Sibelius and Mahler

Being a one himself, Mahler knew better than to trust conductors to know his intentions. Sibelius, on the other hand, famously said that if a performer needed to ask too many questions, they probably shouldn’t play his music.

Think for a moment of Mahler’s “versions” or “orchestrations” of the Beethoven and Schumann symphonies. Mahler did not make these because he thought that Beethoven or Schumann couldn’t orchestrate, far from it. He made these versions to make explicit what he thought any conductor should see as implicit in the originals. As he made them for his own usage, one can see them as conducting lessons or projects for himself- i.e., given the concert hall, players, instruments and so on of his time, how does one realize this music as lucidly as possible? Where do you ask players to release, and when do you ask them to sustain? When everyone is marked forte, how loud do the accompanying voices really play relative to the melody? Where might you reduce or eliminate doublings for the sake of clarity? Being a radical by nature, his solutions are often daring, but they are always aimed at making clear the intent of the composer by making musical textures more transparent and lucid, and isn’t that the true job of any conductor?

In his own music, it sometimes seems as if Mahler has tried to make his scores conductor-proof. He doesn’t trust a conductor to ask players to release a chord to a softer sustaining dynamic to allow the melody to come through, so he marks fp. He doesn’t trust the conductor even with understanding the basic form and shape of the piece- every transition and arrival is somehow clarified, underlined and pointed out, through tempo changes, instrumental changes, modulations and so on. He knows what you shouldn’t do- “nicht schleppen!” and what you should do- “drängend!

Read by a sympathetic conductor, however, Mahler’s myriad instructions cease to be seen as marching orders, and instead, come across as the most lovingly thought out conducting lesson imaginable. In fact, in spite of his complexity and scope, I find his scores the easiest to study. It is as if he’s given you his score to look at, full of little notes- “please Ken, could you be sure not to drag here,” “be careful with the balance- though the violins are forte, the cellos and basses should only be piano so we can here the solo bassoon entrance,” “let this chord die away in the brass,” or “this is the climax, Ken. That is why I’ve brought 8 extra brass players on stage.”

If you just show half of what he puts in his scores with your hands, you’re already on your way to being a much better conductor, and if you take that approach back to Beethoven, you’ll be much better there as well. Forget Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven- study a Mahler symphony for a month, then go through any work of Beethoven’s and ask yourself what Mahler, your old conducting teacher, would have asked you to show here, or here or here.

If analysis is not your strong point, he walks you through his works- “Look, Ken, second theme. Take your time in the transition, but then not to slowly, and in two, not four, please.” He shows you the foundation and the outline of the piece as a whole, and at the same time reveals the minute details as clearly as possible. His scores are not simply the piece; they are an instruction manual for how to perform the piece. If you have bad habits or limitations (rushing, dragging, over-conducting), he’s already thought of those, and included a little primer on how to correct them right there on the page.

Sibelius, on the other hand, writes only the piece, no instruction manual provided, and in doing so, forces you to analyze his music. He writes the music as he wants it to sound, while Mahler writes it as you should perform it- two radically different approaches to notation. As a result, I would say that it is virtually impossible to conduct a convincing performance of a Sibelius symphony unless you have carefully analyzed every bar (not that I would ever condone conducting a Mahler symphony you hadn’t analyzed. It just seems that Mahler understood that people would perform his music who didn’t fully understand it).  Where Mahler holds up a sign post saying “new theme here!” Sibelius simply keeps moving. There is no new theme, only a further evolution of the old one; there are no formal landmarks, because his material is in a constant state of evolution and development. As a result, the only way to learn his music is to understand it, and to understand it is to understand the amazing ways in which he develops his ideas over time. He forces you to think about the art of composition, about form, about key, about expectation, because he is so clearly rethinking the very notion of symphonic form.

Next time, an analysis of Sibelius 5 in hopes of better understanding how a composer like Sibelius works with musical ideas, and how he extracts possibilities from simple ideas that no other composer could.


c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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9 comments on “Sibelius and Mahler”

  1. Steve Hicken

    Thanks, Ken. This issue is something I struggle withh all of the time from the other side of the score.

    How many markings are enough? How many are too much? How much verbiage is needed? At what point do the markings constrain the performer and and what point do the lack of markings do the same?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Good question, Steve.

    Certainly, there are composers who have provided a completely overwhelming density of expressive markings, often combined with needlessly intense rhythmic and pitch notation, to the point that no performer could really do justice to them all. I know one very wonderful composer, Gordon Downie, who seems to intentionally overwhelm the performer with information, because the very struggle to absorb and process all that information becomes a constructive aspect of the musical experience.

    However, more often than not, I find myself, and most of my performer colleagues, frustrated that the composer has not been specific enough in telling us the articulations, phrasings and colors that they want, or have depended too much on subjective descriptions (“with a hopeful outlook”) instead of explicit instructions (“faster”).

    In fact, when teaching or conducting very densely notated music (Mahler, Schoenberg, Bloch, Rachmaninov), I find that the more you focus on the minute details, the more individual the performance becomes. If I have three conducting students all do the Mahler Adagietto and make each of them show every single expressive nuance of the score, their performances will become more and more different from each other, not more similar.

    So, sometimes, markings are really food for thought, to help the performer get closer to their own realization of the music, rather than putting them in some musical straight jacket.

    Last thought, though, coming back to Sibelius vs. Mahler- know what your score is. Is it what you want us to hear or what you want us to do? If we know which approach you’ve taken, and you stick to it throughout the piece, we can cope.

    Cheers, and thanks again for writing

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  4. Maurice Peress

    I thought I was the only one who uses Mahler’s scores as music making manuals for myself and my students. But remember his ideas are most appropriate for the repertoire he wrestled with. MP Bravo insights.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Maurice

    What a pleasure to hear from you- it’s always great when a colleague weighs in here. Thanks for the note and all best wishes for a very successful 2008.

    Warmest regards


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