Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 2, a moment

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester


My wife and I call Mahler 2 “the Mahler symphony of “this is the best moment in the piece” moments.”

From the bracing opening to the shattering climax of the first movement, from the infinitely elegant pizzicato return of the theme of the 2nd movement to the bizarre and jarring opening of the 3rd, from the serene beauty of Urlicht, the astounding song that makes up the fourth movement, to the portentious and awe inspiring first pages of the Finale, it is  a piece that again and again has you saying “I love this bit- this is the best moment in the piece.”

I want to talk about one of those moments today: perhaps one that on first glance is not as obvious as those above, but one that, once you become aware of it, changes your whole sense of the shape of the piece.

To talk about this spot, I need to speak for a moment about keys.

Discussions of keys are one of those things that many listeners find to be a little too technical. They often say “I don’t have perfect pitch, I can’t tell C minor from D minor, so what does it matter to me what key something is in? I just want to enjoy the music and not be reminded of what I don’t understand or can’t hear.”

Well, have no fear- this is not going to be an ear training test.

After all, tuning pitches have always varied and have changed a great deal over the year. A listener with perfect pitch who grew up in Bach’s Leipzig would not recognize Bach’s C minor and Mahler’s as being the same key- Mahler’s was higher.

Unless you have synesthesia (meaning you see specific colours for each pitch, chord and key you hear), or perfect pitch, the frequencies of each key are not all that important. What is important, and can help us get more out of the music emotionally are the relationships between keys and the meaning and history of each key.

A lot of the frustration and confusion surrounding discussions of  keys comes from the clumsy way in which we are taught them when we are young- we learn each key as a collection of sharps or flats, or as scale fingerings on our instrument. We are taught that D minor has one flat, C minor has 3. Describing D minor as a key with one flat doesn’t get us very far toward enhancing one’s listening experience. A far more useful description comes from the movie Spinal Tap, when the rather addled guitarist Nigel Tufnel calls D minor “the saddest of all keys. People weep instantly when they hear it…”

So, don’t think about keys as scales, key signatures, fingerings or frequencies. Think about keys as moods, as histories, as contexts, as universes. A key is a space in which things happen.

The 2nd movement of Mahler 2 is in A flat major, but because it occurs in a symphony in C minor it means something different than it would if the whole symphony was in A flat, or D major or any other key. When we see “Symphony in C minor” on the cover page, we can take a moment to remember that for Mahler, C minor is the key of Beethoven 5, of the Great Mass of Mozart, of the end of the St Matthew Passion of Bach, of Brahms’ First Symphony and Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata. What this key means will forever be in some way changed by Mahler’s engagement with it. When Shostakovich wrote his 8th Symphony in the key of C minor, it carried all the associations that Mahler had in mind, but also had become the key of Mahler 2 and Bruckner 8.

Mahler was always conscious of his engagement with the musical tradition, and would have been keenly aware that when one said “Symphony in C minor,” in 1888, two pieces would have come to mind- Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’ First. Both of these works, and the then-brand new 8th of Bruckner are really symphonies from C minor to C major. They begin in a place of profound darkness and tragedy and emerge into light, hope and triumph.

Mahler seems to have clearly seen C minor in a similar way- as a place of darkness from which hope can possibly emerge, but he was too much the innovator to simply repeat the journey from C  minor to major that Beethoven and Brahms had handled so perfectly. Beethoven’s only other minor key symphony (the 9th) traces a similar arc from D minor to D major, as does Schumann’s only minor key symphony (again- D minor to D major). Brahms 3rd begins in F minor and ends peacefully, rather than triumphantly, in F major. Truly tragic symphonies that end in the minor are exceedingly rare- Beethoven never wrote one. The most famous examples are Brahms 4th in E minor and Mozart’s 40th in G minor- probably the bleakest and most tragic work in the symphonic literature. Mahler would eventually write one, and only one, work which would end in the minor- his 6th Symphony.

