Anton Bruckner – Symphony 7 in E Major – A Modest Man’s Delayed Triumph

Anton Bruckner – Symphony 7 in E Major – A Modest Man’s Delayed Triumph

Note: I have made references throughout this blog to timings for certain highlighted moments (e.g 0:03 of track 1) – this is in relation to a recording of the work I will provide a link to below (follow along should you so desire). 

On the 30th December 1884 , in the world-famous Leipzig Gewandhaus, the premier of Anton Bruckner’s 7th symphony was received with rapturous applause. At the age of 60 Bruckner had now experienced his first taste of success with an audience. But why had it taken so long for this modest but industrious Upper Austrian to find favour with the public? One reason was simply that Bruckner had started surprisingly late in life to compose large-scale works, he had not approached the genre of the symphony until near the end of his fourth decade on this earth. The other perhaps more important facet was that he had found himself, quite by accident, at the fore of central Europe’s raging musical conflict between the supporters of Johannes Brahms and the supporters of Richard Wagner. At first glance, the tremendously modest Bruckner, who had little to no literary interests would seem an unlikely member of the Wagnerian camp, but nonetheless, that was the group he had found himself pigeonholed into. In fairness, Bruckner had gained a deep appreciation for Wagner’s music since the early 1860s and was known to have practically worshipped the older composer. What made Bruckner more offensive to the other side, though, was that he had had the temerity to compose abstract symphonies, and what’s more to compose them in Vienna, where Brahms, and perhaps more importantly the critic Eduard Hanlick resided and reigned supreme. Brahms had derided Bruckner’s symphonies as musical ‘Boa constrictors’, but Hanslick was the more abusive, orchestrating venomous attacks in the Viennese press. It goes without saying that the conservative orchestras and audiences of Vienna were by no means receptive to Bruckner’s symphonies which were both long and in their mind lacking proper rigour.

10 Anton Bruckner Facts – Interesting Facts About Anton Bruckner ...Painting of Anton Bruckner

The audience that heard Bruckner’s 7th symphony for the first time in Leipzig, however, was far more open to this music, and Bruckner had at last found a talented and sympathetic interpreter in the conductor Arthur Nikisch. It was a captivating success from the first bars onward. As with most of Bruckner’s symphonies, the opening is presented with utmost mystery, as a long arching and searching theme takes its course over tremolo strings. This theme had apparently come to Bruckner in a dream, in which his mentor from his Linz days, Ignaz Dorn, had played the melody on a viola promising the composer that it would bring him ‘success’. One of the main characteristics of this theme is that it modulates from the home key (or tonic), e major, to the dominant, b major. This is in part what give it its searching quality. It also sets up what is essentially the slow drama of the entire movement, the takeover of b major from the tonic and the painstaking process whereby the home key reasserts its position. In a truly ground-breaking manner, Bruckner will delay this resolution until the coda.

Arthur Nikisch - The History of the Berlin Philharmonic - Classic FMPictured here the much younger Arthur Nikisch

The first theme slips back to the tonic, for a restatement which again modulates to the dominant (1:22 of track 1). The second subject which starts in b major, wanders through several keys, generating a strong sense of forward movement (2:46 of track 1). It is important to bear in mind that although Bruckner’s music has a tendency to be slow, and interpretations have a tendency to be even slower, there is still often a feeling of steady forward propulsion. The music builds to a climax resolving on the key of b minor (a dark and solemn key). A theme with a new rhythm now begins in b minor, passing through several keys til it leads to a fanfare and the music dies away softly in b major (5:51 – 7:44 of track 1). This comprises effectively the exposition (the section in which the themes are first presented), and now it is time for the development. Bruckner inverts many of the movement’s themes for this section (this means the ascending intervals of the melody become descending intervals and vice versa), presenting for example, a beautiful inversion of the second subject played cantabile by the cellos (9:16 of track 1). A crisis point is reached in which the inverted version of the opening theme is presented menacingly in c minor (11:18 of track 1). Effectively any strict recapitulation in which the opening material is presented securely in the tonic, has now been severely undermined by this outburst so near the end of the development.

A traditional recapitulation was not in fact what Bruckner had in mind at all. Although, we do eventually hear the main theme in e major, and although this is felt by the listener as the home-key, it is far from a secure and solid resolution (13:06 of track 1). Again the theme modulates to b minor, which leads to what is the greatest crisis in the movement, as the music floats into dark and mysterious harmonies, beautifully orchestrated (14:13 of track 1). Bruckner’s wandering second subject again reaches a climax, but this time we arrive with the new rhythmic theme in g major, not the dominant, which provides the impetus to bring about the long-delayed resolution of this movement as the key of b has lost its pre-eminence (16:58 of track 1). Again the music passes through several keys, before it settles down for what is without a doubt one of the greatest codas in the entire symphonic repertoire. On a pedal point (a technique originating in organ music) in the bass over which the rest of the orchestra plays wandering harmonies, the music rises to a crescendo (18:25 of track 1 onward). The music gradually resolves to e major for what is, at last, the resolution we have been looking for throughout the entire movement, accompanied by glorious fanfares in the brass.

