Heavy, man, heavy…..

A Mahler V query from the mailbag-

Question for your thoughts…8 bars before rehearsal 2 in movement 1 the trombones are marked “schwer.”  However, that figure isn’t marked like any other time in the movement that I see.  The insane stickler for details that he is…is there supposed to be a tangible difference, or do you carry the idea through?  Just curious…

Of all the Mahler symphonies, I think the 5th offers up the most of these little points of inquiry and uncertainty- several of which I’d already planned to write about here.

As it happens, this question (from one of the small army of brilliant young conductors who will be playing in the orchestra for this concert) is one I’d already given some thought to. Had he caught me in the hall on my way to rehearsal and asked, my answer would have been pretty straightforward.

I would have broken the question in to two parts- what does the word “schwer” actually mean in musical terms, and does its appearance in this one spot tell us how this motive should be played throughout the movement?

“Schwer” means “heavy,” which leaves the performer asking whether it is a term of tempo, volume or articulation? This is not the only time Mahler uses the word “schwer-“ most interestingly, he writes it over the entire staff at figure 19 in this movement, but here he only writes it above the trombones. The rhythm at 19 is an augmentation of the dotted rhythm in the trombones at 2 minus 8. That can’t be an accident.

Mahler is quite daring in his willingness to write tempo modifications over isolated sections or solo players throughout the 5th, so we have to guess that whatever “schwer” means to Mahler, ifit applies specifically to the trombones at that moment, or to all appearances of this riff in the trombones, or, indeed, in any section .

However, this is the first occurrence of that motive, which is no accident. Based on this, my intuition tells me that this is Mahler’s instruction for how this motive should be played, not simply how this bar should be played, so I guess my short answer to the question above is that I would carry the “scwher” execution of this idea through the whole movement.

But what is the idea? Does Mahler wish us to interpret “heavy” as “slower?” Given that this dotted rhythm is a continuation of the horn theme of the previous few bars, and connects to brief transitional idea in the horns then the funeral march theme (also the same dotted rhythm)  in the violins, any disruption in the tempo seems out of character with the fact that this is a march.

Likewise, it seems unlikely that “schwer” refers to the dynamic, since at that very moment he specifically instructs the trombones to play “piano.” I suppose if any conductor was going to ask for “piano but louder than piano” it would be Mahler, but he could have written mp if he wanted “piano but louder.”

What about articulation? Mahler has notated this passage without articulation marks- should we assume that by “schwer” or “heavy” he wants us to play a little on the long side? The dotted rhythms in the melody (horns) and bass line (cellos and basses) that immediately precede this moment are written as dotted quarter-eighth, whereas here, he clearly writes quarter- eighth rest- eighth. Surely he wouldn’t have added a rest if he wanted the bones to make a point of holding out their notes as long as possible right after writing without rests in the preceding bars.

So, if Mahler’s not referring to tempo, volume or articulation, what does he mean by “schwer?” One clue may be found in the dotted rhythms heard in the opening bars of the work, or more specifically the double-dotted rhythms in the opening bars of the work. At first glance, the first occurrence of a dotted rhythm in Mahler V is in bar 9 in the solo trumpet, except here, and in bars 15 and 16, Mahler writes a double dotted rhythm (double-dotted quarter-note and a sixteenth). Such a double dotting in a march theme might well have been done as a matter of tradition and habit by Vienese musicians of his day, so it’s entire possible that the trombones would not have realized that the solo trumpeter was looking at a different rhythm than theirs in bar 27. Given this, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Mahler wrote “Schwer” to encourage them to read this rhythm literally, with a nice heavy, punch eighth note at the end of the beat rather than a 16th.

This reading seems borne out by the fact that the melodic dotted rhythm in the trumpet in bar 9 is a diminution of the structural dotted rhythm that opens the work. Mahler specifically asks the trumpet soloist to stylize the rhythm at the opening- playing the triplets at the end of each bar more or less twice as fast as marked. Rather than 3 beats plus a triplet over 1 beat (ie—a dotted rhythm) Mahler asks for 3 ½ beats plus a triplet over half a beat (ie—a double-dotted rhythm). This is a clear augmentation of the main dotted rhythm which follows (it’s more correct to say that the dotted rhythm in bar 9 is a diminution of the rhythmic outline of the opening fanfare).

