Please note I have inserted timings for moments in the symphony that I have discussed in the blog. These timings relate to the recording linked at the bottom of the page if you should wish to listen along while reading.
Around eight years ago, during one idle summer, I stumbled across a youtube video with a recording of Leonard Bernstein performing Mahler’s 1st symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. I was immediately drawn by the symphony’s unusual nickname “the Titan”. Titanic symphonies of almost an hour length were a passion of mine at the time and so I was keen to give it a try. I sat stunned as the mysterious introduction unfolded, just as I had been when hearing the openings of Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Bruckner’s 3rd. But this was different, while in Beethoven’s 9th the first D minor theme proper had quickly emerged from the mist with a tutti outburst (as was the case more or less with Bruckner’s 3rd albeit with a good deal less haste), the introduction of this symphony seemed to remain in a kind of musical stasis for much longer. When eventually the first theme did surface I was faintly horrified. It seemed to me to be a tune of such absurd banality that I was stunned. How could this Mahler follow something so sublime with a theme like that?! I turned the video off immediately. Over the years I have learnt to appreciate and indeed love this contrast of the sublime and banal that is so typical of Mahler’s music, but it has been a long process. Let us take a closer look and see if we can re-evaluate things from the beginning.
What are the special ingredients of this hushed opening that so attracted me on that occasion. The first element is an A natural drone spanning several octaves (the same note played very quietly, moving up by an octave in a glissando), about as close as one can get to a kind of musical quietude (0:05 to 0:11 of track 1). This drone is soon joined by the second element, an interval of a descending fourth played in a call and response type fashion by the woodwinds, and a little later forming a short motif based on this descending interval (0:11 to 0:34 of track 1). This is then joined by a fanfare motif first played by the clarinets (0:35 – 0:43 of track 1), then eventually by muted trumpets (Mahler calls for the latter to be played in the distance as if they are heard far away) (1:07 – 1:14 of track 1). The clarinet imitates the call of a cuckoo but with a slight twist, unlike in nature the interval is here once again a descending fourth (1.28 of track 1). We now have a beautiful chorale theme in the horns that sounds full of innocence like the new morn (1.33 – 1.49 of track 1). From the musical void we are beginning to hear stirrings of life. A chromatic bass-line brings the first signs of any real tension to the music urging it towards a new direction (2:21 of track 1). Soon the “banal” theme emerges, but listen closely to how it starts with that same interval of a descending fourth that has been so prominent thus far in the music (3:02 of track 1). The theme has been prepared all along.
The question we may well ask is what does this strange and quiet introduction signify? Mahler gives us a clue in the score, he marks this section “Naturlaut” (sound of nature). In other words the music is conveying the hushed sounds of nature at its most tranquil, the impression one gets when alone in a wood perhaps. And what about the meaning of the main theme? Here, we also have some indication from Mahler. The melody is derived from the song “Ging Heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (which describes the happy sensations upon observing the natural world) from Mahler’s song-cycle “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”). This theme seems to represent nature, or a view of nature, at its most joyously innocent. The contrast was necessary: Mahler wanted to represent both views of the natural world, the sublime and the naïve. With all the musical elements in place Mahler now draws both from the introduction’s motifs and the mono-thematic exposition to construct a movement in unconventional sonata form. Close attention should be paid to the role the descending bass-line motif plays in injecting drama and tension into the movement, and the role of the fanfare motif in overcoming that tension.
The second movement begins with a Ländler, the country cousin of the Viennese Waltz, beloved throughout the Habsburg lands including in Mahler’s own native Bohemia. This rustic music has a surprisingly raucous atmosphere for the concert hall. Mahler would certainly have heard music like this as a boy in his father’s tavern in Iglau (modern day Jihlava). The horns are required to use a technique called “stopped horn” whereby the player blocks the bell of the instrument with their hand creating a veritably gnarly and uncouth sound. The central trio section is more elegant and intimate in tone and provides a respite from the stomping jollity of the peasant dance in the outer sections (2:50 – 5:36 of track 2). One more contrast in this symphony of contrasts.