Anecdotes from the life of Anton Bruckner (II ... Anton Bruckner at the organ (he was best known as an organist for much of his career)

The second movement is marked adagio. Bruckner’s adagios are often seen as being at the heart of his symphonies, and this is especially true here. The seventh’s adagio is probably one of the greatest slow movements of any symphony, let alone any Bruckner symphony. It begins in the relative minor to the home key, C-sharp minor (a key hitherto not touched upon), and with a theme of sombre feeling (first heard at 0:01 of track 2). Apparently Bruckner was inspired to compose this theme because he realised that Wagner was not far from his dying day. Wagner was in fact to die during the period in which Bruckner composed the symphony. The movement’s structure is a set of variations upon two themes. The second which begins in f-sharp (first heard at 4:57 of track 2), has been described beautifully by Bruckner expert and conductor Georg Tinter as:

something which transcends ordinary sorts of feelings. You can’t even say ‘Is it jolly?’ ‘Is it sad?’ ‘Is it that?’ ‘Is it that?’. You can’t say that with a late Beethoven tune either. It is above these things

The adagio utilises 4 Wagner tubas, an instrument designed to be used in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Half way through the movement during the first recurrence of the first theme, the music reaches a climax in g major, which prepares the audience for the movement’s most important moment later on. That in turn is reached following a long crescendo, which climaxes in C-major accompanied by one of music’s most famous cymbal clashes, supported by a triangle (19:15 of track 2). This was apparently suggested as an addition by Nikisch, a change Bruckner agreed to. In the manuscript this addition is marked as invalid, but not in Bruckner’s writing. The fact that a similar passage is accompanied by a cymbal clash in the adagio of the 8th symphony suggests that Bruckner did want to retain this part for percussion in the 7th contrary to the manuscript’s direction. Some performances will include this use of percussion, others not. After this climax the music dies away and ends in funeral character.

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The third movement scherzo is based on a driving dance theme in A minor with an octave leap (first heard at 0:02 of track 3), while the contrasting trio section has a slower tempo (3:25 of track 3). The latter is full of beautiful orchestration in the brass and woodwinds. Overall, this movement is the perfect foil for the immensely moving and sombre second movement. The finale is an odd mixture of the sublime and the light-hearted, it begins with a theme of jaunty character which has some resemblance to the opening movement’s first theme, and which is again accompanied by tremolo strings (0:01 of track 4). The second subject of the finale is a more serious chorale theme (1:00 of track 4), while the third subject takes up a more menacing mood in the minor mode (2:56 of track 4). In the recapitulation, the themes are presented in reverse order (just one of the factors that make this movement difficult to define in terms of form)! The coda features the jaunty theme alongside the opening theme of the symphony, climaxing with an E-major chord ablaze with glory (10:49 of track 4 onward)!

With this ending, Bruckner had capped off a work which would bring him fame and renown for the first time in his compositional career. In one of the great ironies of music history, the timid, shy, and deeply conservative catholic composer, with an awed reverence for music of the past, would become the new poster-child for progressive modern music. Anton Bruckner, the peasant from upper Austria, had secured his place in the great pantheon of German music, a position from which not even Hanslick could dislodge him. In some ways it is not exactly surprising that it was the 7th symphony that brought him this recognition, its lyrical and moving themes continue to have charms for audiences to this day. The long-delayed resolutions and slowly built climaxes contained within will forever deserve our special attention, representative as they are of that most Brucknerian quality: his sacred patience.

By Nicholas Jenkins

Here is the recording upon which the timings are based, you are more than welcome to choose your own performance but please note the timings could be very different if you do:

Johannes Brahms – Third Symphony in F Major (Frei Aber Froh – free but happy?)

Johannes Brahms – Third Symphony in F Major (Frei Aber Froh – free but happy?)

Note: I have made references throughout this blog to timings for certain highlighted moments (e.g 0:03 of track 1) – this is in relation to a recording of the work I will provide a link to below (follow along should you so desire). 

Places can store up memories for us, which when we return come flooding back to us. The region situated along the banks of the Rhine must have been just such a place for the composer Johannes Brahms. It was there in October 1853 that he first made the acquaintance of Robert and Clara Schumann at their Düsseldorf home. Robert who was deeply impressed by the young man’s music, would soon lionise Brahms in a famous article that championed him as the next great composer in German music. But sadly things did not remain rosy for long. In February 1854 Robert would throw himself off a bridge into the Rhine in a desperate suicide attempt. As a result he was committed to an asylum and would die there just two years later in 1856. Meanwhile, Brahms and Clara would find themselves falling hopelessly in love as they comforted each other in the wake of this tragedy. Even so, following Robert’s funeral, Brahms fled the scene and left the newly widowed Clara to tend to her young family alone. Ultimately, marriage scared Brahms who would become a perennial bachelor, he must have also felt conflicted because of his friendship with Robert.*

Musical Love Triangle: Brahms & the Schumanns - Houston Symphony

Picture from let to right: Clara Schumann, a young Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann

When Brahms returned to the banks of the Rhine to stay at Wiesbaden nearly 30 years later, after celebrating his 50th birthday, it is easy to imagine these difficult and painful memories would once again be brought to the fore of his mind. There, over just a matter of three months, he would complete his third symphony, a work of consummate formal brilliance, yet also an intensely personal work. The symphony would begin with a kind of musical motto with resonance for Brahms and his circle. Musical mottoes (used to represent people) were common at that time, Brahms’ friend and fellow bachelor Joseph Joachim, for example, had the motto of the notes F – A – E (Frei Aber Einsam – free but lonely – in other words single but lonely). Indeed, Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Albert Dietrich had each composed a movement on the basis of this motto for what would become the F-A-E violin sonata dedicated to Joachim. Brahms, being the able ironist that he was, took Joachim’s personal motto and created his own: F-A-F (Frei Aber Froh – free but happy). It is with this motto (albeit with the A moved a semi-tone lower to A flat, creating a minor interval) that the symphony would begin (0:02 – 0:08 of track 1).

