The best program you never heard in your life

You can call it the best program you’ve never heard in your life. You can call it the almost revelatory program that almost happened- what you can’t call it is the program for the final concert of the Harlech Orchestral Summer School, which I’m now preparing for.

Harlech is an intense week long program that covers an immense amount of substantial repertoire. Some is simply workshopped and read, while a few pieces are selected for extra rehearsal and the final performance. This year it has been a given that Mahler 5 is going to be on that program- in this year, how could it not be? But what to pair it with?

As it turns out, part of the equation includes a premiere of a new work by Duncan Stubbs written for the winds of the academy called “Harlech Variants.” Given the massive scale of the Mahler and the presence of the Stubbs, it would seem that all that is needed is a relatively slight work to open the program.

Of this year’s repertoire, the obvious choice is Ravel’s La Valse, although one would never call it slight! The parallels with the Mahler are obvious and fascinating- the Scherzo of the Mahler seems an obvious model for the Ravel. Both use dance, notably (but not exclusively) the Viennese waltz, to delve into the darkest corners of the human psyche.

However, as we get closer to the beginning of the festival, there is another work in the repertoire I’ve longed to program alongside the Mahler. I even went so far as to suggest to my colleagues that we ought to ditch the Ravel and do it instead- in spite of the fact that it would make for a ridiculously long program and a very exhausting week of rehearsals. My associates wisely talked me down from that particular ledge.

The piece, of course, is Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony. Why? Surely the Ravel is the obvious and perfect pairing? Is this just a case of Ken the Shostakovich nut looking for any possible chance to perform a Shostakovich symphony?

Well, I can’t rule that out, but there was more to it than that. First, the Ravel is the obvious pairing. The Shostakovich is just the more interesting pairing because it seems that putting these two great but highly unorthodox works on the same program could be much more illuminating, and could help us to hear both works with clearer ears.

Shostakovich 6 is one of those pieces that is often described as “enigmatic.” It is in 3 movements- one very long slow movement followed by two very short fast movements. It has always had its advocates (Lenny loved it and conducted it brilliantly), but many people can’t get past the fact that it doesn’t seem to do what symphonies after Beethoven are supposed to do, which is to reconcile and resolve large-scale tensions.

The Largo completely overshadows the other two movements, obviously in terms of scale, but also in terms of emotional impact. On the other hand, surely a genius like Shostakovich knew which rules he was breaking and why. Surely Beethoven taught us  that what a symphony ought to do with a movement like the Largo is to balance it with a Finale of equal scale and weight? That’s what his 5th and 9th symphonies do so well, and it’s something Mahler mastered in his 2nd Symphony.

In fact, Mahler 2 might be the ultimate symphonic example of a vast, tragic opening movement (like the Largo of Shostakovich 6) which is followed by some shorter intermezzo-like movements (again like the Shostakovich), which culminates and a vaster and more dramatic triumphant Finale in which all the darkness and tension of the first movement is transcended and resolved (something conspicuously missing in the Shostakovich).

If Mahler 2 is the grandest and most perfect example of that approach to symphonic form, it’s certainly not the only example. Bruckner deals with it in his 5th, 8th and 9th Symphonies (we can see from the fragments where he was going with the Finale of his 9th). And, even if the 2nd is the most powerful and explicit example of a cathartic Finale in his music, Mahler’s 1st 4 symphonies all treat the Finale in a similar way- as a summing up and culmination of all that precedes them.

However, in the 5th Symphony, Mahler for the first time goes in a different and more ambivalent direction. The 5th is written in 5 movements, which are grouped into 3 parts. The 1st part of the symphony is unmistakably where the center of gravity of the entire work is located- two movements of unprecedented darkness, intensity and ferocity. Part I of Mahler 5 ends in as black an abyss as anything in the repertoire I can think of (like the Largo of Shostakovich 6). Dark as the Funeral March is which opens the 2nd Symphony, there still seems to be room for the drama to continue from that point. The ending of Part I of Mahler 5 is so black and nihilistic that it seems impossible that anything could follow which would be able to balance or transcend that darkness.

