Archive for mahler

Scordatura: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Scordatura (simply retuning of the strings from their conventional pitches) is not a technique exclusive to modern music; it dates back to the 16th century, when it was employed by French lutenists, then taken up for the violin by many composers, most notable of whom was Biber. After falling out of fashion in the 18th century (though employed for the viola part in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 for violin and viola), many 19th century violin treatises mention it (including that of Baillot from 1834), and it was a speciality of Paganini, and after him de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, and others. Also employed in Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The technique is also common in much non-classical music, especially amongst folk fiddlers in various places. It’s questionable how meaningful the term is when alternative tunings can themselves become standard (as apparently an a-e-a-e tuning is in parts of Scotland and North America).

It is also impossible to play Nick Drake’s songs on the guitar because nobody knows how he tuned the instrument for different songs.

The Biber Rosary Sonatas are surely the classic examples where each sonata is tuned differently. On the only occasion when I heard them performed live the violinist (Elizabeth Wallfisch) had three different violins, each of which was immediately tuned for its own next sonata once it had been played, laid down, and then retuned again when its turn came round. It’s actually a bit of a palaver which detracts a bit from the whole performance because so much time is spent tuning the instruments.

Some Italian words that used to begin “dis” now begin with just “s”. So scordatura probably used to be discordatura.

Anton Webern

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

This piece was composed in 1908.

When I started to listen to the music of Anton Webern 35 years ago the most modern music I could stand was Tippett’s piano concerto, a very tonal work.

I resolved to unplug my conditioned expectations about cadences and resolution of discords, and simply listen as carefully as I could to one sound after another. And click! It suddenly fell into focus. This was the Fünf Sätze für Streichquartett, Op. 5. I never had any trouble listening to Webern after that.

Webern believed that his music was as natural as the flowers in the field and that is, I am sure, how he would have liked people to listen …

10 things to know about Webern

In the 12 years between 1908 and 1920, he moved house 27 times.

He wrote nearly thirty pieces before the Passacaglia, his official Op. 1.

He wrote the shortest piece in the world, ever: Op. 11 No. 2, for cello and piano, which lasts less than 30 seconds.

His great passion in life other than music was mountain climbing.

He loved nature and was a keen gardener.

Though his music sounds very modern, he regarded it as a continuation of the Viennese romantic tradition from Schubert to Mahler.

He was a fine conductor, and worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on many occasions in the 1930s.

He taught music at the Jewish Cultural Institute for the Blind in Vienna.

He was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in 1945 by a chef in the American army, after he had stepped outside to smoke half a cigar obtained on the black market.

Posthumously, he was possibly the most influential composer of his generation, heralded as the new Messiah by composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen.

The influence of Mahler on Lennon & McCartney

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Seen in a recent review of a Mahler complete edition on EMI:

Mahler’s influences on subsequent generations have been extensive and wide – Zemlinsky, Schönberg, Berg and Webern in Austria, Shostakovich in Russia, Britten in Britain and Copland in America are just a few to acknowledge their debt. He also spread beyond the limits of classical music with Paul McCartney writing, “I have always adored Mahler, and Mahler was a major influence on the music of the Beatles. John and me used to sit and do the Kindertotenlieder and Wunderhorn for hours, we’d take turns singing and playing the piano. We thought Mahler was great.”

Mahler’s songs often have a folk-like simplicity which is actually very moving with hints of nostalgia, lost love, absence and grief. Some of the Beatles’ songs, especially the slow numbers, explore these emotional effects musically. They are less inclined to use folk song: rather paraphrases of the popular ballads of the interwar years, although sometimes a very Russian-sounding folk song will pop up. Their songs wander in and out of keys and often have more than three chords. They were on a higher level than most of their contemporaries, except the Beach Boys.

What we can never be sure of is the level of influence that Sir George Martin had in his arrangements and the musicians that he recommended they studied. After all, he was working with them one week and Barbirolli or Boult the next.

There is also the infamous article that William Mann wrote pointing out similarities between the pandiatonic discords that end Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and begin A Hard Day’s Night. Perhaps this encouraged the two to play (or attempt to play) Mahler’s songs.