This motto is of immense significance for the symphony, it will recur throughout the movement in many different guises, and will serve as the germinating idea for many of the themes of this symphony. Its first recurrence follows immediately as it forms the bass line underneath which the first theme proper is built (listen out for it in the double basses and brass). The first theme, in fact, begins on the third note of the motto and so a close connection is established from the beginning (0:08 – 0:30 of track 1). The theme itself has a striking resemblance to a phrase from the middle of the first movement of Robert Schumann’s famous Rhenish (or Rheinische) symphony composed as a tribute to the Rhine and the Rhineland region (7:40 – 7:48 of Schumann track). Strictly, speaking Schumann’s theme is a varied version of his movement’s main theme, but Brahms seems to have cottoned onto this version and used it in his symphony, adding to it a passionate weight. By doing so he was referencing Schumann and the memory of his departed friend in this work which had already begun with the Brahms’ own personal motto. The theme switches from major to minor from measure to measure, a technique learnt from Franz Schubert, which creates ambiguity and tension in the music.

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Picture of the Rhine valley

First movement of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony in E-Flat major

The second theme, which is in A-flat major (1:24 of track 1 onward), follows a transition in which the orchestra is pared down, so that when we arrive at this theme it almost has a chamber music feel. It sounds like the sort of  rustic melody Brahms might have heard while conversing with friends in one of the many cafes of Vienna. Brahms does elaborate and develop this simple theme in the exposition but notice the extraordinary way he transforms the melody in the development section, now in the minor and taking on a far darker character (6:32 of track 1 onward). The drama of this part is enhanced by a transitional section, which takes us from the repeat of the exposition to the development, filled with syncopated rhythms typical of Brahms’ music (5:47 -6:31 of track 1). Just before the recapitulation we are provided with a broad almost elegaic version of the opening motto by the solo horn reflecting the oft-spoken autumnal feel of this symphony (7:26 -7:37 of track 1). Following the recapitulation, the music gently subsides to a quiet peaceful conclusion in the coda. We hear at the end of the movement the opening motto followed by the first theme, now combined as if they were one theme.

The second movement begins with another simple folk melody in the clarinet with the orchestra providing an accompaniment (0:01 of track 2 onward). Listen out for how the clarinet and orchestra each hint at the opening Frei Aber Froh motto. Clara described this part of the symphony as a “pure idyll” in a letter to Brahms. The second theme has a greater intensity and melancholy about it, suggesting as always with Brahms, that not all is mere bliss, and it leads to a rather mysterious chromatic passage (2:25 – 3:40 of track 2). The recapitulation follows on from the development so seamlessly that is easy for the likes of me to miss it (4:58 of track 2). In this revised sonata form movement, the first theme is heard again in the recapitulation (as is the chromatic passage) but not the second. This theme will in fact be kept back for later. Once again the movement ends quietly and mysteriously.

It had become common since Beethoven for the third movement of a symphony to be a scherzo, that is a quick and sometimes jocund movement of dance music in 3/4 time. This style of movement did not suit Brahms’ temperament, and after composing works such as the piano quintet in F minor (which has a marvellous scherzo), he favoured movements he termed intermezzi which were generally slower and more contemplative in character. Although this third movement only has as description the tempo marking ‘Poco Allegretto’, it has strong a resemblance to movements from other works termed intermezzi. The opening melody is one of the most beautiful in all of music and should be brought up immediately whenever any swine tries to claim Brahms was not a gifted melodist. A favourite passage of mine is when the solo horn takes up the melody (3:39 of track 3 onward). The horn or Waldhorn was intimately associated in German culture with the forest and therefore with mystery and Romanticism. Throughout, this movement there emanates a supremely autumnal atmosphere. For the third time in this symphony there is a quiet conclusion.

Caspar David Friedrich – the Evening (a typical example of German Romantic Painting)

