INKPOT#93 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: MAHLER The Middle and Late Symphonies – An Inktroduction

Mahler and the Symphony
Part 2 | Part 1An Inktroduction by
Benjamin Chee

The Middle Symphonies
The middle symphonies, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh, also form a sort of trilogy: the Rckert symphonies, linked to Mahler’s settings of poems by Friedrich Rckert. Interestingly, after three symphonic works with vocal participation, these three are purely orchestral works, themselves full of ingenious and thematically complex ideas that belies easy explanation. A closer study of the music reveals that Mahler’s designs are not only logical and purposeful, they are ineffably beautiful in their own way.

The Fifth Symphony undoubtedly contains some of Mahler’s most well-known music, not the least of which because of Luciano Visconti’s film Death in Venice which incorporated the hauntingly beautiful Adagietto. The symphony begins, however, with an anguished funeral march, leading into the storm movement which attempts, and ultimately fails, to overcome the despair of the first movement. The scherzo which follows contains a solo horn that wistfully recalls the posthorn from the Third Symphony, before the famous Adagietto – a love letter from Mahler to Alma, who married him as this symphony was being composed – and a Rondo Finale transforms the sorrow from the first movement into a jubilant conclusion.


Click here for a more in-depth essay on the Fifth Symphony.


“My Sixth will present riddles which only a generation that has previously absorbed and digested my first five will venture to solve.”

Thus did Mahler describe his new symphony even he was working on it. This was one of the happiest times of his life, when Mahler and his wife had just had their second child and they were living happily. Yet, it ends in tragedy: the third movement begins with a depiction of little children toddling through sand, their voices gradually become weaker and weaker. The work ends in a minor key after three hammer-blows “fell the hero as the tree is felled”. Alma Mahler recorded her husband’s reaction at the premiere:

“We came to the last rehearsals, to the dress rehearsal, to the last movement, with its three blows of fate. When it was over, Mahler walked up and down the artist’s room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself…”

Mahler with one of his daughters Mahler even had the nickname “Tragic” added to the title (although it was later deleted). This cathexis of this proved to be prophetic, as Mahler experienced three sharp blows of his own three years later: the eldest daughter of the Mahlers, Maria (‘Putzi’), died at the age of four-and-a-half, Mahler was diagnosed with a heart disease, and growing anti-semitic sentiments forced him to resign from the Vienna Opera. Superstitiously, he also deleted the third hammer-blow from the score in his final revision of the work.

However, more importantly, the beginnings of “modern music” (as Berg and Schenberg have acknowledged) can be heard in the Sixth, such as the rasping percussive rhythm at the start and the end of the work. Yet, it retains the unique qualities of Mahler’s musical aesthetism: the juxtaposition of innocence against nightmare in the scherzo, the use of cowbells in the transition from energy to quiescence, and, of course, the three fateful strokes of destiny.

The Late Symphonies
It took Mahler a long search for inspiration before reaching fruition in the form of the Seventh Symphony. This was also the last of the three symphonies (Fifth, Sixth and Seventh) which he wrote during his tenure with the Vienna Opera.

In some ways, the Seventh is a looking-glass inversion of the Sixth. It has been considered the most unapproachable, the most far-reaching in its expressionism and anticipation of hamonic elements whose gauntlet would be later taken up by Shostakovich and Bartók (to say nothing of Berg and Schenberg). The work is structured in five movements, with a central scherzo sandwiched between two Nachtmusiken (“nocturnes”). It includes an unusual scoring for guitar and mandolin in the second of the two Nachtmusiken, laden with dark, dreamy passages.

One day, Mahler was climbing the banks of a mountain stream with another musician. His friend, in a lugubrious mood, lamented that no more great music was being written. After Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, nothing new of significance could be expected.Suddenly, Mahler stood rooted to the ground in an attitude of mock alarm. He gestured in consternation to the stream and cried, “Great God, look there !”

“What is it ?” asked his anxious friend.

“The last wave,” was Mahler’s reply.

The year of high tragedy, 1907, also saw the completion of the Eighth Symphony. Most of the music had already been written the previous summer, down at the Mahler holiday residence at Maiernigg.

