16 January 2011

Mahler's Hammer

With a hat tip to Elaine Fine at Musical Assumptions, I found an interesting article by Gene De Lisa on the topic of the hammer blows in Mahler's Sixth Symphony. I love the Sixth Symphony (though the Second is my favorite) and never realized there was a big controversy about the finale--namely, should there be two hammer blows or three? Or . . . five?

Image of Gustav Mahler, from the Baltimore Sun

I suppose the issue would strike many as pedantic and academic, but Gene De Lisa condenses the tale into a few amusing and fascinating paragraphs. (At least, it was fascinating to me.)

I've been drawn to Mahler's music for as long as I remember. His symphonies are enormous--explosions of colors on impossibly large canvases. His songs are intimate, personal. He was the great opera conductor who never wrote an opera himself, yet there is something operatic about much of his work. His life was at a crossroads: By virtue of his music, he was at the threshold between the romantic and the modern; by virtue of his wife (Alma), he was at the intersection of music, art, and architecture (Klimt, Kokoschka, Gropius). This "hammer blow" vignette gives one a glimpse of Mahler's dedication to his craft, his feverish creativity, and unfortunately, the superstitions that haunted him. (Among those superstitions was the dread of composing a Ninth Symphony for fear of dying after completing it, as had happened to Beethoven and Bruckner before him. As it turned out, Mahler died after his Ninth after all, though some sketches of symphonic material were posthumously completed and called the "Tenth Symphony.")

Anyway, if the story doesn't grip you, there is an assortment of hammer blow videos at the end of the post that might! I've added another one below.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this and bringing attention to Mahler's symphonies.

I've been seriously exploring classical music for about a year or two, and only in the last few months have I come to grasp and enjoy symphonies, and found a few specific ones I like: Dvorak's "New World Symphony" (Ninth Symphony), and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.

I've only had the chance to hear a relatively little bit of Mahler's Second Symphony (chose to check out this one first) so far--it's about an hour and a half long; I need to carve out a nice chunk of recreational time to listen to the whole thing--but can already see the rich drama in it.

At times it has a heart-pounding, luscious, somewhat terrifying yet magnificent and heroic sound to it--and even when it's at a slow, build-up point, there's a lurking sense of grand conflict, esthetically speaking, as if something big, difficult, and glorious is about to happen, sort of the wonderful, heightened calm before the storm.

Of the few I've checked out, I like this performance by UC Davis:


Stephen Bourque said...

Jason, I love your description--"heart-pounding, luscious, somewhat terrifying yet magnificent and heroic." And it's interesting that you make the same observation that I do sometimes when I am describing a piece like this to my wife: I feel like something important is going to happen ("big, difficult, and glorious").

The Second Symphony is very long, and it is hard to find time to listen through from start to finish, but it is worth it. I am a complete junkie for the final movement--in particular, from the point in which the chorus comes in (measure 472, "Langsam. Misterioso."). It is incredibly, staggeringly lovely how the soprano solo emerges expressivo from the soft ppp of the chorus (measure 532); how the alto/tenor/bass explode from the "calm before the storm," as you put it (measure 621, "Was vergangen auferstehen!"); and above all, how the music swells from measure 672, with the basses, altos, and tenors layering individual voices, culminating in three richly complex chords ("zu Gott, zu Gott, zu Gott . . .") and a triumphant finish. I've made the point before on one of my friend's blogs that the final measures remind me of Dominique's ascent up the skyscraper at the end of The Fountainhead, complete with bells! ("She rose above the spires of churches. Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.")

Anyway, the point I was going to make is that impatiently skipping ahead to the fifth movement is never as entirely satisfying as it is when I listen to the whole thing. The first four movements are a sort of foreplay--if you'll pardon the comparison--that seems to be required for the full effect.

Anonymous said...

I listened to the whole Second Symphony. Absolutely magnificent. The pacing is one of the best aspects--it's seamless. There are so many delicate, rich, subtle, precisely stressed layers, but just as importantly, throughout the piece there's an unbroken base, or arc, that keeps the central tone intact.

Gene De Lisa said...

I'm glad you enjoyed my little Mahler story.

Just a note to other commenters: yes, Mahler's works are long, but when you've listened to the whole thing you come away feeling you experienced something of value. I can't say that for most movies of the same length.