The finale begins with an opening theme which is heard first in the Phrygian mode before its accompaniment reveals it to be in F minor (0:01 – 0:31 of track 4). This theme leads to a return of the second subject from the second movement but now in the form of a brooding chorale, or hymn-tune (0:32 of track 4 onward). The return of the movement’s opening theme in tumultuous fashion follows which leads to a transition to the second subject heard in the cellos and horns (0:55 – 1:29 of track 4). This second heroic theme in the major acts as a contrast to the rest of the movement’s material which for the most part is dark and intense (1:30 of track 4 onward). Indeed, it is soon followed by a new dramatic theme which returns the movement to its predominantly storm-filled character (1:57 of track 4 onward). The opening theme comes back once again this time quietly in the woodwinds for the start of what forms the development section of this modified sonata form movement (2:54 of track 4 onward). As the opening theme grows quieter, the chorale theme returns in an eruption of sound, which is followed by a recap of the other themes including the heroic second theme and the dramatic third theme (3:59 of track 4 onward). The movement’s coda begins with the opening melody which slowly unwinds and modulates to F major (6:36 of track 4 onward). Throughout, in the mystical quality of its orchestration, this coda reminds me of the Forest Murmurs from Wagner’s Siegfried (6:36 – 9:08 of track 4). The opening Frei-Aber-Froh musical motto is heard several times once again, followed by the chorale theme which has now become broad and majestic. Afterwards, the Frei-Aber-Froh motif is combined with the opening theme from this movement. Finally, the impassioned Rhine theme derived from Schumann returns now far less intense and in a mesmerising fashion with shimmering strings, concluding the symphony pianissimo.


How ultimately are we to make sense of this work? One view is that this is Brahms at his most formally terse and concise. It is the briefest of his symphonies, with each movement being the same length, and each being closely interrelated thematically. Another valid view, is that this is Brahms at his most personal, referencing himself in the opening musical motto and his mentor Robert Schumann in the first movement’s opening theme. Then, there is the fact that each movement ends quietly, which was totally unique for the time. I began this blog with a discussion of the dramatic events which had moulded Brahms’ early manhood and which took place almost thirty years before the composition of the symphony. Those memories must surely have been on his  mind when he wrote this symphony at Wiesbaden, with the Rhine so nearby. One possible speculative interpretation is to view in the final peaceful resolution of this work a kind of personal resolution for Brahms, a putting away of memories that had haunted him since he first left the Rhineland. Whatever the case may be,  the manner with which the finale ends is exceptional and highly moving. Leonard Bernstein spoke of this ending as ‘magically healing’ and a moment of ‘sweet resolution and repose’. Indeed, in the mystical manner with which this symphony concludes I am reminded of these famous lines by Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Written by Nicholas Jenkins 

Here is the recording upon which the timings are based, you are more than welcome to choose your own performance but please note the timings could be very different if you do: 


* Brahms and Clara would, nevertheless, continue a passionate friendship over a long period of regular correspondence.


John Martyn – Solid Air, AOTM May 2020

John Martyn – Solid Air, AOTM May 2020

Once again I have the tremendous honour of contributing to the prestigious ‘Album Of The Month’ category here on Cedric’s blog. You may recall from my post of May last year, I chose to discuss ‘Fives Leaves Left’, Nick Drake’s debut album, which was my ‘gateway drug’ to what can in the broadest sense be defined as ‘pop’ music. If that album was the ‘gateway drug’ then I suppose the one I am about to discuss today represents a slightly stronger intoxicant and a further step for me towards appreciating a wider variety of music. John Martyn was a friend and early supporter of Drake and his music, as well as a fellow recording artist on the Island label. It was through this connection with Drake that I discovered Martyn and his music and came to appreciate this album. So without much further ado, on with the review.

The year Martyn came to record this astonishing album was 1973. Following a period in which he had released successive albums with then wife Beverley Martyn, his last album had been a solo effort. That album, ‘Bless the Weather’, had also marked the beginning of his collaboration with legendary upright bass player Danny Thompson. Thompson would move on to play a pivotal role in the album under discussion today.

“If John Martyn had been the only person I had ever done music with, it would have satisfied all of my musical ambition” – Danny Thompson

High praise indeed from Thompson (who recorded and performed with the likes of Roy Orbison, Pentangle, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, the list goes on…), and it reflects the immensely fruitful musical relationship the two must have had. This close connection can be heard throughout this album, and it was through such a strong, intuitive relationship that some truly inspired music was created. We already glimpse this in the opening title track, where Thompson’s bass is simply sumptuous and fits perfectly with Martyn’s cool, somewhat slurred, but deeply-felt vocals and his percussive acoustic guitar playing.  Notice Thompson’s mesmerising use of glissandi in this song and throughout the album. Also featured on this song are Tristan Fey on vibes and Tony Coe on Saxophone who weaves in and out, providing a jazz-like feel to the track.

Danny Thompson - New Songs, Playlists & Latest News - BBC MusicDanny Thompson

‘Solid Air’ was written by Martyn about his friend Drake and the latter’s struggles with depression, which the song movingly equates with the difficulties of living life through solid air. A particularly touching line occurs midway through the song in which Martyn confesses that:

I love you
And I can be your friend
I can follow you anywhere
Even through solid air

Elsewhere in the album there is some wonderfully poetic use of language. Above all in the opening track from side two, ‘Go Down Easy’, in which Martyn invokes his lover to:

Curl around me
Like a fern in the spring

The manner with which this track opens is superb, first we hear an improvisatory passage from Thompson on the upright bass, followed by Martyn’s guitar and finally his falsetto voice, all drawing the listener in for this hypnotic number. The way Martyn vocalises certain words in the song, for example ‘eeeeasy’, provides for a deeply sensual feel. It is the perfect way to press the reset button musically after we had ended side one with Martyn’s dark and psychedelic cover of Skip James’ ‘The Devil Got My Woman’ (titled on the album ‘I’d Rather Be That Devil’). For that track Martyn makes frequent use of reverb and echoplex. The trippy closing section is fairly astonishing and no doubt even more impactful if one chooses to make use of some of the substances Martyn was particularly fond of.