Lennon never mentioned this, but then he didn’t mention Martin’s attempts to get him to listen to Ravel. (I forget the exact words, but Lennon is reported to have said something along the lines of “Nice tunes, but they go on too long”).


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Has anyone got any old scratchy vintage recordings which they love to death?

I have Alma Rosé. She was the niece of Gustav Mahler, at the time director of the Vienna Opera, and the daughter of Arnold Rosé, concertmaster of the Opera Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. She was detained in Auschwitz and died there, but organised the orchestra.

The disc also has Vasa Prihoda and recordings of Arnold Rosé from 1900. It’s heart-breaking stuff.

I know that many 78s end up in skips, but I’m not crying, there’s plenty of 78s at the record fairs for the few collectors that there are nowadays. If we saved all 78s then there would be nowhere to keep them and they would really be worth nothing. For every hundred 78s in a skip there will be one or two rare ones.

I still buy and listen to vinyl LPs and 45s, I am not a “collector” as such, i.e. I don’t pay exorbitant prices for recordings that are available on CD.

I buy from charity shops and car boot sales and give unwanted or finished with stuff back to the shops. Some of the sound on the early 60s vinyl is unsurpassed, especially Decca, EMI and Mercury, although of course playing them too much is a problem.

The finest sound I have come across is on the first pressings of Decca classical recordings of the late 50s and early 60s, a combination of excellent reproduction and great engineering.

I always end up with many records that are no use to even the charity shops (although they would take them to be polite), “Des O’Connor’s greatest hits”, “Christmas with Andy Williams” type of thing. They usually end up on a skip.

Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Another clip from Sir Simon Rattle’s farewell concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1998.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is performed by the Hallé Orchestra under Markus Stenz this Thursday at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, part of the complete cycle marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.


Modern composers on Gustav Mahler
Tom Service explores the passions that powered Mahler’s music

Classical Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory

Urlicht by Gustav Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on November 10, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

This was Sir Simon Rattle’s farewell concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he led for 18 years. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, of course. I wish I’d been there.

Classical Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory

Igor Stravinsky conducts L’oiseau de feu

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

Here are some of Stravinsky’s thoughts on other composers, taken from Robert Craft’s less than reliable book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

I remember seeing Mahler in St. Petersburg. His concert there was a triumph. Rimsky was still alive, I believe, but he wouldn’t have attended because a work by Tchaikovsky was on the programme (I think it was Manfred, the dullest piece imaginable). Mahler also played some Wagner fragments and a symphony of his own. Mahler impressed me greatly, himself and his conducting.

Rachmaninov’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl. He was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.

Ravel? When I think of him, for example in relation to Satie, he appears quite ordinary. His musical judgement was quite acute, however, and I would say that he was the only musician who immediately understood Le Sacre du Printemps.

Satie was certainly the oddest person I have ever known, but the most rare and consistently witty person, too. No one ever saw him wash – he had a horror of soap. He was always very poor, poor by conviction, I think. His apartment did not have a bed but only a hammock. In winter Satie would fill bottles with hot water and put them flat in a row underneath his hammock. It looked like some strange kind of marimba.

We – and I mean the generation who are now saying “Webern and me” – must remember only Schoenberg’s perfect works, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Herzgewächse, Pierrot, the Serenade, the Variations for orchestra and the Seraphita song from Op. 22. By these works Schoenberg is among the great composers. They constitute the true tradition.

If I were able to penetrate the barrier of style (Berg’s radically alien emotional climate) I suspect he would appear to me as the most gifted constructor in form of the composers of this century. His legacy contains very little on which to build, however. He is at the end of a development.

I would like to admit all Strauss operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today. I am glad that young musicians today have come to appreciate the lyric gift in the songs of the composer Strauss despised, and is more significant in our music than he is: Gustav Mahler.

Classical Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory

Schumann’s Scoring

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 19, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Maybe if Robert Schumann’s symphonies were to be played on “period” instruments, Mahler might not have found it necessary to rescore them. Or maybe Schumann’s scoring is so bad they need work done on them anyway.

