Another note, another blog post

As a follow-up to my post on the volume level of the last note of the first movement of Mahler 5, I wanted to come back to the obvious parallel with the last note of the 2nd movement. The note in question is a single eighth-note a-natural on the timpani, marked “solo,” “well-tuned,” accent (>) and sforzando (sf). There is no dynamic over this note– the last dynamic in the timpani is 2 before 33, just before the beginning of the last section (about a minute of music back), which is pp.

This note is obviously intended as a link with the pizzicato at the end of the first movement- it almost is a pizzicato, after all. Mahler precedes it with two pizzicato notes in the cellos and basses and it is the conclusion of the same thematic cell as the two notes that precede it.

Kubik tells us that this note had a similar evolution of notation to that of the last note of the first movement-

“In the course of time the dynamic indication became louder and louder: in Aut, StV and EA-Stp without exception pp, Mahler already altered it to p plus accent in W-Stp; in W-Dp he added “nicht zu schwach” {“not too weak”}; St1 has p plus accent, added here in the hand of a player; in St2 sf is finally found in the handwriting of a copyist. — Mahler appears to have had the idea of a delicately effected stroke, which must nevertheless be well audible and which therefore from the point of view of playing technique must not be executed too gently.”

St2 is the set of parts revised by Mahler while in New York in 1910-1

Again, he has first changed pp to p, added a >, then eventually removed any indication of a soft dynamic, and instead simply marked sf and >.

However, while performers have been aware of the sf at the end of the first movement for many years, few will have seen this one. The Dover (old-Peters) has the original pp, the Ratz p and >. This publishing history would explain why you and I have never heard a parallel to the 1st mvt pizz thwack with a THWACK on the timps. The sf in the 2nd mvt only came into the published parts and score in 2004. If the 1st mvt thwack is played louder than Mahler wanted it (which I’m not sure we know), it’s because people have misinterpreted his sf, but there’s been no sf in the 2nd before, so one usually has the opposite problem.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply not heard that note at all- sometimes the poor timpanist tries to play so softly, she or he misses the drum altogether. Other times, it’s just too anonymous to project.

Wouldn’t it be funny if the publication of this new edition ends up inverting the tradition of 1st mvt thwack, 2nd mvt inaudible into 1st mvt inaudible, 2nd mvt THWACK? Imagine telling a veteran timpanist that the note he’s been missing the drum trying to play pp for 30 years should really be like a gunshot! “I’ve been playing this piece for 30 years, and no conductor has ever suggested something so absurd….”

Anyway, It seems even more absurd to average a post-per-note in writing about Mahler symphonies, since there are LOTS of notes. Still, what is one to conclude from this new information in Kubik? It seems reasonable to infer that, since we now know that both movements with sforzandos, perhaps they should be similar in volume? However, the 2nd movement ends sf and >, while the 1st ends only sf. That bit of text seems to argue for the 2nd movement being louder, something one might never have heard or considered even as a possibility.

And, of course, there is one more difference- ‘gut stimmen’ or “well tuned” in the 2nd movement. Surely Mahler wants everyone to play “gut stimmen” all the time?

Remember Mengelberg’s marking of “dof” or “dull” for the first movement?

In fact, the pizz at the end of the 1st mvt is another sort of mirror to the timp note at the end of the 2nd. In the 2nd mvt, the timpani is completing a thought begun in the strings. In the 1st, the strings are completely an idea begun in the percussion- the bass drum roll that precedes it, which is itself a completion or continuation of the timp rolls a few bars earlier. This is interesting- Mahler goes from a pitched percussion instrument (timps) to a non-pitched one (bass drum), to a pizzicato, all in the same frequency range. If “dof” has any validity, perhaps it is to say that Mahler wants this pizz heard as a percussive event more than a tonal one- Mahler’s own playing of this passage on the piano roll sounds like this. He plays the note so softly and dryly that one almost can’t hear the pitch.

On the other hand, “gut stimmen” seems to be telling the timpanist not only to tune his damn drum, but that that pitch has special significance? Does it?

In fact, it does. The Fifth has an interesting key structure- it begins in C # minor, the 2nd mvt is in A minor, Scherzo in D major, Adagietto in F major and Finale in D major. Symphonies usually begin and end in the same key, but this “progressive tonality” is the most quintessentially Mahlerian device you can imagine. Where Beethoven might have expressed transformation by beginning a symphony in, say, a minor key and ending in the major (like his 5th and 9th symphonies), Mahler express a similar transformation by beginning in minor and ending in the major, but up a step- sort of a heightened version of what Beethoven did with mode.

Anyway, in a symphony that is no so much “in C# minor” as “from C # minor and to D major” the A minor of this 2nd movement plays a special roll. In particular, the a-natural which ends the 2nd movement can be read as the dominant of the D major which opens the Scherzo.

Likewise, the a-natural which ends the Adagietto in the first violins is the third of the F major chord which ends that movement. When the Finale begins (the two movements are to be played without pause), it is again an a-natural. That “gut stimmen” seems to be Mahler’s way of warning us that the note in question has a special structural function- you could even see at as the pivot point of the entire symphony. A-natural in that moment goes from being the tonic of stormy A minor (the key of Mahler’s “Tragic” 6th, a work in similar mood to the 2nd movement of the 5th) to being the dominant of hopeful, radiant D major, but then away again. In the Adagietto it takes us into F major. It seems that all of the other keys in this symphony have symbolic meaning, and can be tied to references in other canonic works. Finding out why the Adagietto is in F major (the key of Beethoven’s first and last quartets as well as the Pastoral- I’m at a bit of a loss to think of a similarly magical utterance in F major in any other piece) might well be the key to understanding the whole symphony. In any case, it is again the a-natural which is the pivot that takes us finally and definitively into D major- the key of the Finale of Beethoven 9, Haydn’s last symphony, Figaro, Brahms 2, Mahler 1…..

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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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