In all of these examples of Minor-to-Major symphonies, the symphony ends in what we call the “parallel major,” which is the key which shares the same tonic note as the home key. Mahler’s innovation is both extraordinarily simple and completely new- instead of ending in parallel key, he ends in the relative one. A” relative key” shares the same key signature as the home key- Mahler 2 is in C minor, and the relative major of C minor is E flat, as both keys have 3 flats. Of course, it’s not important for you the listener to know how many flats we’re dealing with, only that we’re dealing with a new kind of journey- instead of keeping the same tonic note and evolving of transforming from minor to major, Mahler keeps the same key signature and rises a third from C to E flat. In a symphony that starts with a funeral march, climaxes with Armageddon and ends in heavenly transfiguration, this key relationship with its perceptible feeling ascension is a powerful metaphor.

And, of course, E flat, like C minor, has a history, has resonances. There is Beethoven’s Eroica, which also has a great funeral march in C minor at its heart (the funereal nature of C minor seems to be defined in the St Matthew Passion, be honed in Mozart’s Masonic Funeral music and perfected in the Marche Funebre of the Eroica), and one of his last works, the String Quartet op. 127. It was Mozart’s favourite key, home to the sublime Piano Quartet in E flat and the 39th Symphony, and Haydn did great things with it in his 99th Symphony. Because of Beethoven, 3 E flat is often thought of as the “heroic” key. Mahler was well aware of this, but for him E flat found it’s meaning in this work, and he stayed true to that character throughout the rest of his life. For him it would always be a spiritual, ecstatic and celebratory key- his other work in which E flat major plays an important role is the closest in spirit in every way to the 2nd Symphony, the 8th Symphony in E flat Major.

This relationship between a home key and it’s relative key is the most common one in music, particularly in works in a minor key. Most works in a major key move first from the home key to the dominant. Works in a minor key, as often as not, move first from the home key to the relative major.  In the case of both Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music and the Marche Funebre, both also in C minor, the second theme is in E flat major, just a minute or so into the piece.

Mahler 2 begins with a funeral march in C  minor, clearly indebted to the slow movement of the Eroica. One would expect it to move immediately to E flat major, but instead the first new key it hints at is E major before being jerked back into the funeral world of C minor. Lots of keys are visited, but none of them E flat major. The 2nd mvt is in A flat- you would expect the first port of call to be the dominant of A flat, E flat major. Nope- we first visit the parallel key instead (G sharp minor). On it goes- the epic Finale goes through numerous keys before the entrance of the chorus, and basically avoids E flat major.

The world ends, the souls of humanity march to Armageddon, the off stage band sounds the Last Trump, and even the chorus finally gets to sing, and we’ve all the while not seen the key we’ve been looking for since the 2nd page of the piece. We are almost at the end of the symphony before we hear a cadence in E flat major. Just before the long-awaited appearance of the key we’ve been searching for since the first pages of the work, the chorus sings

Was enstanden ist, das muss vergehen!

Was vergangen, auferstehen.


What has come into being must perish,

What perished must rise again.


They begin in B flat minor and end in C flat major. Not promising, but the brass answer them with a simple chorale- a moment that could come straight from Bach, and they cadence, for the first time, on E flat major. This is THE MOMENT we’re talking about today- the first appearance of something we’ve been seeking for 75 minutes. The chorus hears this chord, this key, and answer, now staying in E flat.

Hör auf zu beben!

Bereite dich zu leben!


Fear no more!
Prepare yourself to live!

So, where is the “Performer’s Perspective” in all of this?

Well of course, it is a pivotal moment in the work, but it is not a climax- there are no cymbals and drums to underline the first arrival in our destination key. Does a conductor see this moment for what it is? How does she or he shape these phrases? How does she or he bring the text to life?