Mahler follows this in Part II with an ambivalent Scherzo which you can read about here. Like the Ravel, it is in many ways a dance of death, or at the very least a dance which expresses a certain affection for oblivion. Again, Part II of the Shostakovich is similar- it is also a Scherzo, but the mood is hardly carefree.

Part III of the Mahler promises a return to life. It is now well known that in many respects, the famous Adagietto is a love song, but it is also filled with references to Mahler’s own Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children. Yes, it has moments of stunning tenderness and exquisite longing, but it, never mind what today’s politically correct writers tell you, includes passages of searing anguish and deep, deep pain.

In Mahler 2, the last grand and dramatic Finale is preceded like a structural upbeat by the song Urlicht. Like the Adagietto, it is intimate and tender music in which hope seems to begin to awaken, if not assert itself. However, where the Finale of the 2nd begins with a savagely dramatic outburst (obviously related to the opening of the Finale of Beethoven 9), the Finale of Mahler 5 begins with a joke. Mahler quotes one of his own songs (Lob des hohen Verstandes, or “In Praise of Lofty Intelligence”) about a singing competition between a cuckoo and a nightingale judged by an ass. It hardly promises a Finale in which the tragedy of  Part I can be overcome, and it turns out to be.

The Finale of Mahler 5 is humorous, virtuosic and passionate. The humor is sometimes warm and bright, other times black and sardonic. It makes extensive reference to the music of the Adagietto, now played in a genuinely carefree, breezy style, perhaps as if to say love is as much a game as anything else. There is only one reference to Part I, but what a reference it is- just before the end, he brings back the great chorale of the 2nd Movement. This overpowering peroration had collapsed into abject crisis the first time it was heard, but here, it shines out in triumphant confidence. If the symphony ended here, he might just have pulled of the kind of transcendent ending we’d been hoping for all along, and what a feat that would have been!

But Mahler chooses not to do so. Instead, the piece continues just long enough to undermine the Chorale. Instead of ending in catharsis, the piece ends in laughter – perhaps, like love, triumph is also all just a game, or perhaps he is saying that the culmination of the chorale is the ending to yesterday’s story- life goes on! The piece ends with a torrent of whole tone scales- the most ambivalent of musical structures. Is it light or dark humor? Is there an edge of madness in that laughter? Those whole tone scales seem to signal we can’t be sure Do we all live happily after? Are all life’s problems solved? I don’t think so, but life goes on, and in Mahler’s world the primal force of life is extraordinarily powerful.

Likewise, the 3rd Mvt of Shostakovich 6 doesn’t try to fix what the Largo has broken. Like Mahler’s Finale, the primary emotion is humor, both dark and light. Much as I love, and much as the world needs the Finale of Mahler 2, the Finale of Maher 5 is truer to life, hard as that is to accept. My sense is that Shostakovich 6 is also a pretty profoundly true-to-life work. Perhaps he is saying that suffer as you will (remember the Largo), don’t expect the heavens to open and for God to give you all the answers. Life goes on, in all its hilarity and insanity.

Side by side, the Shostakovich looks a little less of an enigmatic failure and much more a triumph of ironic realism, and the Mahler looks less Beethovenian and more modern.

Of course, it’s possible there is an even darker truth in the Shostakovich- we know he advertised that his original intention was to make the work a portrait of Lenin, complete with choral Finale. Maybe the work was meant to look more like Mahler 2, and the 2nd and 3rd movements were kindred intermezzi to the 2nd and 3rd mvts of Mahler 2?

However, in 1939, Russia was still waiting for the happy ending to the Lenin drama. Perhaps the deafening silence that follows the 3rd mvt of the 6th is the point. Shostakovich didn’t write a Finale because life hadn’t given him one to depict?

It sounds good, but I’m not convinced. The Largo seems to introverted and personal to have anything to do with politics and history- if it’s about anything other than despair, it is about music. More on that to come, I hope.

It has always bothered commentators that the ending of Shostakovich 6 doesn’t feel like an ending worthy of its beginning. Isn’t that obviously his point? Of course the piece is unfinished- he doesn’t want you to walk away from the symphony ready go out for a drink. He wants us to be thinking about what the piece means, to be struggling to make sense of its pain and contradictions. The work of the listener is just beginning when this piece ends.

