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