Mahler gives lots of instructions to the conductor- the beginning of the first phrase in the chorus is marked Slower and Mysteriously, but ends with the indication of Forward!. When the brass enter, it is suddenly held back (Zuruckhaltend), and he repeats the instruction in Italian, just in cased you missed it (ritenuto). The brass cadence on a fermata, then there is a second fermata on the silence that follows that first E flat major chord. In that silence we are awestruck- astounded by what we have heard. Finally, the men of the choir speak- Mahler says it should Langsammer (slower) and, again, Misterioso. “Fear no more,” they say. The women join, now everyone singing the same words “Fear no more.” (there’s a great low B flat in the basses here- what a great sound).

Then Mahler tells the conductor Schneller (faster) as the men erupt in fortissimo- “Prepare yourself to live!” Finally, all repate the same words mezzo forte and melt into pianississimo, landing on an expectant E flat dominant chord as we prepare to begin the work’s ecstatic coda.

So much happens in these 23 bars- we go from a sober acknowledgement that all that is created must die, to the hopeful promise, the realization, even, that all will Auferstehen- Rise Again.

In 23 bars, there are 8 indications of tempo modification and 6 fermatas or pauses.

Perhaps more than almost any moment in the work, this passage tells the listener whether a conductor dares to go to the extremes Mahler seems to demand, whether they have been tracking the piece’s harmonic journey from the beginning, and whether they have the patience to let these awesome silences have meaning.

Who goes for contrast, and who goes for continuity? Who is fastest and who is slowest? Who has the most terrified sounding Alto soloist? Let’s listen….

I’m not sure Otto Klemperer knew what “Vorwarts” meant, but then he told one of my teachers that “Klemperer means slow.”

Eliahu Inbal downplays the first few tempo changes- very little change for the first Langsammer, almost nothing for the Zuruckhaltend which follows the Vorwarts, and very little of the last Schneller.

Claudio Abbado in Lucerne is masterful as always- he surprised me with the vehemence, even violence of the first “bereite dich” Schneller.

The under-recognized Kazushi Ono is marvellously in control, and the chorus sings with lots of care for the words.

Riccardo Chailly starts brilliantly (he even gets the accents on the first two notes, almost the only who does), but doesn’t do a whole lot of Vorwarts or Schneller. The slow stuff is stunning, but is it balanced by enough drama and contrasts? His are the softest softs, but that can also be a factor of the recording.

Michael Gielen sounds very impressively polished, but downplays the tempo changes and skips the fermatas on “beben.” There is a strangely disinterested quality to the cutoff of that first E flat chord which kind of bugs me, but what follows is pretty beautiful.

Valery Gergiev sounds a little rough and ready (he’s not a big rehearser), but he sure as hell knows what Vorwarts means (although that first forte, and it is just forte and not fortissimo, is close to too harsh sounding for me), and I am sure he knows what that E flat major chord means from the way they play it. A moment, to be sure.

Back-in-the-day Lenny B is dramatic as you’d expect, but tends to treat changes of tempo as changing tempos- both the Zuruckhaltend and the last Langsammer are getting gradually slower, instead of simply being held back of slower.

I like James Levine’s violin trill at the beginning (they start the trill a little slow). He’s not big on Vorwarts, but has a great fermata on the first silence. His Schneller is faster than his Vorwarts, which begs the question- should they be more or less the same tempo, or one faster than the other. We know what Jimmy thinks.

Late Lenny is not quite what I expected- I thought he’d go like a bat out of hell at the Vorwarts, but he’s pretty broad there, taking time to let each chord sound. Like Levine, he does more for the Schneller than for the Vorwarts. His brass chorale sounds like it was multitracked by God- what a sound, and the chorus sings as if possessed.

Ivan Fischer has a lot of attention to detail- nothing on the slow side, to be sure. You can actually hear the contrabassoon in his chorale- it drowns out the tuba. Kind of a cool sound .

Haitink with the BBC Symphony at the Proms (not great sound quality from webstream) a few years ago is astoundingly in control (listen to that harp!) at the beginning and it just gets better from there. I was at this concert, and listening again to this passage, in my opinion,  it is pretty amazing music making.