Some of the best tracks on this album are more warm and folky, such as ‘May You Never’. This became a staple in Martyn’s live performances, and you can hear why, it has to be one of the greatest invocations of friendship ever put to music. The track must have caught the attention of Eric Clapton who later recorded a cover of it in his 1977 album ‘Showhand’. The third track on the album ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ starts off in a similarly simple, low-key mood, before it drops into a groove, and a fender-rhodes joins the instrumentation followed eventually by the use of multi-layered vocals. That track follows on from ‘Over the Hill’ which has unmistakably bluegrass feel to it. The song features Richard Thompson, of Fairport Convention fame, strumming away on mandolin. Apparently ‘the hill’ referred to in the song is the West Hill in Hastings which Martyn had to walk over to get to his home from the station.

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John Martyn

Cedric has improved my appreciation for the importance of track sequencing in albums, and I think Martyn does an exemplary job of this throughout the album. At times there are great contrasts, for example, the choice of following the hard-edged ‘Dreams by the Sea’ with the much softer ‘May You Never’. Other times the tracks seem to follow on from one another with great ease, for example the manner in which ‘The Man in the Station’ carries on from ‘May You Never’. Overall, I think this a superb album, with elements of folk, jazz, and blues combined effortlessly to create a greater whole. I am sure the somewhat rough and ready, down to earth Martyn would probably have thought I was a pretentious tw*t, but regardless I have gained such a lot of enjoyment from this record that it would have been unthinkably crass of me not to have paid tribute to it. I hope you will gain the same pleasure from this superb album as I have done.

Gustav Mahler – Third Symphony in D Minor (What Mahler Tells us)

Gustav Mahler – Third Symphony in D Minor (What Mahler Tells us)

Note: I have made references throughout this blog to timings for certain highlighted moments (e.g 0:03 of track 1) – this is in relation to a recording of the work I will provide a link to below (follow along should you so desire). 

Music has a long-running debate which has seemingly for time immemorial caused division amongst its adherents. Should it be viewed purely and absolutely through the lens of its own intrinsic elements (harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, thematic and motivic development etc.) or is it capable of conveying ideas and narratives outside of itself or in other words to paint pictures in sound? In the 19th century this debate raged on, at times ferociously, as the music of central Europe was divided into two rival camps, one comprising the so-called ‘conservatives’ Johannes Brahms, the critic Eduard Hanslick and their circle who preached the gospel of absolute music; the other being composed of the ‘progressives’ Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt (with his tone poems) who believed music should now be entwined with narrative and influences from other art forms. But what of the much younger Gustav Mahler, who came of age during this era of rival visions?

“A Symphony must be like the world – it must encompass everything”

Or so Mahler is famously reported to have said to the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, during their meeting. This seems like quite a bold claim to say the least, but in essence what Mahler meant by this was he wanted his symphonies to be more than just musical forms with their own internal logic but rather works capable of reflecting ideas, feelings, and even places to such an extent that they could encompass the whole world. So, it would appear at least from this quote that Mahler was not strictly speaking in the absolutist camp. He did of course continue to utilise traditional musical forms (while stretching them to their limit), after all, the piece I will discuss today is a symphony not a tone poem. One thing, though, is undeniable, Mahler appeared to make a conscious effort in all his symphonies to bring in sounds and references that drew listeners outside the realm of the concert hall and into the world at large. As such I will attempt to incorporate these references in my discussion of his 3rd Symphony in D minor. Ultimately, many will dislike  such an analysis that draws from extra-musical themes, but I feel with Mahler it is absolutely necessary to do so.

Wagner: Totalizing master of endless melodies - Essay - Grace ... Standing: Ignaz Brüll, Anton Door, Josef Gänsbacher, Julius Epstein (Brüll's piano teacher), Robert Hausmann. Sitting: Gustav Walter, Eduard Hanslick, Johannes Brahms. Mahler. "A symphony must be like the beard. It must contain ...

Wagner and his father-in-law Liszt                                     Brahms pictured bottom right sat next to Hanslick                          Mahler pictured in 1881 

But first another enlightening anecdote, this time from the memoir of Mahler’s protegee Bruno Walter, describing an incident on the latter’s visit to Steinbach am Attersee where the composer had a villa and composing hut:

“I arrived by steamer on a glorious July day; Mahler was there on the jetty to meet me, and despite my protests, insisted on carrying my bag until he was relieved by a porter. As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: ‘You don’t need to look — I have composed all this already!”

More on the Höllengebirge later, for now it suffices to say that Mahler clearly acknowledged a close connection between the work he was composing at the time of this anecdote (in fact his 3rd symphony) and the landscape around Steinbach am Attersee. To truly grasp this one must really visit the Salzkammergut region and the lake and town in question, but pictures provide a good impression of what might have inspired the music, if still a tame one in comparison to the real thing.

