Mahler Thus Far: Part II

In our last Mahler symphony post not all that long ago, we discussed the composer’s smallest and extremely gorgeous fourth symphony.

The happy couple…?

That piece of the puzzle represented the filling in of a big hole in our coverage here of the Mahler symphonies, uniting the previously discussed 1-3 with the earlier written 5 and 6. In preparation for the writing of the fourth I did a small recap here of the first three Wunderhorn symphonies, as the fourth marked the end of that era for the composer.
Well, now, this week, we’ll be marking the end of the composer’s middle period, and it’s time for part two of Mahler Thus Far.
The first symphony I wrote about of Mahler’s was his fifth, almost reluctantly. A huge flaw in my analysis of some of these earlier pieces was that in lieu of listening to it and really understanding the big-picture idea, in writing about it, I would spit out the individual happenings and explain them as if they were unrelated, with no real understand of the whys and wherefores of the piece, and this is something that plagued my discussion of the fifth.
A confession and an apology. I’m sorry, Mahler 5.
After that, we jumped to his earlier symphonies. The writing of the fifth was prompted by my chance to hear it live and the misconception I had somewhere along the way that it was the most famous or well-known of Mahler’s symphonies.
In any case, it was somewhere close to a year later, that the time came to write about the sixth. Those are the other two big players in the composer’s ‘middle period,’ depending on who you ask, but for now, you’re asking me, and that’s how I think about it. Apparently some people group the
seventh in with the composer’s late period, but we’ll talk about all that on Thursday.
For now, we’re going to do a brief recap of the fifth and sixth symphonies, but not really a recap, because you could just go read the articles again, which you should do, and then share them with everyone you know. And they will love them.
This period in Mahler’s life is marked by what should be wildly joyous happy things in his life: a degree of career success and stability, a marriage (quick and stormy though it was), and the birth of his two daughters. The fifth, however, begins with a funeral march. It has its pastoral, bucolic moments in the middle movement, and the famous adagietto, a love song to his wife.
The sixth, though, written not long after, is an extremely heavy and intense piece, and also perhaps the most traditional of Mahler’s symphonic output. While none of the actual tragedies of Mahler’s later life had actually taken place yet, there seems to be reference to them in the Tragische symphony, a title which Mahler apparently neither approved of nor coined (and if he did, he never used it officially anywhere  to refer to the piece in any published form). The first movement is a strong, almost militaristic march, the inner movements comprised of a triple-meter take on the first movement for a harrowing scherzo and a quiet, stunningly rich and beautiful slow movement (the order of these two inner movements is disputed) before a long, dramatic, very intense sonata-like fourth movement with the infamous hammer blows of fate.
The sixth is Mahler’s most traditional: a four-movement piece with a sonata-form first movement including the repeat of the exposition, a slow movement and a scherzo, and a finale. No fifth (or sixth) movement, no chorus, no soprano, but a tightly-composed, very traditional symphony, which is a statement in itself.
So those are five and six.
There are a few things to notice about the symphonies of the middle period (the final of which, the seventh, we shall talk about on Thursday):

  • They are wholly symphonic, no vocal parts like in the second or third (choruses and soloists) or fourth (soprano in fourth movement)
  • There are no references to or uses of any folk melodies or themes. In Mahler’s first four symphonies, he relied heavily on themes from songs he wrote early in his career, hence the Wunderhorn moniker, but for these three, his longest stretch of purely symphonic works, there are also no traditional song references. It’s absolute music.
The seventh, like the third, is in five movements, but with an entirely different structure. We won’t talk about that piece until Thursday’s post, but those are the basic ideas that unify the piece.
Perhaps the most significant thing that people seem to remember or go back to is the idea of tragedy in Mahler’s life, which, technically, we haven’t even gotten to yet: the death of his child, his illness, and his wife Alma leaving him. None of this had yet occurred in the days in which Mahler originally wrote these three pieces, but it has raised questions about the artist and and artistic premonitions or feelings about impending doom. I don’t know about all that, but it might be that lots of people associate the tragedy that punctuated Mahler’s life with this period (especially the sixth), when, in fact, it was all to come later.
These three symphonies, with some other works like Rückert-Lieder and the frighteningly-named Kindertotenlieder, as well as the two final Wunderhorn settings, so maybe he hadn’t moved away from his love of the voice and the Wunderhorn as much as compartmentalized it outside the symphony.
In any case, that’s kind of what’s happening in Mahler’s world as we move toward the latest of his works we’ve talked about so far and wrap up the symphonic output of his middle period.
See you then.

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