The end of days

John Martin’s terrifying vision of the apocalypse has several musical equivalents. Apart from the many settings of the Requiem Mass’s Dies irae (think Berlioz, think Verdi), there are two famous musical Judgement Days that are the work of composers very much associated with Vienna: Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2 in c) and Franz Schmidt’s […]

Final farewells

Mahler’s last works, the 9th and the unfinished 10th symphony, continue and extend the valedictory atmosphere of the Song of the Earth. The ninth opens with a cortège which alternates lamenting funereal march with a more impassioned music; it follows with a scherzo-like a mixture of ländler and Viennese and French waltzes; then comes a Rondo-Burleske, full […]

Drain your golden goblets to the lees

The Song of the Earth is a setting of translations/paraphrases of seven Chinese poems that Mahler described as ‘a symphony for tenor, contralto (or baritone) and orchestra’. Superstitious, the composer had hoped to cheat his perceived nemesis (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and  Dvořák had all died after writing their 9th symphonies) by simply not numbering this work; but […]


Mahler’s Eighth Symphony doesn’t conform to the traditional four movement  symphonic layout. It’s in two parts, the first of which is a version, for orchestra, soloists and full chorus, of the 9th century Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creative Spirit); while the second uses the same forces to set the final part of Goethe’s Faust. […]


The first movement of Mahler’s seventh symphony, with its dissonant opening and use of piled fourths, is the most ‘modern’ music that the composer had, up to this point, attempted; foreshadowing not only Mahler’s own later works but also those of Schönberg and his pupils. Much of  the symphony takes place in twilight. There are […]


The ‘motto’ theme of Mahler’s sixth: …the banal militaristic rhythm of the drum combined with a simple shift – on oboes and trumpets – from loud major to whispered minor induces a sense of horror that has little to do with the few notes that are written on paper – Mahler here seems to connect […]

Abstract music?

The fifth is the first of the three purely orchestral symphonies, 5, 6 and 7. Mahler had always aspired to writing ‘abstract’ music and was more than slightly embarrassed by his reliance in his earlier symphonic creations on the written word – mostly the poetry of the Wunderhorn collection. But old habits die hard and, although […]