Westansicht des Höllengebirges (Blick von Unterach am Attersee)

In our interpretation of this work, we are aided by the fact that Mahler originally constructed a programme for the symphony. It seems to illustrate a story arc from an initial awakening of nature, through a description of  the many aspects of creation, before concluding with a vision of divine love:

1. Pan Awakens – Summer Marches In
2. What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me
3. What the Beasts of the Forest Tell Me
4. What the Night Tells Me
5. What the Morning Bells Tell Me
6. What Love Tells Me

Movement 1. – Pan Awakens – Summer Marches In

The symphony begins with a statement by 8 horns in unison, a kind of incantation to bring the symphony to life (0:03 – 0:28 of track 1). Then, begins a descent into a slow introduction, which sounds like the first elements of matter groping towards a more substantial existence (1:20 to 5:10 of track 1). Indeed, Mahler described to his confidante Nathalie Bauer-Lechner the ‘eerie’ way in which the music illustrated ‘life gradually’ breaking ‘through, out of soul-less, rigid matter’.  The score indicates this passage should be ‘Schwer und Dumpf’ (heavy and stifling), and throughout motivic fragments played by different instrument groupings struggle to break out into full melodies. In a letter to the soprano Anna Bahr-von-Mildenburg, Mahler entitled the first part of the movement ‘what the stony  mountains tell me’. Perhaps, he was inspired by the stony cliff face of the Höllengebirge that could be viewed from his composing hut when he wrote this turgid, primordial music.

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise: Mahler on the beach

Two of  the themes of this movement seem oddly out of place in a formal 19th century symphony. The first is a jaunty melody, which would have perhaps been more at home in the popular music of Mahler’s time (first heard at 5:28 of track 1). Indeed, it has a surprising but probably coincidental affinity to the ‘Be our Guest’ melody from Walt Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1946). The other is like a march for a military band, no doubt similar to marches that were performed in the town square of Mahler’s hometown of Iglau, Bohemia (first heard at 10:02 of track 1). Both illustrate Mahler’s tendency to absorb music from other areas of life and utilise them in his symphonies. The effect of this is a music which at times is unusually raucous for a symphony, for example in the passage (from 20:04 – 23.24 of track 1) immediately preceding the recapitulation! Overall the movement appears to chart the struggle for life to break free from inanimate matter or to use another metaphor: for the chaotic, Bacchic forces of Summer to overcome those of stupefying winter.

Movement 2. What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me

What do the flowers tell us? They tell us that the world is born again each spring anew in purest simplicity. Flowers represent beauty and life at its most transient and frail, but also its most irresistibly lovable. They are a source of gentle consolation in our lives made tired by work and worry. So, after the gigantic first movement, Mahler now offers us a respite both musically and pictorially. Broadly speaking there are two alternating and contrasting subjects, the first a relatively static and graceful minuet (first heard at 0.02 – 2:16 of track 2), the other comprising a series of frenzied kaleidoscopic episodes which seem to run wild like blossoms blown in the wind (first heard at 2:16 – 3:09 of track 2). This movement reflects Mahler’s superb orchestration and his command of the vast forces at his disposal which he is able to use at times as if they were a chamber ensemble. It is Mahler’s tribute in music to one of the  simplest but most precious forms of life. The composer who spent much of the year hard at work as a conductor coping with the great demands of the concert season must have had a special place in his heart for the alpine blooms that greeted him on his summer composing retreats.

alpine rose, azalea, rhododendron, pink flowers, mountain ...

Movement 3. What the Beasts of the Forest Tell Me

Mahler composed almost exclusively in two forms: the symphony and song. Song is one clear way in which music can take on meanings outside of itself as it is fitted to texts which express concrete ideas and narratives. But one further way is to reference these songs in purely instrumental music. Mahler frequently made use of themes from his songs in his symphonies, as a way to subtlety aid interpretation. In this scherzo movement, simply brimming with playful energy, Mahler makes use of the melody from one of his earlier songs ‘Ablösung im Sommer (see below video). The song is a classic example of Mahlerian irony, the words tell with nursery rhyme innocence of how the cuckoo has died and been replaced by the Nightingale.  The theme of death then is introduced to this symphony almost mockingly. In this way Mahler adds an extra level of grotesqueness to this scherzo which rampages on much like ‘the Beasts of the Forest’ might, without a care in the world for the cuckoo who has died.

The composer’s masterstroke in this movement is to include as a contrasting section the famous ‘Posthorn solo’ (first heard at 6:18 of track 3). The Posthorn was an instrument carried by mail carriers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its sound would have been well known to the symphony’s original audience. Mahler specifically calls for use of the Posthorn, an instrument foreign to the concert hall (most modern performances will utilise either a muted trumpet or a flugelhorn).  The composer calls for the Posthorn to be played off stage and to be heard as if from a distance. The effect is a contemplative passage which emanates wistful nostalgia, and provides a tremendous contrast with the rest of the movement’s hurly-burly. It is possible that the inspiration for this section was Nikolaus Lenau’s poem ‘der Postilion’, which tells of a carriage guide who continually sounds his Posthorn at the gravesite of a departed friend. This, then, is perhaps humanity’s perspective shown for the first time, a species with a unique comprehension of its own mortality. The Posthorn solo twice interrupts the main scherzo material, but the latter section returns each time, before the movement concludes with a startling orchestral eruption (from 16:53 of Track 3 onward). The tension remains unresolved.

