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Gustav Mahler was not a very prolific composer (his "day job" was conducting; he composed in his leisure time), his entire output comprising nine symphonies (plus a half-finished tenth), seven song cycles for voice and piano or orchestra, and one and a half movements of a piano quartet, but the music he did write is packed with awesome.


  • Symphony No.1, sometimes nicknamed the Titan, starts out calmly, though a bit unusually. The first movement, filled with bird calls and bugle fanfares, develops into an elaboration of Mahler's existing Lied "Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld". The second is based on a Ländler, the boisterous country ancestor to the waltz, while the third movement combines a minor-key version of the children's song "Frere Jacques" with Jewish klezmer music. Then there is the fourth movement, which follows the quiet ending of the third with a sudden CRASH-SCREECH-BOOM! and doesn't look back. Alternating between frantic and serene, the music finally makes up its mind in a massive brass fanfare (abruptly changing keys in the process) and carries on that way to the ending, with a brief resting interlude for strings along the way. The very ending brings all seven (or eight, or nine) horns into play, along with at least five trumpets and four trombones, and an instruction Mahler wrote in the score for the horns to stand up at a particular point to get out as much sound as possible. Audiences at the premiere were completely baffled by the piece, but thankfully the listener at home can judge for themselves.
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  • Symphony No.2 (Resurrection) was the most popular (along with No.8) in Mahler's lifetime, and remains one of his most popular works today. Mahler believed that a symphony should contain the universe, and the Resurrection is his first significant attempt to answer such philosophical questions as the existence of an afterlife. The vast darkness of the first movement was intended to represent the funeral of the hero who had been celebrated in the previous symphony. It is followednote  by an idyllic slow movement, a sarcastic scherzo movement, and a haunting mezzo-soprano aria, "Urlicht". As is typical of Mahler, each of the early movementsnote  introduces themes which re-appear in the finale to create a sense of musical unity.note  The finale opens with a full orchestral ROAR lifted from the climax of the scherzo, and the music that follows, a depiction of the summons to the Last Judgement and the dead rising from their graves in response, is by turns mysterious and turbulent, with occasional brass calls from offstage. After building to a shrieking re-statement of the opening, as though the world itself is torn apart, the music fades into near silence for a passage titled "Der grosse Appell" ("The great appeal") in which birdcall-like flutes onstage answer the very distant-sounding offstage players. Finally, the choir makes its hushed, heart-stopping entrance with the words "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh'!", set to a melody first hinted at in the opening movement.note  The final 7-8 minutes are where things really take off, with a duet between the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists recalling both "Urlicht" and the first half of the finale building to an ultimately triumphant coda featuring an organ as well as the full orchestra. The organist is literally instructed to "pull out all the stops", and the moment when it plays its first chords, with the full choir belting out "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!", and with the score marked both fortissimo and with Mahler's instruction mit hochster Kraft (with highest power), is one of the most transcendent moments in classical music.
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  • Symphony No.3 is Mahler's longest, having once featured in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world's longest symphony,note  and is six movements full of epic, transcendent music. It continues the philosophical discourse of the previous two symphonies, but now turns to Nature for answers about Man's place in the universe.note  The mammoth first movement sonata allegro starts with a modified version of the finale theme from Symphony No.1 by Johannes Brahmsnote  played by the eight horns in unison to represent Pan's awakening, then turns into a large orchestral march full of ebb and flow that leads to an exuberant final flourish. The graceful second movement minuet provides a much-needed contrast to the previous movement's high drama, although it still finds time for moments of storminess. The wry third movement scherzo is cut from similar cloth to its counterpart from the Resurrection and quotes extensively from his earlier Lied "Ablösung im Sommer" (Relief in Summer),note  before the trio features an off-stage flugelhorn solo that fosters a more contemplative mood. The haunting, sparsely instrumented fourth movement has an alto solo singing a setting of Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra, of which thematic material from the first movement is woven in. The cheerful fifth movement is a setting of "Es sungen drei Engel",note  upon which a children's choir imitating bells and a female chorus join the alto solo to sing about finding redemption and comfort through belief in a higher power. Such a build-up needs something special for a finale, and Mahler delivers with a movement that starts softly with a broad chorale in D major, then builds to a triumphant, full orchestral affirmation of his belief in God as Love, punctuated by Dramatic Timpani.