Mahler’s rescoring of the Schumann symphonies in order to make them more transparent had become necessary because of the development of the size of the orchestras as well as that of some of the instruments.

As becomes now clear with the use of period instruments and orchestral sizes, Schumann did not orchestrate his works so badly at all. Some of the now rather greasy sounding doublings, especially in the winds, do sound transparent on “period” instruments.

The opening of the Symphony No. 1 played on valve horns at the original pitch, i.e. a third lower than normally heard (as natural ones cannot cope with this, the original scoring), makes a real difference. The horns which define so much of the festive character of the Symphony No. 3 sound really exciting, and the clarinets in both the original as the revised versions of Symphony No. 4 do colour the piece – as a more protruding solo violin does as well.

So, Schumann’s orchestration sounds “fatty” more because of being played on instruments for which it basically wasn’t meant, than because of Schumann’s supposed lack of experience/knowledge of orchestration.

But it depends which of Schumann’s orchestral works: there is a marked difference in the orchestration of those from after 1850 (including the Third Symphony and the 1851 version of the Fourth), with much more doubling of string parts in the wind, and cellos and basses generally playing together most of the time, than in those works from the 1840s. It was at this point that Schumann moved to Düsseldorf and took charge of the orchestra there, which was somewhat smaller than the Leipzig Gewandhaus which had earlier been his basic model (the Düsseldorf orchestra seems to have had about 50 players, at least in 1852, though these were occasionally augmented for big festivals; the Leipzig orchestra had 60). Also the string players were of a markedly lower standard, as attested by Wilhelm von Wasielewski; Schumann brought him over from Leipzig to be leader of the Düsseldorf orchestra. My interpretation is that Schumann’s late orchestration is pragmatic, designed to get the best results out of the forces he had available on a regular basis at that time. With that in mind, when using larger and better orchestra, I do believe there may be a case for considering Mahler’s modifications, or those of Felix Weingartner. However, it should also be borne in mind that Schumann advocated, in a letter to Franz Brendel in 1847, a section of a Universal German Society of Musicians for “the protection of classical music against modern adaptations”, and to research “corrupted passages in classical works”, about which he had published an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Classical Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory


Anton Bruckner: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on June 5, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Thinking of Bruckner reminds me of the time when I started to listen to music. At that time (the 1970s), he and Mahler were lumped together as rather esoteric, “difficult” modern Austrian composers of extremely intellectual music. I even recall that the two of them shared a single Master Musicians volume.

Of course, Mahler was only Austrian insofar as his place of birth, in Bohemia, nestled comfortably under the Habsburg jackboot at that time, but nobody cared much anyway as his gargantuan symphonies were the province of a few eccentrics who liked that kind of thing – and I remember that at that time the only available recording of his Symphony No. 3 was a mono one on the cheap Delta label, conducted by Charles Adler, and there was not much choice of recordings of the others. As for Bruckner’s symphonies, one mostly had little choice other than horrendously bowdlerized versions (e.g., Knappertsbusch’s dismal recording of No. 5).

Things changed dramatically though, with Mahler symphony cycles by Walter, Solti and Bernstein, and Bruckner recordings by Jochum (the early Deutsche Grammophon cycle), Klemperer and Karl Böhm. Now both of these composers are cult figures and their entire symphonic output is copiously recorded. Their works figure regularly in concerts too, though some of the Bruckner symphonies are still too rarely performed.

With that in mind, something has perplexed me for years.

The entry of Mahler into the pantheon of great composers during the past 50 years or so has been accompanied by a plethora of literature about every aspect of his life. Apart from Wagner, he is probably the most written about composer. Every detail has been rigorously exposed and analysed: his relationship with Alma, his neurotic personality, his work as a conductor, his compositions and his views on just about everything, culminating in the Mount Everest of Mahler studies, Henri-Louis de la Grange’s masterly yet anal compendium.