Which of these readings speak to you? Which drives you bananas? Do they all sound the same and do you feel I’ve just wasted 30 minutes of  your life? Does one or another make you want to listen to the whole performance? We’d love to hear your comments





A few friends asked me to put my head on the chopping block, more out of curiosity about how I conduct it than out of malice. In spite of the fact that our budget for this entire season, not just the Mahler 2, was about half James Levine’s normal weekly fee, I’ve decided to post this clip of my OES performance in 2006.

A sensational take from Walter Weller on video

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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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

15 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 2, a moment”

  1. Erik K

    Comparative listening for the win. One of the greatest time wasters ever conceived by man, God, or whoever. I’m in for tonight!

    A potential bone to pick in regards to Mozart 40 being the bleakest, most tragic piece in music history…I would give that title to Sibelius 4, personally. It’s more personal and less all-encompassing than the Mozart, but it sounds like the very embodiment of loneliness, isolation, and sadness.

    Gonna have to put Suitner through the comparative listening ringer while I’m at it…see how he stacks up.

  2. Steve G


    Thank you — there are some thoughtful points in your “tonality and beyond” analysis. Regarding “the moment”, here’s a quick slant: the way in which the poetry unfolds, the evolving dialog and coming together of all vocal forces, and the orchestral accompaniment, which varies from chamber-like to all stops open, highlights the arrival in E-Flat with no additional need to focus attention upon it. The silences accomplish this. And great timing will remain, as throughout, completely focused on the expression of the poetry. After all, the ineffable is being effed!!

    If you don’t know it (or if you do) check out Kubelik, the studio set. Is it relatively fast? Yes. Are the sonics perfect? No. Are the timing, the phrase-shaping, and the execution flawless? YES . . . I don’t know all the recordings you listed, but the Kubelik is well worth a good listen or two (or 200). I’m actually think that recording might someday help him get into the Rock Hall of Fame (Mahler AND Kubelik)!

    : ^ )

    ~ Steve

  3. Reid K

    “Great post. Then again, I love the piece. There is not a single moment wasted, that I’d give up. Hope y’all’s have a great old pipe organ for the finale! “

  4. Guy F

    Dear Ken,

    Thank you for your Mahler 2 essay. I confess that key relationships and other such things whiz past me. I cannot play or read a note. I do love the music, listen fairly steadily, and enjoy reading essays about music I love even when they do pass me by; hope (of coming to understanding) springs eternal.

    If your Haitink BBC SO Proms Mahler 2 was the concert of September 6, 2006, I have it on CD and DVD via BBC broadcast and telecast. I’ll be pleased to send either or both along. Perhaps you’ll see yourself in the audience.

    I appreciated your tip-of-the-hat to Kazushi Ono. You do not mention the orchestra in his performance. I have Mahler 2 and 7 concert performances with Ono conducting the Brussels Monnaie Opera Orchestra – – both very good performances I’ve always thought.

    Best regards,


  5. Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K @Erik K
    Hi Erik

    I agree with you on Sibelius 4- an amazing piece. I try to program it every year, and nobody will take it. Where is their toughness.

    As for comparitive listening- I find it really sharpens one’s perceptions and can sometimes really help you to get beyond your own limitations. It’s absolutely the opposite of learning a score from a recording, which is a big no no- it is a way of vetting how well you’ve read the score by seeing what you may have missed or heard.

    It was interesting listening to my performance of this piece after writing this post and listening to all those other examples. First, it didn’t sound like I remembered. Something stood up really well (which is saying something considering our budget), but other places I was less pleased with. This time yesterday, I didn’t have that insight. I don’t know Suitner’s M2- you must send it my way.

    Thanks for the comment

  6. Kenneth Woods

    @Steve G
    Hi Steve

    Thanks much for the comment. The Kubelik set was the first one I bought, and I’ve listened to it many times. I am a huge Kubelik fan (everyone should see his DVD of Mahler 1, which is fab), but I do find the problems with the set that you alluded to really frustrate me- some days I can forgive the occasionally rancid wind playing and the cluttered, suffocating sound, other times it just gets in the way too much. It is a pity DG didn’t take more care with such a historically important project at the time. It is an interesting reminder of how much of a technical challenge these pieces were in the 60’s- the orchestra is pushed to its limits. Likewise, the existing rehearsal footage of Bernstein and Vienna in the 60’s and 70’s show that they really struggled with these pieces. Nowadays, everyone plays them!