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  • Relatively speaking, Symphony No.4 is one of his shorter symphonies, clocking in at less than an hour for most performances and recordings. This does not make the music in it any less spellbinding, however. The first movement starts with an extremely jolly, almost Mozart-like intro that uses flutes and sleigh bells prominently and recurs at several critical moments, though the music finds time for fun in the "interruptions" of the main theme's attempts to get going. The second movement scherzo gives us more of Mahler's fondness for the grotesque, featuring a solo violin which has its strings tuned up a whole stepnote  in the role of Freund Hein ("Friend Henry").note  The third movement has a twist on the tried-and-true theme and variation form; while the theme is presented in the first 16 bars, the variations alternate with two extended laments, and only really get going near the end. In contrast to the happy, uplifting first movement, it is stormy and turbulent; a solo oboe plays a striking melody that perfectly encapsulates the movement's forlorn, heartbroken mood, and just as things seem to be settling down, a full orchestral YELL blows us back in our seats before giving way to a coda that remains unresolved to set things up for the finale. Said finale, the soprano aria "Das himmlische Leben", is the culmination of the first four symphonies' philosophical arc; the whole symphony was effectively composed backwards from it, so that melodic ideas introduced in the first three movements are united into a cohesive whole.note  The text presents a sunny version of Heaven from a naive child's point of view, but it also includes a darker edge by making it clear that the heavenly feast being described comes at the expense of many animals.note  But in the beatific final three minutes, the orchestration is pared back and the music modulates from the symphony's nominal home key of G major to the "heavenly key" of E major (and, unusually, remains there) for a declaration that no music on Earth can compare to the music of Heaven, ending the symphony - and the whole tetraology - in a mood of total serenity.
  • The fourth movement Adagietto of Symphony No.5 is Mahler's most famous composition, and is often performed separately from the other movementsnote  - which is a pity, as they're well worth a listen, and the Adagietto sounds even better in its wider context. The symphony's five movements are generally regarded as forming three groups; the first two movements are thematically linked, as are the last two (which are played without a break). The first movement opens with a solo trumpet intoning a rhythmic motive reminiscent of the intro for Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No.5 before turning into a solemn funeral march with occasional violent outburtsts. The second movement, which roughly follows the outline of a sonata allegro, is an emotional whirlwind as the melancholy of the first movement gives way to more impassioned grief, building on material from the funeral march (and with occasional directions to revert to the previous movement's tempo) and rising to an ecstatic climax before fading into the shadows. The third movement scherzo is the symphony's longest, and plays like a collision between a waltz and a Ländler, defying all attempts to pinpoint where a trio section might begin or end, and requiring the utmost technical and intepretive skill to unite its disparate ideas into a coherent whole. The rightly famous fourth movement (scored for strings and harp only) defines Adagietto just as much as the second movement from Beethoven's Symphony No.7 defines Allegretto, its heart-stopping beauty and tranquility conveying a sense of emotions deeply felt yet sparingly expressed. But just as it settles into its blissful final measures, a single French horn sounds to lead us straight into the fifth movement rondo (an unusual movement to close a symphony with), a contrapuntal showcase that uses material from the Adagietto as well as the chorale from the second movement to end on a note of triumph, worlds away from the clouds of the opening funeral march.