If I had been patient enough to listen past the opening movement on that first occasion, there is no doubt I would have been shocked further still by the third movement, one of Mahler’s most unique creations. It begins with an eery funeral march which employs the tune of the popular round “Frère Jacques” refashioned in the minor mode (Mahler marks it “Bruder Martin” in the score). Here, then is a yet more bizarre contrast, nursery music used to create a solemn funeral march. The strangeness is intensified by the choice to introduce the melody with a solo double bass – an unusual instrument to say the least for a solo (0:10 of track 3). Later, the music gets weirder, sounding to many audiences like a Kletzmer band (2:27 of track 3). It seems unlikely that Mahler was actually channelling Kletzmer here as he had almost certainly not heard such music at this point in his life and this part of the movement probably owes much more to the Bohemian folk music he would have heard as a child. One thing is for certain though, this sped-up almost grotesque folk music provides for a very odd juxtaposition to the solemnness of the opening march.
Mahler explained that the movement had been partially inspired by a famous engraving known as “the Huntsman’s Funeral” by Mortiz von Schwind. The engraving depicts a torchlit funeral procession of forest animals carrying the body of their deceased enemy the hunter. The beasts appear to celebrate his demise with an unrestrained whimsy that gives the engraving a sharply ironic air. It is that same juxtaposition of earthy revelry and themes of death and loss that permeates the main music of the third movement. A lyrical contrasting section is set against this morbid humour (5:20 – 7:19 of track 3). It is based on music from the fourth stanza of another of Mahler’s songs “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”: “Die Zwei Bluen Augen”. The text of the song describes how the protagonist and spurned lover has set out into the wide world and eventually found comfort asleep under a Linden tree. As with Schubert’s “der Lindenbaum”, we sense that there is a longing for the consolations that might come through death and an end to earthly miseries.
“The Huntsman’s Funeral” by Moritz von Schwind
The final movement is the dramatic linchpin of the whole symphony. Mahler gave the movement the title “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso” (“from the Inferno to Paradise”) and it appears to represent a battle between these two oppositional forces for one man’s soul. The movement begins abruptly with a cymbal clash followed by an orchestral outburst that Mahler described as the “outcry of a deeply wounded heart”. There ensues are short introduction with several motifs taken from Liszt’s Dante symphony, for example the motif first heard at (0:09 of track 4) is based on Liszt’s crux fidelis motif (used in the Dante symphony and elsewhere by Liszt), though Mahler has modified the intervals so that it conforms to the minor key. Another motif taken from Liszt’s Dante symphony follows based on chromatically descending triplets (0:11 of track 4). Out of this infernal introduction arrives a terrifying march-like main theme, its first four notes taken from the minor-version crux fidelis motif (1:06 of track 4).
Mahler at the time of writing his First Symphony
This first theme is developed, hogging the stage like a rude bully, before finally culminating in swelling sounds in the brass and sneers based on the descending triplets (2:41 – 3:16 of track 4). A transition section follows that leads into a surprisingly beautiful song-like second theme that in turn builds to a sumptuous outpouring of emotion (3:17 – 5:48 of track 4). Does this theme perhaps represent the divine love that must necessarily save us from our ruin? Whatever the case may be we are not allowed to rest too soon, the exposition closes with music from the first movement’s introduction now combined with the minor-version crux fidelis motif and the descending triplets motif heralding a return to the stormy beginnings of the finale (5:49 of track 4).