In contrast, Bruckner has elicited virtually nothing in the way of definitive studies. He was just as fascinating a character as Mahler, though he was also Mahler’s antithesis. He was fundamentally something of a simpleton in every area of his life except his music. (Recent efforts to contradict this are unconvincing as there is a weight of evidence to support it.) He had an unshakeable religious faith and was extremely modest, sensitive and so much lacking in self-confidence that he allowed well-meaning editors tamper with his music. He suffered at least one breakdown as a result of the critics’ mauling of his music – and he had a morbid fascination with corpses and numbers. He was not, by all accounts, well-read or well-versed in art, philosophy, politics or science. Of course, as a composer he was a genius; his influence persisted throughout the last century and even into the present one.

With all this in mind, why is it that books devoted exclusively to Bruckner are so rare? I cannot find a single substantial volume devoted to a thorough examination of his life, though there are one or two good books about his symphonies. I think that it would be wonderful to have a searching biography of Bruckner.

Robert Simpson, as I recall, discouraged thoughts about the man and wanted people to concentrate solely on the music. I think this was because in those days there were all too many people who thought Bruckner a country bumpkin, and didn’t want to admit that he was a great composer.

But when dealing with such individual music as his, I think it’s impossible to understand it fully unless we understand the man. Ernest Ansermet used to say this about Debussy, and I think it’s as true of Bruckner as it is of Elgar and Mahler.

It’s the perception of Bruckner as a reclusive holy fool that might be the problem. I’m not aware that Bruckner was particularly reclusive or even holy, and he was obviously certainly no fool. There are plenty of accounts of him enjoying good food and plenty of drink with friends and musicians and apparently he was an accomplished dancer. He was adored by many of his pupils which suggests he had a pretty youthful attitude to life. That he was eccentric in his some of his behaviour and dress is without doubt, especially his constant and hopeless chasing of young girls with a view to marriage, well into his old age. As a country boy, Bruckner was steeped in the traditions of the church which provided the initial openings for his musical development, and, apart from his regular praying which would not be that unusual in the provincial Austria of the day, if he was that holy he would surely have become a monk.

Nevertheless, I feel it is indeed the religious thing that probably prevents a more objective study of Bruckner’s life. That Mahler’s life would be more interesting to a modern secular audience is without question, so the comparative dearth of books on Bruckner’s is hardly surprising really.


Mahler’s Symphony No. 7

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I have always been puzzled by the negative comments on the finale of Mahler 7. Perhaps it is the obvious Meistersinger quote or bits that are alleged to sound like the Merry Widow that rub people up the wrong way. More likely to me is the fact that in the wrong hands it can seem episodic. It all needs to go with tremendous gusto. Bernstein in his Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft recording and Solti on Decca come across in this way. Abbado and Haitink (his 1985 Christmas Day CD) have the measure of the work. Best performance live I’ve ever heard was Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Barbican a year or two back.

However, I don’t think there is much doubt that the finale works on a much lower level of inspiration than the preceding movements. It’s all relative, of course. Second-rate Mahler is still better than many composers at their best.

Deryck Cooke famously referred to it as “Kapellmeistermusik”, i.e. Mahler knew how to orchestrate and how to round off a large symphonic work, but the desertion of his muse is evident. It’s as if he has struck on a good tune and decides to milk it for all that it is worth, with a ländler or two thrown in for good measure and a fairly arbitrary everything-including-the-kitchen-sink finale. It was a very real creative crisis for Mahler, and was only lifted when the Eighth began to take shape.

The German title of the work, hardly used in Britain, is “Song of the Night”, and the construction of the symphony implies going from daylight into the night – a nightmare – dawn – followed by bright sunshine.

Although some of the passages of the finale look rather vulgar, the thematic interconnections with the opening movements are all there. It’s difficult to realize as it must be exuberant without becoming vulgar, and must be part of the overall “day-night-day” scheme.

It is not the very best music Mahler ever wrote, but it is not a bad piece of music (many a minor composer would be over the moon with such a work).

By the way, George Szell was not a fan of this movement describing it as “hypertrophic”.

%d bloggers like this: