Getting down to work on M5

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m spending a lot of time with Mahler 5 these days- I’m doing it on the March1 OES concert, which will be the finale of our Redneck Mahler adventure, and then again in the summer at Harlech.

Happily, I’ve managed to keep a fairly steady stream of Mahler symphonies in my calendar of late, which hopefully means my approach to studying his music is constantly evolving.

Like most great music, his gets more challenging as one gets older, but Mahler is an especially severe example because of his way of using notation. Mahler, possibly the greatest conductor who ever lived, did not have a huge confidence in future conductors to know how to handle his music. He often said that his music would take generations to master (he said it would take conductors 60 years to learn how to handle the 3rd movement of the Fifth Symphony, for instance).

It’s not simply a question of Mahler’s skepticism about the skill level of his colleagues in the conducting profession- his close associates Strauss, Walter, Klemperer and Mengleberg all had his deep respect. He also knew that the newness of his musical language would demand a new gestural language from conductors, and a whole new range of orchestral techniques from players.

Had Mahler lived in the age of recording, one imagines he would have been among the first to embrace technology as a way of instructing future generations in the finer points of performing his music. Just imagine the luxury of a DVD “Mahler rehearses Mahler…”

Fortunately or sadly (both, really), Mahler didn’t manage to record or film and of his performances of his own music (other than the piano rolls). Instead, he fundamentally changed the function of musical notation. (I’ve also written about this here and here).

For Beethoven, Haydn or Schubert, the score of a symphony was a pretty accurate representation of what they wanted to hear. For Mahler, the score was a detailed set of instructions to the performers, which, if followed, should create the realization of what he wanted to hear.

The funny upshot of this is that this means Mahler’s scores are, on one level, incredibly easy to learn. You don’t have to think about phrasing- he shows you where the phrase is going. You don’t have to think about balance- he’s done all the work for you. You don’t even have to think about rubato- every tempo nuance imaginable is there for you, as well as countless cautionary instructions. Mahler must say “no” more often than any other composer- don’t rush, don’t drag, only the tiniest bit more, don’t over do it, don’t under do it….

Of course, the ease with which one can develop a performance of a Mahler symphony by simply reading his map belies the fact that this is not only complex music, but sophisticated music as well. Sophisticated music deserves a sophisticated performance, and simply following instructions isn’t particularly sophisticated.

Of all the criticisms leveled at Mahler over the years, the most consistent has been that his music is somehow “too complex,” (too complex for what, I might ask), and that that complexity hides a lack of internal depth of structure and meaning. This perception is, of course, bullshit (forgive me), but I think it is rooted in two things- a general suspicion among some listeners of complexity of all sorts, and, perhaps more specifically, a tendency of performers to be seduced by the ease of simply executing Mahler’s instructions, rather than taking the time to understand why they’re there.

Wouldn’t it be cool to learn a Mahler symphony from a score that looks like a Beethoven symphony- uniform vertical dynamics, a near-absence of tempo modifications, and a complete lack of specific performance instructions like bowings? Could one start with such a text and develop a performance realization from that skeleton that is more or less the same as what Mahler actually gives us? It seems like one should at least try to recreate the process to the extent that you start to understand why those markings are there.

Of course, Mahler was constantly engaged in that very process himself. The Fifth Symphony was the most revised and tweaked of all his works, and the vast majority of those revisions had to do with balance and texture, but others had more to do with clarifying the musical intent.

I’ve worked on Mahler 5 before, so I’m lucky enough to have a pretty good sense of technically what I need to do to get through it. This time around, I’m trying to study it without looking for any immediate clarification of the “how’s,” but only of the “why’s.” I’m actually consciously trying to avoid wanting to make the leap from “oh this idea comes from here, so therefore, the tempo should be _____” to stopping for now at “this idea comes from here,” and leave the decision making for later.

To that end, I’m suffering through a lot more work at the piano. I’m not the worst pianist in the world, only the slowest. However, that slowness seems to be a benefit. I’m finding that as my fingers hunt for the last note in the chord which I can already hear in my head, I start to recognize some little aspect of the voice leading that I might have skimmed over in silent study. Again, I’m not worried about what implications that little insight might have, I just want to make a note of it and move on.

There are also books to read, people to talk to, questions to ask and then all the practical issues to finally sort. Bye…

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Getting down to work on M5”

  1. Robert Berger

    A wag once stated that the only written instruction you don’t find in the score of a Mahler symphony is “No Smoking “.

  2. Bruce

    I feel ya Ken. Since this is a TOTALLY brand new experience for me (learning this massive work on cello and baton), I am working overtime on piano to make sure I know what it all means…basically decoding it all. While my piano chops are are wonderful for high school choir warm ups/chorales and elementary/middle school “umm-chunk-chunk” orchestral accompaniments, I have found that doesn’t work for Mahler so well.


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