The development begins dramatically with a combination of the minor-version crux fidelis motif and another inferno theme from Liszt’s Dante symphony (6:13 of track 4). Yet out of the maelstrom emerges hope, with fanfares reminiscent of the first movement returning followed by the crux fidelis motif now in the major mode with its original intervals restored and combined with an adapted version of the grail theme from Wagner’s Parsifal (6:58 – 7:14 of track 4). The trumpets attempt to mount a chorale-like theme which is interrupted by a return to the minor key and the tumult of the beginning (7:15 – 7:25 of track 4). The theme of victory first heard at (7:01 of track 4), however, soon emerges again but now fortissimo and what is more it leads to a surprising and spine-tingling modulation to D major (the key by which Mahler is to represent paradise) (8:25 – 8:39 of track 4). The chorale-theme returns resplendently (8:40 of track 4), its source of inspiration being the theme first heard at (0:25 of track 1) at the very start of the symphony based on descending fourths. From 8:51 of track 4 try singing “and he shall reign for ever and ever” to the melody and you might find yourself also believing Haendel’s Hallelujah chorus had some influence here too.
Motifs from the first movement now return at the conclusion of the development like memories of a past innocence fast receding but not forgotten (9:46 of track 4). They are heard, however, alongside motifs from the finale such as the devilish descending triplets motif. From memories of youth, we return to the song-like second theme which mounts to a beautiful though almost heart-breaking climax (11:33 – 13:14 of track 4). The dreaded march-like theme comes back and seems at first in danger of gaining momentum but it soon dissolves preparing a recall of the climatic passage which came near the conclusion of the first movement (13:15 – 15:15 of track 4). Fanfares herald the return of the motif of victory, a modulation to D-major and the finally the chorale-theme that leads us on triumphantly to a glorious conclusion (15:16).
And so a symphony of contrasts, of both sublime and naïve elements, the beautiful and the grotesque, ends with the greatest contrast of them all: that between heaven and hell, with heaven victorious at the last.
Hello and welcome to this month’s edition of my favourite album covers. Regrettably my new role at work is rather demanding so I am unable to listen to as much music as I might have done previously. However, I have three excellent covers for you below.
Phillipe Herreweghe – Fauré Requiem (2007)
I did think this cover looked familiar to me. The reason being that I have seen this beautiful sculpture of Saint Cecilia by Stefano Maderno in the church itself, while I lived in Rome. This cover is simple but effective. One comment I read in the Amazon reviews of the CD of this album (Charlotte had the inspired idea to gift me the vinyl for my Birthday, which I listened to on the day of writing this post) described it quite well. It read “I felt like the sculpture in the cover when the album was over”!. An inspired piece of music, and an exquisite cover.
Bruce Hornsby ‘Flicted (2022)
Originally a member of the Grateful Dead (don’t you know), Bruce Hornsby’s 2022 offering was sighted on a new joint playlist my father and I made on Spotify. In the playlist I was struck by a rather amusing cover, with Hornsby standing by a house in the shape of a cafetiere. And, as an additional boon, this is the most recent album to feature in this list.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Brian Eno and David Byrne (1981)
This album threw itself at me with shocking force. The Rothko-esque cover is alarmingly colourful. I love the gradual waves of colour and the nothingness of it, which indeed mirrors the album in a way, which is a landmark in its own right.
As David Byrne describes in his liner notes, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts placed its bets on serendipity: “It is assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to ‘express.’,” he writes. “I find that more often, on the contrary, it is the music and the lyric that trigger the emotion within me rather than the other way around.”
I shall see you again for the June edition of (?) Favourties!
Charlotte and I were delighted to find Mahler 1 was playing at Symphony Hall last month. We went to see it and were spellbound from start to finish. Each of the movements are so distinctive from one another. The last time I wrote a classical AOTM was my favourite recording of the Bach violin concertos, which took some hours of research. Alas I do not have such a luxury at my disposal so I shall write about this symphony briefly.