    Thanks again for writing

  7. Kenneth Woods

    @Reid K

    Hi Reid- it is a far cry from the organ we had in the Vert when we did the 2nd….. You wouldn’t ice skate to the Bridgewater Hall organ.

    Hope all is well back in the old country.


  8. Erik K

    I’ll pass along Suitner’s M2 for your pleasure…I guess since I’m mentioning fave conductors, I also have Asahina…I can pass that along as well if you are unfamiliar with it.

    Thanks again for this post…comparative listening is wonderful, and now I can tell my loved ones there’s actually a reason for all the crap I have lying around!

  9. Cary

    Please check the address on the Klemperer clip…my browser says the protocol is spelled incorrectly.

    Nice post, elevated to awesome with the comparative interp clips included!

  10. Pingback: Third-Stream Music Education » Comparative Interpretation

  11. Jenn

    “Multitracked by God” Love it, and you’re exactly right!

    (Wonderful post; I found my way here by way of your Walter Weller post; I know this piece like the back of my hand, and there were literally 3 or 4 moments just in those few minutes when I went “HOLY CRAP! THAT’S what it’s supposed to do there!” when he did something I’ve never heard anyone else do…wonderful!)

  12. Jacob P.

    I think the best recording I have heard of this symphony goes under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

    Look here, at the final, heart-wrenching minutes and the sheer passion on his face, the joy of resurrection.

    The beginning of the finale is also pretty thrilling.

  13. sigrid

    Synaesthesia does not mean always “colours”. not necessary visional. it might be even smell and textured- pitches ,”pitches”. It is a separate cathegory of perception, just additional joy added to the “emotional translation”.
    Wow- you have a wonderful blog! I have to read it all now.
    Since I was schocked that my idol Furtwangler had no perfect pitch, it somehow… a bit… took out of his fantastic figure. long quotation (but amazing):
    “GF: You said that Furtwängler did not have absolute pitch, so one day the Berlin Philharmonic played a joke on him on his birthday (4).

    FS: It happened in New York, when he conducted there for the first time. He told me this story himself. We were speaking about absolute pitch and he admitted that he didn’t have it (I think even Wagner didn’t have it and that has very little to do with the quality of an artist). The orchestra in New York knew this and on the occasion of a rehearsal of the Eroica on his birthday, they decided to play it in E major. And Furtwängler told me that after some twelve bars he beat on his pulpit saying: «What’s up today? It sounds so strange?» General laughter followed. During the war, he told me about when he auditioned in Mannheim for the post of conductor at the opera house. The post of conductor was vacant. Bodanzky was leaving. There was an audition. Bodanzky was an important conductor and, as he told me, the choice was finally down to three conductors and Furtwängler. He had to conduct Fidelio (5).

    He told me he made some bad howlers. So he thought: «I’d better pack my things and leave.» All the other conductors were flawless. Furtwängler heard about this and he was desperate. He wanted go home secretly without saying goodbye to Bodanzky and the other bigwigs and was rather dejected. Then suddenly Bodanzky came and said: «Mr. Furtwängler, let’s dine together tonight, or are you already invited elsewhere?» «No», Furtwängler answered. «Why should I dine with you?». Bodanzky said: «I want to dine with you» Furtwängler accepted. They went to a restaurant and after some polite small talk, Bodanzky said: «Well, when can you come?» Furtwängler answered. «What do you mean? Are you serious? You want me to come to Mannheim?» Bodanzky: «Yes, of course.» «But tell me, all these foul-ups. That other conductor was so much better.» «I’m not interested», Bodanzky replied. «You were by far the best! I didn’t even consider any of them serious candidates!» There Furtwängler replied: «You see, and he was a Jew! One day I would like to write about what I owe Jews.»

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