Remember, then, that when Mahler writes “Schwer” for the whole orchestra (figure 19 in the score), it is again over the augmented form of the dotted rhythm, only here it seems clear that he wants the dotted rhythm rendered quite literally.

So- my short answer would have been that, in this context, “schwer” means a reading of the dotted rhythm that is literal, verging on a slightly-long smaller note value, and that it applied to all occurances of this vamp rhythm throughout the music.

However, since I had the luxury of composing a response for Vftp, I was able to a bit of extra research. I pulled out my recording of Mahler’s piano-roll performance of this very movement to see how exactly GM read this passage.

There’s actually a considerable body of research contending that Mahler, generally speaking, intended dotted rhythms to be double dotted. For instance, at Figure 5 in the first movement, Mahler’s friend and collaborator Wilelm Mengelberg wrote in his score that Mahler intended the dotted rhythms in that passage to be double dotted. Are we not to read his rhythms literally, when he shows in the opening bars of the piece that he is more than capable of writing out a double-dotted rhythm, whether by using the extra dot, or by instructing the player to play the end of the beat later and faster, as he does with the triplets in the opening fanfare?

So- it’s off to Mahler’s piano-roll recording. Here’s what you hear at the fateful moment-


It’s odd, isn’t it. I’m reminded of the many attempts to describe Mahler’s way of walking- 3 normal steps then a fast, nervous hop. Mahler seems to be double dotting the rhythm, but also rushing it a little. It sounds nervous, Vienese, a little awkward (I doubt he would have replicated that hiccup in the tempo had heard a playback under studio conditions), but it’s definitely not literal, nor is it the opposite of the trumpet double-dotting at bar 9. It’s pretty clearly double-dotting with a bit of nervous rushing (possibly a piano-tick).

So does that mean that GM wanted all dotted rhythms double dotted? Let’s go back to that passage that Mengleberg wrote about. It seems that Mahler is, in fact, mixing and matching double dots with normal dotted rhythms-


Note how at the beginning of the theme he’s almost alternating a double-dotted unit with a “literal” unit, but as the phrase goes on, the delineation between the two seems to blur and become less predictable and quantifiable.

The same can be said of his treatment of the “schwer” rhythm. In fact, what’s kind of amazing, and daunting for the poor conductor, is that Mahler varies the execution of dotted rhythms almost continuously throughout the piece.

In old-fashioned performance-practice speak, this is what we call “Fantasie.” This is something that’s relatively easy to attain as a solo performer, but with a huge orchestra and limited rehearsal, did Mahler really expect us to constantly vary the weighting of dotted rhythms? Surely that’s impossible?

As it happens, I checked out the old Vienna Phil (remember, for better or worse, they were Mahler’s orchestra, and the traditions he knew are still there to a large extent- it is the most conservative group on Earth) DVD with Bernstein. Sure enough, although the dotted rhythms are not quite as wildly varied as in Mahler’s piano roll, they do tend to vary between literal and stylized readings of the rhythm throughout.

So, what, besides this blog post, is my answer to my colleagues question?

”Schwer” means “heavy.” “Schwer” means “schwer.” For answers, that’s the best I can do. For an interpreter, a question is more valuable than an answer.  Do we rate Mahler the pianist above Mahler the notator? Should we try to imitate and maintain the performing traditions of his day? Would he still play that rhythm that way today? Did he expect the rhythm to be played so un-literally by a full orchestra, or would he have simplified things to either double-dotted or not? Am I going to ask the bones to double-dot that damn rhythm? It sounds odd to me that way, but I’m an American of a completely different era to Mahler. Does that matter?

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Heavy, man, heavy…..”

  1. Zoltan

    This kind of post is one of the reasons I read VftP!

    Cheers Ken!

  2. Reid

    Ken, I’m about a third of the way through a Donald Mitchell essay on Mahler V in The Mahler Companion (Oxford) and it is one of the most turgid things I’ve tried to slog through in a while. WHY NOT string two eighty-word sentences back to back when sixty words would probably cover everything (twice)?

    I’ll stick to VFTP even if I can’t get away from my books.

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