Mahler’s first four symphonies are often classed as his “Wunderhorn” group owing to thematic and emotional links with settings of songs from the anthology of German folk poems “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“Youth’s Magic Horn”). Strictly speaking, the First Symphony doesn’t fulfil this criterion for inclusion as a “Wunderhorn” symphony as its thematic and emotional links are with Mahler’s first song cycle, “Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), of which both words and music were written by him under the influence of first love and rejection. But it’s a useful classification because the Wayfarer songs and the First Symphony do inhabit the same thought and sound world of symphonies 2,3, and 4. Musicweb
The first movement starts with a glorious a seven-octave-spread A, played “as quietly and ethereally as possible by the strings, a shimmer of sonority that sounds out the whole compass of the orchestra” according to the Guardian. Mahler first conducted this in 1889 in Budapest. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the audience. Mahler wrote in 1893 that the first movement represented the waking of Nature after a long winter.
The second movement is a lot of fun, with a dance-like motion evolving into crescendoing (yes that is a word) dynamic and tempo and then back to a waltz.
The third movement is based on the tune of Frère Jaques. It starts off slowly but picks up beautifully over the course of ten minutes. Mahler described this movement as a satiric cartoon of “The Hunter’s Funeral” turned into musical life, a vision of a hunter’s coffin drawn by animals.
…with a slow movement that incorporates street bands, klezmer inflections, and the tune known as “Frère Jacques”, and whose final movement will rail against the cosmos with symphonic music’s most terrifying expressionist outburst, and which, at the end of its drama, will find a sheer musical joy that’s both a transcendence of the bodily and the spiritual, in the most uninhibited, tumultuous noise the orchestra had yet made. Guardian.
The fourth movement is described by the composer as “Dall’inferno” or, ‘from Hell’. The opening is breathless and breathtaking. It continues throughout on the theme of ‘a great cry from a wounded heart’, which the conductor has ascribed to it. This recording is taut, without any hint of over expression or exaggeration. The middle section is deceptively calm and calming after the outburst from the beginning, but one does not rest easy for long, with the final minutes erupting in devastating fashion.
…the achingly moving slow music at the centre of the finale that balances the terrifying cry into the abyss the movement opens with, the way Mahler paces the final climax, storming the orchestral heavens with an apotheosis of D major. Guardian
By 1896, Mahler referred to Symphony No.1 as simply “Symphony in D Major”, so as not to limit its potential meaning. Whichever nomenclature we choose, this piece is an absolutely staggering all encompassing experience. It still captures, in this recording, the freshness and excitement it has in 1889. Mahler 1 holds an eternal quality, standing on the musical shoulders of Bruckner and Beethoven, morphing these two main influences into something large and frightening. It shocked Charlotte and I to our core, leaving us both stunned and speechless for many minutes afterwards, as we drifted on a cloud down Broad Street in the dark.
Hello and good greeting. I have decided to downsize my five favourite feature to three favourites on account of increasing time commitments not enabling me to listen to as many albums as I should like. Here are three which stuck out to me this month.
J. J. Cale – Naturally (1974)
This is by all accounts an excellent cover. A racoon in a nice red coat with a top hat and tails is quaint and delightful.
Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
An iconic cover by anyone’s rating system. Michael, leaning backwards, looking aloof in a dazzling white suit. The tiger is a bit off putting with our modern easily horrified glasses and clutched pearls on. However, reading an excellent article about this cover, I found out that the photographer, Dick Zimmerman, lent Michael his suit for the shoot after not liking the options available in the wardrobe department. An amazing cover which captured a unique moment in music history.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (1978)
Finally, feast your eyes upon the exquisite cover of Jeff Wayne’s 1978 masterpiece. Charlotte and I listened to this album on a 178km stretch of highway in France, heading to Calais. This was a particular highlight of the trip for me. I was so glad to be able to share this album with my darling. The cover shows the Thunderchild’s valiant heart being melted by one of the Martian tripods, a dramatic moment in the album.
I shall see you again for the March edition of X Favourites.
This album, as many of the preceding albums of this, Matt Johnson’s terrific band, have blown me away. You might even say they have detonated a mind bomb. Father has remonstrated me for failing to mention that Matt Johnson was a member of Marc and the Mambas, the group Marc Almond formed after Soft Cell. So there you have it. Dusk is an evocative, dark, and self reflecting album which shines a light on some tough injustices in the world through the prism of Johnson himself. Johnny Marr, from the Smiths, plays guitar on this album.