Thomas Hampson performing ‘Ablösung im Sommer’

Movement 4. What the Night Tells Me

We have seen so far how this symphony has charted a path in music from inanimate and turgid matter, through to the world of plants and flowers and finally to the beasts of the forests. We had seen the first signs of conscious life with the Posthorn solo in the third movement, which illustrated an awareness of suffering and mortality. It is at this stage that Mahler introduces the human voice for the first time in this symphony. The movement begins with utmost mystery, before the alto soloist delivers a text from Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’:

Mahler had mixed views about Nietzsche to say the least, he later told his wife, Alma, to burn her copies of the philosopher’s books, but at the time of composing this work he appears to have been highly influenced by his writings. In fact he considered giving the symphony a title of the ‘Joyful Science’ (after Nietzsche’s work of the same name). The text used in this movement describes how sorrow is deep, but joy deeper because sorrow seeks only annihilation while joy seeks a deep eternity.  Throughout the movement Mahler has the oboes mimic bird calls which he has marked in one sketch as ‘Der Vogel der Nacht’ (a bird closely associated with the theme of death).

Movement 5. What the Morning Bells Tell Me

From this warning addressed to man at midnight, we now enter the joyful world of angels at the dawning of a new day. The composer sets a song (‘Es Sungen drei Engel’) from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (or the ‘Youth’s Magic Horn’, a collection of folk songs assembled at the beginning of the 19th century which were close to Mahler’s heart) for a children’s and women’s chorus and the alto soloist. The children’s chorus imitate the sounds of bells by singing ‘Bimm Bamm’, while the song’s text is divided between the  women’s chorus and alto soloist. The text describes the importance of faith in gaining forgiveness. It is not clear whether or not this setting of the song is meant to be entirely sincere, but considering Mahler indicates in the score that it should be ‘keck im Ausdruck’ (‘cheeky in expression’) it appears probably not. The composer was, after all, not to convert to Catholicism until a year after he completed this work in 1897 and then only to gain the directorship of the Hofoper in the notoriously anti-Semitic Vienna. This movement, then, forms the perfect light prelude for Mahler’s true spiritual thoughts which are to be expressed not in words at all but rather in music alone.

Movement 6. What Love Tells Me

It is pointless to attempt much of a description of this majestic movement which unfolds over a series of variations in which conflict must play its part, but which nevertheless must end in the most triumphant D Major. Mahler expressed the meaning of this movement in one simple phrase:

“Father, look upon my wounds! / Let no creature be lost!”


Mahler decided to not publish the programme in the end. He concluded that although it had served as a useful scaffolding device for himself, ultimately it should not constrain listener’s interpretation. Bearing that in mind, how should we approach all the detail I have discussed in this blog. I would suggest read it, absorb it, allow it perhaps to form as a useful outline in your mind, but do not let it constrain your interpretation of this music.

Mahler would increasingly move away from programmatic music, he did not design programmes for his later symphonies. That is not to say he ceased to bring musical elements traditionally deemed unsuitable for the concert hall into his music. He always was and would remain a radical. But, unlike, his friend Richard Strauss, he had never completely turned his back on abstract music and the symphony. In fact it was through his redesign of the symphony that the form was brought into a new century. For this reason, along with many others, Mahler must be considered amongst the very greatest composers.

Written by Nick Jenkins 

Here is the recording upon which the timings are based, you are more than welcome to choose your own performance but please note the timings could be very different if you do:

Ludwig Van Beethoven – Eroica Symphony – Over 200 Years Old, But Still New

Ludwig Van Beethoven – Eroica Symphony – Over 200 Years Old, But Still New

Note: I have made references throughout this blog to timings for certain highlighted moments (e.g 0:06 of track 1) – this is in relation to a recording of the work I will link to below (follow along should you so desire)

Beethoven’s Eroica (heroic) Symphony – already the title tells us something, this is a work about heroism. Instrumental music had not really ever been about things in this way before this point. True, there had for a long time been programme music, but never before had a work become so embroiled in the world of ideas, politics and philosophy as this one became from its inception. The “Eroica” of course was not the original title. This was a symphony to be dedicated to a specific hero: Napoleon. It was to be Beethoven’s “Bonaparte Symphony”. Well that was until the former crowned himself emperor, and in response the composer angrily crossed out the dedication on the score. There were other heroes too in the composer’s mind when writing. Consider, for example, that the theme from the final movement is taken from his earlier music for the Ballet: ‘the Creatures of Prometheus’, and that this theme is in fact related to the opening heroic theme of the symphony. Could this then be a Promethean symphony, dedicated to the titan Prometheus who brought fire to mankind? The question to whom this symphony is really dedicated remains to a large extent unanswered, but is a question that I should wish to return to at the end. For now, though, I will focus on the heroic accomplishments of the music.

 Image from the manuscript of the Eroica, with Bonaparte angrily crossed out

The symphony begins with two great thundering chords of E-Flat major (0:06 of track 1), so familiar yet each time sounding so thrillingly new. An introductory staccato statement of chords such as this was not an uncommon device at that time, a kind of call to attention for the listener. In Haydn’s first quartet of his Opus 76 set, for example, he begins with three sharp chords, a kind of wake-up call to his aristocratic patrons that now was the time to stop chatting and start listening. But in this case, it feels different. It sounds more like a call to action. Then there begins a theme in the cellos (0:09 of track 1). It is a theme of utmost simplicity built to large extent from intervals of a third. It is in essence rather like a bugle call, but do not be deceived, this is the heroic theme upon which Beethoven will build an immense structure. The key is significant. From the first chords onward up till this point, we have been firmly in the symphony’s home key of E-Flat major. E-flat major was seen at the time as a noble key, a key associated with the enlightenment and works like Mozart’s Singspiel ‘Die Zauberfloete’. The choice was almost certainly deliberate.