After eschewing the human voice for three symphonies, Mahler returned to the vocal genre for the Eighth, and what a return it was: the symphony is scored for an orchestra including five flutes, four oboes, eight horns, eight trumpets, seven trombones, a harmonium, an organ, a celesta and a platoon of percussion (short of a partridge in a pear tree), complemented by three sopranos, two contraltos, one tenor, one baritone, one bass, a boys’ choir and two full adult choirs – totalling a cast of just over a thousand. It is little wonder that the concert was billed, as a marketing gimmick, as the “Symphony of a Thousand”, although Mahler himself, more plangently, referred to the premiere itself as “the Barnum and Bailey performance”.

This overwhelming basilica-like work is Mahler’s return to the search for faith and self-belief. The setting of the first movement is the sacred text Veni, Creator Spiritus (“Come, Spirit of Creation”); the second movement is almost a dramatic oratorio, depicting the closing scene of Part II of Goethe’s Faust, where Faust’s damned soul is granted salvation by the “Eternal Feminine”, with a cast of “characters” like Pater Ecstaticus, Maria Aegyptica, Una Poenitentium, Angels and Blessed Youths.

At the premiere were such luminaries as Arnold Schenberg, Anton Webern and Thomas Mann, and the audience applauded for almost half an hour. Mahler had written in a letter to the conductor of the ConcertgebouwOrchestra, Willem Mengelberg,

“I just finished my Eighth. It is the most magnificent work I have made until now, so peculiar in content and form that it is impossible to write about it. Imagine that the universe starts to echo and to sound. There are no human voices anymore, but planets and suns orbiting.”


Click here for an in-depth long-version inktro to the Eighth Symphony.

Mahler In his first season as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Mahler composed the Ninth Symphony. At this point, he was also scoring Das Lied von der Erde and sketching the Tenth. It would be the last symphony he would complete, and it aptly captures the emotion of someone who morbidly knew that his time was running out and in all probability, was killing himself in his work.

The long first movement of the Ninth points to Mahler’s penultimate development as a symphonist. The tonal universe of the work is also new, building on the sharpness of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies with the more direct style of Das Lied in which the entire orchestra is virtually used as a troupe of chamber soloists.

In the opening movement, there is a deliberate thematic resemblance to the Lebewohl (“Farewell”) leitmotif of Beethoven’s Les Adieux piano sonata and later, this macabre association continues with a transformation of Johann Strauss’ Freut’ euch des Lebens (“Joy of Living”) and a dissonant treatment of “Three Blind Mice”. To this day, there still is contention over whether Mahler intended this as a personal Requiem.

With the Tenth Symphony, Mahler reached a new intensity of expression, working (as it were) under the Sword of Damocles as his health declined. Like a true Romantic, Mahler was drawn to the mood of sorrowand leavetaking, almost to the point where his anguish of departure from life, wife and art were indistinguishable between each other. On the manuscript as he worked, Mahler scribbled impassioned messages to his wife: “Almschi, to live for you, to die for you.”

She had, in fact, reportedly been carrying on an adulterous affair with another man, the architect Walter Gropius, and for Mahler, who subsequently found out, this symphony became an act of contrition. He only managed to complete the first movement, the Adagio, in its entirety; the other four movements were still a collection of sketches and ideas, although several musicologists have since undertook to complete the work.

Following his death, at least four versions of the Tenth Symphony have been published, including a fascimile of the autograph score as well as Deryck Cooke’s reconstruction (with the blessings of Alma Maria Mahler) of a performance version, with two movements completed in full score, and the other three incomplete, leaving any interpretative details and performance essentials to individual conductors and musicians.

Like so many of his compositional peers, Mahler died at the pinnacle of his creative powers, having enlarged and expanded on the symphonic idiom, and setting future composers on new musical paths. His music bestrides two centuries of culture, two worlds of music, bridging the old Romanticism to the new modernism that owes him an incalculable debt.

It has been said that, to understand Mahler, one needs to have great patience. The truth is, music of such singular quality as that of a Mahler symphony requires greater engagement and response from the listener. It is because his music, at its most profound, does not approach the audience at a mere visceral level, but instead exhorts them to a greater sense of examination and contemplation as the vast structure as his music unfolds. It is only in this, that the revitalising qualities of Mahler’s music can be truly understood.

Benjamin Chee does not confirm nor deny that he is a closet Mahlerian, and any inferences drawn from this reply are the reader’s own.

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