It ends a great trilogy of records (including 1986’s Infected and 1989’s Mind Bomb) that showed The The mastermind Matt Johnson perfecting his personal musical vision while accumulating the right musicians to pull the whole thing off. Of those three, Infected (like far too many ’80s albums) sounds the most dated. The beat-driven dissonance of Mind Bomb fares better, but for the most part, Dusk sounds like it could have been released today. Pop Matters
The first track, True Happiness This Way Lies, is oddly Christian in its reflection. It starts with a pseudo stand up comedy routine, followed by agonised vocals and culminates in Johnson postulating that the only way to be happy in life is free yourself from desires. This is what the Church teaches in many ways. Chastity being one way in which we can remove an aspect of our pre-marital lives which blinds us to other qualities of our potential partner, for example. But more on that in a later post, or perhaps not.
The following tracks, in particular the third, fourth and sixth (Dogs of Lust, This Is the Night and Helpline Operator) tell stories of the seedy underbelly of London but also individual within the city. The subject matter is their illicit desires and exposing them for what they are, and in a way seeking to cure the listener of the very same desires. Love is Stronger than Death is one of the album’s triumphs. Singing with painful emotion, Johnson describes how the beauty of love can transcend even the dread of mortality. Again this is a Christian sentiment. The idea that one can love beyond death has been explored innumerable times, for example in this wonderful poem by Elisabeth Browning.
Undoubtedly ‘Dusk’ can be marked down as a retreat in terms of some of Johnson’s usual ambitions; compared to its predecessors the lyrics aren’t nearly as political and the arrangements are generally less elaborate, though this is counterbalanced by the new artistic opportunities the fresh format affords. The traditional instrumentation allows for greater light and shade, the production feels warmer and Johnson lets the intimacy shine through in his vocals. The lyrics here are less interested in the politics of states and nations instead choosing to focus on the politics of individuals within society, uncovering the hidden drives and desires that manipulate us all. The album title ‘Dusk’ could quite easily have been replaced with ‘Lust’ for this is a work practically dripping with illicit passions and sexual loathing. Sputnik
The penultimate song Bluer Than Midnight frightened me somewhat. The final words of the track intimating that Johnson is more stimulated by fear than love were rather harrowing. As though by antidote, the last track, Lonely Planet, is about accepting one’s lot and ends with “the world’s too big, and life’s too short, to be alone”.
A wonderful, fulsome and devastating album which is likely The The’s best work.
Welcome to the March 2022 edition of Five Favourites. See below my choices for this month
Black and White – The Stranglers (1978)
The four members of the Stranglers are looking quite morose on this cover. You will be glad to know that the B side of Tank, when it was released on vinyl, has the original singer, Dionne Warwick, on it. This is the same with the vinyl itself. I love this cover and so too does Mr Nick, who remarked on it when I showed him the vinyl.
London Calling – The Clash (1979)
British photographer Penny Smith took this iconic photograph. You can see an excellent article on the cover here. I was fascinated to read that she does not like the photograph of the lead singer, Paul Simonon, smashing his good bass guitar, as it is out of focus. This was the case, because she was backing away from him so as not to get hit!
The The – Soul Mining (1983)
This was album of the month last month and with good reason. The cover feels very much like how you will feel when listening to it. It speaks to the shocking soul searching of the lead singer, whom my father reliably informs me was in Marc and the Mambas. It is a difficult album and indeed a dark one. The cover speaks volumes.
Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads (1984)
The Big Suit. Need I say more? This cover contains one of the more iconic jackets in music history. I believe the suit is either in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or some fashion museum. This album is out of this world but the cover is pretty awesome too.
Night Flight to Venus – Boney M (1978)
For my last cover I have chosen the excellent Night Flight to Venus. Imagine four be-tutued Germans coming at you, at speed, while holding on to a rope. Is there anything more horrifying? Yes: their other album covers.