  • The brutal Symphony No.6note  is the black sheep of Mahler's symphonies in several senses of the phrase. The dark, almost nihilistic atmosphere that pervades most of the symphony is announced immediately by the thunderous introduction to the marchlike first movement, and encapsulated in the recurring motif of an A major triad fading into A minor over a rhythmic timpani figure; a brighter secondary theme, sometimes known as "Alma's theme" off the composer's widow's claim that it represented her, offers a respite from the tragedy, though the major key coda that re-works this theme is anything but triumphant. The middle movements include a weighty scherzo that re-works material from the first movement in 3/4 time (rather than the original 4/4) and features a more easy-going trio with constantly shifting metre, and an introspective Andante that is more lightly scored than the other movements and provides the closest the symphony has to a moment of calm, though the clouds are never far away.note  Things take a turn for the truly dark in the finale, a vast sonata allegro punctuated by three hammer blows (often achieved by having a percussionist slam a sledgehammer or similar tool into a large block of wood), said by Mahler to represent three "mighty blows of fate" on the symphony's "hero", "the last of which fells him like a tree"; however, the intensely superstitious composer believed that the third hammer blow would signal his own demise, and removed it in later editions of the score, leaving a silence that can be just as soul-chilling as the hammer blows.note  The timpani rhythm from the first movement returns to close the symphony, but now unambiguously in the gloom of A minor, under an anguished SHRIEK from the full orchestra that evaporates before a hushed final pizzicato chord.
  • Symphony No.7 has one of Mahler's most complex tonal schemes and is full to the brim with fantastic music.note  The sonata form first movement starts off slowly with a tenorhorn playing a melody in B minor over a rhythm inspired by rowing on the lake at Maiernigg. After the principal theme shifts the key to E minor, the violins then play the highly chromatic second theme, accompanied by sweeping cello arpeggios. At the heart of the development is a chorale inspired by the introduction with soft trumpet fanfares, believed to represent a religious vision and certainly spellbinding to listeners of any faith; a high C-sharp in the trumpetnote  heralds a tense recapitulation that gives way to an expansive but ultimately radiant coda. The symphony's three inner movements all represent night in some way; two slow movements subtitled "Nachtmusik" frame a sinister scherzo. The first "Nachtmusik" movement evokes images of nature at night; an introduction featuring two horns calling to one another,note  sarcastic imitation birdcalls in the woodwinds, and a quote of the major/minor motif from Symphony No.6 leads into a rondo based on three themes, one pastoral but modally ambiguous, one affable and dancelike, and one much more menacing. True to form, the scherzo sees Mahler at his most sardonic as it shows a less friendly side of nighttime, its hushed introduction giving way to an almost parodic imitation of a Viennese waltz with a more relaxed trio section; the true genius of the movement is its orchestration, as the theme and its accompaniment are passed around the whole orchestra, and at one memorable moment, the cellos and basses are instructed to pluck their strings so hard they strike the fingerboard.note  The second Nachtmusik movement shifts the focus from nature to humanity, with a guitar (making its only appearance in a Mahler symphony) and a mandolin and reduced wind and brass forces creating the atmosphere of a romantic serenade, albeit one punctuated by angular dissonances along the way. As in Symphony No.5, Mahler finishes with a rondo which revels in a celebratory atmosphere to wrap things up in C major.
  • Any live (professional) performance of the mammoth Symphony No.8 (The Symphony of a Thousand) is almost guaranteed to be an awesome experience for both performers and audience, with a score calling for eight vocal soloists (three soprano, two alto, one each tenor, baritone, bass), two full choirs, a children's choir, and a massively augmented orchestra.note  The nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" was intentional hyperbole on the part of music critics, but most performances involve at least five hundred musicians. Though it is in just two movements, the second movement is nearly an hour long and is a full setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust, as various angels discuss what to do with the now deceased title character's soul, and it combines slow movement, scherzo, and finale into a vast epic which answers the musical questions posed by the first movement, a setting of the Latin hymn "Veni, creator spiritus". Particular highlights, especially in a live performance, include the very opening bars of the first movement (where the Resurrection waits until near the end to introduce the organ, the Symphony of a Thousand introduces the organ in the first measure), the full choir bellowing "Accende, accende lumen sensibus!" and the ensuing double fugue, the Pater Ecstaticus' first solo ("Ewiger Wonnebrand") as the second movement finally emerges from the shadows into the light, the Mater Gloriosa's solo (just two lines, but among the most soul-penetratingly beautiful in the symphony)note  granting Gretchen permission to carry Faust's soul to Heaven, and the buildup to the triumphant orchestral coda (based on the opening "Veni, creator spiritus" melody) in the symphony's final minutes, another monumental testament to the belief that Love Redeems. Mahler himself knew he'd written something quite remarkable (it was the first symphony to feature choral passages throughout rather than in just a few movements), and in a letter to conductor Willem Mengelberg, he wrote, "Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving."