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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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7 comments on “The best program you never heard in your life”

  1. David L

    Kenneth Woods had a lot of thoughtful things to say about both Mahler
    and Shostakovitch. The Shosty Sixth has been my favorite since I first
    heard it in 1947. I never felt that there was a lack of balance, nor
    does it feel unfinished. The Tenth, on the other hand does strike me as
    unbalanced because the frivolous finale does not match the impact of the
    first three movements. It is not too short, it’s just that it is hard
    to take seriously.

    Too bad that S-6 is not being paired with M-5, but I can certainly see
    the reasoning here. La Valse is always a marvel in any case. And
    thanks, Ken, for the article.

    David L Seattle

  2. Peter

    Welcome back Ken!

    I wonder if the difference between S6 and M5 is this. In the Mahler the work ends with a sense of empowerment. Mahler is definitely in control and we feel that by sheer force of will he has prevailed against the darkness. However short-lived, this is some kind of triumph; a centring of the personality against the forces which would otherwise be disruptive. In the Shostakovitch, the prevailing mood is one of powerlessness. the Largo intimates despair, the scherzo bitter, mocking irony; only in the finale does Shostakovich use comedy to make his demons seem absurd – but this is laughing at adversity rather than triumphing over it. We can’t help feeling that we have only forgotten the despair for a brief respite.

    You might say the Mahler is not much different, but that is really not how we experience the chorale and the exuberance of the final bars. We all love it and find it vividly exciting. I don’t hear any irony in the Mahler. He really means it like this with a lot of arrogant swagger. It is because we know what we know about what happened thereafter that we perhaps hear something overly willed in the triumph.

    If you programmed these two symphonies in the same concert it might suggest a transition from the tyrannical power of the dictator to the visionary power of the human will to tranform the personality. That’s a huge leap, which might explain why it would be a tall order to do.


  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David

    Thanks for reading- I’m so glad to hear that the 6th is your favorite of the Shosty’s. You’re not the first, either. I’m sure I couldn’t pick one, and the one I picked might not be the one I think is the best or the most perfect- of course, many people say that of the 10th, which I LOVE, but that Finale is another blog post by itself. Again, though, I’m not sure he wanted an ending that was explicitly happy. He told his son that the ending of 10 was him celebrating the death of Stalin (“it is my victory” he told Maxim), but this image of him dancing on Stalin’s grave is itself pretty disturbing- it’s joy tinged with madness.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Peter

    Deeply insightful as always- thanks for the comment. I’m curious your take on how much we should take into account the intentionally silly text of the Lob des hohen Verstands, especially at the very end of the symphony- after the final statement of the chorale? All of the codetta uses material from the song, more or less. Is he asserting the right to smile. which after all is quite empowering? In that sense, it could be like Shostakovich, laughing at adversity rather than triumphing over it- which itself is a form of triumph through will….

  5. Jenny Wigram

    Were you disappointed not to do Shostakovich 6 at Harlech? As one of the cellists on the Harlech course, I had spent some time listening to the Schostakovich in preparation and was disappointed that we sight-read it only, likewise the Ravel “La Valse” (my husband, Bob, has just written an academic article on Ravel’s “La Valse” comparing it with Sondheim’s “Follies”). It would be so helpful to know in advance which work we will be studying in depth at Harlech, so that we lesser mortals can prepare ourselves. I guess that the decision as to what we major on is made during, and not before, the week. I hope you weren’t too disappointed. I LOVED the Mahler and am glad to have studied it in some depth. My local orchestra (Torbay Symphony Orchestra) is preparing for Mahler 1 in November and I now feel that I have a better understanding of how Mahler should be performed., thanks to Harlech and your expertise. Thank you!

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Jenny

    Thanks for your efforts in Harlech! It was a wonderful (if exhausting) week for me. Indeed, my general regret all week was simply not having enough time to live with all that wonderful repertoire, including the Shostakovich (which I really wanted to perform) and the Ravel (which we had planned to perform but traded for Merry Wives in the interest of rehearsal time). The poor Ravel really didn’t get the time it deserved- maybe next year?

    I’d love to read your husband’s article- it is such a rich and fascinating piece.

    Hope to see you back next year, and good luck with your Mahler 1.

    All best wishes


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