeply wounded heart’, and said elsewhere that it

begins with a horrible outcry. Our hero is completely abandoned, engaged in a most dreadful battle with all the sorrow of this world.

And you may agree that the following is exactly what such a thing ought to sound like:

Well, that’s the introduction. And — with nothing more than a quick change of harmony and a percussion smash — we find ourselves in another amazing Mahler theme:

Now, the reason I stopped there (in bar 106) is that we heard a thumping close in the key of F minor — which is the key in which that extract started (after the introduction kept you hovering on the edge of it, as it were). In other words, there’s a feeling of natural ‘punctuation’ in the music that allows me to call bars 55 to 106 some sort of thematic unit. But such is Mahler’s ability to keep things going that the music actually runs right past this point without even pausing: we then get another 50 bars of torrential invention before things are finally made to sound like they’ve wound down and Mahler is ready to unveil a different, radically contrasting idea in a contrasting key.

dover1As you’ll have guessed by now, I think that those 51 bars add up to a truly terrific piece of writing — powerful and fluent, and showing a wonderful command of all the resources of the expanded orchestra Mahler calls for. As with yesterday’s example, though, I know for a fact that someone who gets hit for the first time with the kind of extended paragraph in which this is embedded can find themselves looking for a familiar structural cue very close to the start — a short introductory section, perhaps, and then a melodic idea carefully distinguished from its accompaniment — and, when they don’t get that, they lose track of where the chunks are and start hearing everything as a mad mess that just continues until it stops. But while Mahler has obviously worked very hard to keep the tension and the sense of continuity alive across this whole paragraph, I hope I’ve shown every newcomer’s ear that it’s actually organised as a small number of big chunks — two of which you’ve now heard. As for what may be the third chunk (if my stopping at bar 106 is allowable), let me now present you with the entire span of 166 bars: the introduction; the statement; and the extension of that statement leading to a close — with the same F minor key showing through from beginning to end. (If we had a piano here, I could show you what that’s about: eventually I’ll think of a way to demonstrate these things in my postings.)

So here it is: all three of those distinguishable sections — the last of which you’ve not yet heard! — put back together to make the extended but comprehensible whole they are designed to articulate:

Worth mentioning, perhaps, that Mahler started working on this symphony when he was just 24 years old. Are you impressed? I’m impressed…


MOcoverforblogIf you enjoyed this posting, remember that I am a regular contributor and columnist for the UK magazine Musical Opinion. The magazine’s website can be found here; to see its Twitter feed, click here; to see its Facebook page, click here. To subscribe to Musical Opinion, click here.


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