  • Calling Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) a symphony remains contentious, but whether it is a symphony, a song cycle, or a hybrid of the two, it is one of Mahler's most powerful orchestral compositions.note  The text is drawn from six poems from Die chinesische Flöte, a collection of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge, with a solo tenor in the odd-numbered movements and a solo alto in the even-numbered movements.note  The tenor gets things going with "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" ("The Drinking Song of Earth's Misery"), its morose atmosphere encapsulated in the recurring lines "Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!"note  and its technical demands exemplified by its high register by tenor standards. The alto gets a more intimately scored, less demanding first outing in "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Lonely One in Autumn"), a lament about the withering of beauty with age. Mahler gives the tenor a bit of a break in the third movement scherzo, "Von der Jugend" ("Of Youth"), which pays tribute to the text's Chinese origin with heavy use of pentatonic melodies. The alto takes over for "Von der Schönheit" ("Of Beauty"), a gentle slow movement with a long instrumental coda depicting Love at First Sight between a young lady picking lotus flowers and a young man on horseback. The tenor gets a second drinking song in the fifth movement, "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunken Man in Spring"), a lively scherzo characterised by constantly changing key signatures. But as ever, it is the final movement, the alto's "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), that contains the majority of the work's emotional weight (and length; it is nearly as long as the first five movements combined), and it is a fine illustration of Mahler's keen judgement when it comes to using music to enhance poetic text. The singer's lute is represented by a mandolin in the orchestra, singing birds are represented by the woodwinds, and as the mood shifts between sombre and hopeful, the mode shifts between minor and major, ultimately settling into an enigmatic yet thoroughly arresting C major sixth chord.note 
  • "Awesome" might not be the ideal word to describe Symphony No.9, as it is the most low-key of Mahler's symphonies - it is the only one to both open and close with slow movements - but the music in it is so beautiful and so radiant that awe is a natural reaction. The first movement begins on hallowed ground as rhythmic and melodic ideas that recur throughout the ensuing sonata allegro are gradually assembled, most notably a syncopated rhythmnote  that thunders forth in the low brass in the middle of the movement, and a falling major second that sounds like a half-finished sentence, only resolving properly at the very end of the movement. The inner movements are both acerbic in character; the second movement scherzo blends a comically exaggerated Ländler with a distorted waltz, both dances Mahler used prolifically in his symphonic scherzi, but now pushed to the boundary of self-parody. The third movement is subtitled "Rondo-Burleske", blending Baroque counterpoint with harsh dissonances to create an atmosphere far more dark than funny, yet never less than fascinating. The finalenote  is the slowest of the four movements and the most sparsely scored, opening with an impassioned cry from the violins that heralds a hymnlike main theme.note  As the movement unfolds, tonality is broken down and re-assembled, a melody from the "Rondo-Burleske" undergoes a startling transformation into a heartfelt elegy, and the violins quote a passage from "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" from Kindertotenlieder, all building (or, perhaps, descending) to the final two pages for strings only, as the music slowly fades away, its final note marked ersterbend ("dying away"). Yet while there is an undeniable sense of solemn valediction, the atmosphere is one not of tragedy but of release, as though Mahler is saying "Though I die, I go to a better place, and I leave you this music to remember me by."note 

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