Illustration of the opening heroic theme, taken from a website offering an analysis of the work 

We are not, however, allowed to dwell in this safe home territory for too long, the music moves down through D-natural to rest at C-sharp (0:13 of track 1). A false note, not within the E-flat major scale. In this short passage, then, already we see a microcosm of the whole movement, a movement which will evolve to become a titanic struggle. Although, we are reassuringly brought back to our home key by the strings and woodwind, the message is already clear: this symphony’s beauty will be built from conflict. It is not long before we encounter our second conflict, this time one rhythmical in nature (from around 0:30 to 0:42 of track 1). So far, the movement has kept unambiguously to its 3/4-time signature. This means there has been a natural accent on the first beat (123, 123, 123), but Beethoven now adds accents or sforzandi on alternating beats so that the meter becomes ambiguous (123, 123, 123, 123, and then, 123, 123). The listener will feel the violence in the music from these forceful sforzandi accents that intrude on the flow of the 3/4 meter.

From the start onward, then, the movement is full of struggle. It is also grand in size and scope. Beethoven expands the sonata-allegro form that Haydn and Mozart had utilised to suit his titanic designs, in particular, he enlarges the development section and coda greatly. The development section of the Eroica is extraordinary, it includes a passage of immense intensity in which dissonant chord is followed by even more dissonant chord (7:23 – 7:56 of track 1), and afterwards the composer shockingly introduces a new theme in E-minor (8:06 of track 1). The coda is developmental to a greater extent than ever before heard in a symphony, but also crucially to the drama of the whole work, it refrains from bringing the tension to a final close. That will have to wait until the very last movement (13:05 to the end of track 1).

First movement proportions in comparison to works by Mozart (taken from the same website), Mozart’s last three symphonies = A, Eroica = B

Red: exposition, yellow: development, blue: recapitulation, green: coda

The Second movement is a funeral march, something never before included in a symphony (though there is a funeral march in Beethoven’s piano sonata No. 12 published in 1801). By using a funeral march Beethoven was making a reference to the public ceremonial music of the French Revolution, and thereby associating the work with the radical politics of his day. Significantly, this movement can be used to refute any simplistic interpretation of the work as a programmatic piece about Napoleon, since the French general was still very much alive and on the scene at the time. The limited space I have here compels me to focus on one particular moment of this movement and that is the fugue around the mid-point of the movement (from 5:51 of track 2). This is a moment of such sublime, impassioned beauty that it simply demands to be highlighted. With the third movement the audience is to some extent offered a respite from the intensity of the music, though the musicians are certainly not let off from the challenges of the score. I am thinking particularly of the trio section (the middle part of this movement), in which the first horn must play music towards the high end of its register while the two lower horns must execute a difficult passage towards their lower end (2:35 – 3:57 of track 3).

Painting of the procession at Beethoven’s own funeral in Vienna (1827)

As I briefly mentioned above, the main melody from the last movement is found in the composer’s earlier Ballet music for ‘the Creatures of Prometheus’. This meant that Beethoven probably envisaged this final movement first, though the work of musicologists has shown he composed it last. We do not begin, however, with the tune, but instead after an initial burst from the strings (0:00 of track 4), the orchestra outlines the bass line of this theme (0:12 of track 4). This is a theme and variations movement, in which the melody of the theme is heard for the first time only in the third variation (1:51 of track 4). The theme metamorphoses before our eyes through a variety of guises, at times light-hearted, at times serious and grand, and Beethoven demonstrates profoundly his contrapuntal mastery at several points. Towards the end, we have what is for me a truly glorious moment in which the horns take up an augmented version of the melody (7:47 of track 4). A fog of doubt prepares us brilliantly for the final orchestral eruption leading to a triumphant finish for the movement and the symphony.

An image from a staging of the Ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus”

But a triumph for whom? We are, again, confronted with the same question all these years later, who is the hero to which this heroic symphony is ultimately dedicated. Is it Napoleon, dubbed the World-Spirit on horseback by Hegel, who ultimately disappointed so many liberals in Europe including Beethoven? Or is it Prometheus, the mythical Titan and benefactor to mankind, who appeared to be the archetypal hero for the enlightenment. I myself am more attracted by other interpretations. Wagner suggested it was the artist and Beethoven in particular who was the hero. This man who lost that sense most dear to him: his hearing, but who nonetheless struggled through it all anyway, despite the immense pains of illness, the personal strife, the unending setbacks. Without a doubt Beethoven  seems to be a very suitable choice. But I would go a step further and caste us all in the role of hero. In the end, every life involves struggle, all life includes sacrifice, those that can take it upon themselves to face the challenges of the world and who choose to live and to live life to its fullest extent can consider themselves heroes.

Here is the recording upon which the timings are based, you are more than welcome to choose your own performance but please note the timings could be very different if you do: