12 November 2003

A Great Orchestral Moment

Summary of talk given 11/12/03 for Instrumentation/Orchestration class (Lee Hyla)

accompanying .pdf handout

The second statement of the first theme in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony provides an unforgettable moment that continues to reverberate in this listener’s psyche throughout the movement — and for some time thereafter as well. It is when, in mm 67-68, the solo trumpet melody is accompanied — or nearly interrupted — by a great orchestral ‘shivering’ consisting of two measure’s trilling in winds and brass and tremolandi in the strings. It is a moment of chaos in an otherwise harmonically certain environment, with C#-D#-E-F# being the pitch content of the first measure (67) and with G#-A — that is, nearly all of the natural minor scale — added to the mix in the second (68). Following are some of the details worth exploring as to how Mahler set this moment up for us.

The trumpet melody in the excerpt is, with slight changes, the first theme opening the symphony. In the beginning of the movement it is unaccompanied for its first 12 measures, at which point the orchestra (though, apart from bassoons, no winds) sounds off — with a cymbal crash splashing our faces with cold water. After the intervening second theme — which is both more graceful and resigned — theme one returns on the same solo trumpet. This time it is harmonized, initially with alternating tonic and subdominant chords — the key of the subdominant alluded to by natural signs being placed before the Ds. The lower parts then begin a descent by third (at each downbeat): C#, A, F#, bottoming out on the demonic D# of m. 67 — yielding a harmonic progression of: i, VI7, iv7 followed by the ‘bone chilling’ ‘anti-chord’ described above. Displacing the D natural of mm 62-65, this bottom D# also seeks to function as V/V — even though the upper parts don’t agree — struggling against unfavorable odds up to G# and then to C# to complete this semblance of cadential gesture. Rather than bring us to the tonic, however, we get a first inversion VI. In fact, we do not hear a tonic in root position anywhere between m. 63 and m. 89 (the reiteration of theme two) — all of the subsequent C# minor chords being in second position.

Subtle changes in orchestration enhance the crescendo going into m. 67. Two horns become four; unison doubling of divisi celli and contrabass (half pizz/half arco) become octave doubled (all arco). In m. 63, basses and timpani foreshadow the ‘big shiver’; and violins are tacet for the time being. Third and fourth trumpets are instructed to put mutes in to add bite to the ‘shivering’ timbre [“Shiver me timbers!”]. Violins are brought in at m. 67, where all strings are given the first specified bowing of the movement — a downbow to insure a strong attack on the tremolando (more effective in this context than would be a trill). One of my classmates asked about the absence of timpani at this point; a rolling timpani here would not only muddy up this precisely crafted texture, it would introduce a prevailing pitch. All the instruments are kept below the solo trumpet in register. Flute is nowhere to be seen, perhaps because its lower register would not contribute anything; it is not until m. 102, in fact, that flutes have their first entrance of the movement. Double-reed instruments in their reediest register, 6 horns trilling [“Five golden rings!”] in their mid-to-upper register, the cymbal struck with the direction to ‘let ring’ — all contribute to the sense that we just opened the wrong door and wish we could forget what we saw behind it. While the theme still completes itself after this, it has been transfigured from here on. The trills at mm 73, 78 and 83 are now experienced as post-traumatic tremors, echoes of a terrifying memory.