Mahler Symphony No. 2 mvmt 4 – A short yet significant movement

If you’ve been following along with the last few posts, we’ve been looking at Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, which tells a story of a character searching for the meaning of life and what happens next. We now come to the 4th movement, where the character reaches some conclusions which will be expanded upon in the finale. Beethoven’s 9th symphony was the first symphony to feature singing. Following in the tradition of Beethoven, Mahler incorporates singing in this and the final movement.

The lyrics sung in this movement are from a poem featured in the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). It is originally in German, but thanks to the Internet it is easy to find a translation, and you can follow each line below as you listen:

47:12- O little red rose

48:30- Man lies in greatest need! Man lies in greatest pain!

48:59- How I would rather be in heaven

50:11- There came I upon a broad path

50:33- When came a little angel and wanted to turn me away

50:53- Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!

51:10- I am from God and shall return to God!

51:20- The loving God (51:27)- will grant me a little light

51:35-Which will light me into that eternal blissful (51:58)- life!

Stay tuned for the epic finale and more great battle music 🙂




Mahler Symphony No. 2 – The struggle begins to get very real

In our continuation of looking at Mahler’s second symphony, we will explore the second and third movements. These middle movements are kind of an interlude as the character of this story pauses to reflect on his life (see the last post for an introduction). Movement 5 (the last movement) will return us to the present moment. Here’s a look at what might be going on in the 2nd and 3rd movements.

Movement 2

24:40- This movement is of a happier and lighter mood as the character recalls the memories of his youth. Hear his regret or sadness as he recalls these memories at 29:19.

Movement 3

35:33- This movement starts out ominously as the character is being driven to despair. He begins to question his beliefs and begins to have inner conflict. The lighter moments may be times when the character is remembering good times, but then he fails to see the meaning of it all. After 42:00 it especially becomes ominous as the character struggles trying to resolve these issues. But hope is waiting for him in the coming movements.

Pause at 47:11 before the soloist comes in, and come back next time to hear the epic resolution to this story.


Mahler 2 Mvmt 1- More than just great battle music

We will now begin to explore Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, (known to music nerds as Mahler 2) which is nicknamed “Resurrection”. The first movement introduces the themes that set up for the final movement of the symphony, which is epic, but let’s take one movement at a time.

Mahler wrote a program to accompany this symphony, but could not settle on a suitable story that could express all that is in the work. But for this first movement, in one of his programs he describes a scene of someone facing death and asking the questions to discern the meaning of life (deep questions):

“What is life and what is death? Will we live on eternally? Is it all an empty dream or do our life and death have a meaning?”

From the opening notes you can hear this conflict and impending doom as the character ponders these questions. Parts of this movement resemble a funeral march (aka ominous music in marching tempo). Hear this march at 2:51, 10:00, 14:00, 17:00, and 21:00. Because of these parts this movement would make epic battle music IMO.

One particular theme of note occurs at 15:04, which is really important in this piece, occurring later in the final movement. This is the Dies Irae theme (or Judgement Day theme), which comes from the Middle Ages. The words describe a judgment day scene in which all souls are judged at the end of the world. The character of the story may be contemplating a final judgment as he reflects on his own life and what happens next.

Mahler called for a pause at the end of this movement (23:38), as the middle movements are of a different character. These middle movements are a reflection of the life that this character has lived, and the last movement tells what happens to him in the end. But you’ll have to wait a few posts to find out what happens. 🙂

So pause at 23:38 (unless you’re ready to handle the rest) and next time we’ll look at what happens in the second movement as the character reflects on his life.


A Small Introduction to a Big Symphony

Gustav-Mahler-Kohut” by E. Bieber – Kohut, Adolph (1900) “Gustav Mahler” in Berühmte israelitische Männer und Frauen in der Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit (Volume 1 ed.), Leipzig, Germany: Druck und Verlag von A. H. Payne, pp. p. 143 Retrieved on 15 July 2009.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

This next symphony we’re gonna look at will blow you away into next week with its brilliant climaxes and crescendos that could only come from the one and only Gustav Mahler. His symphonies are so epic, even he was blown away by them. When referring to the final movement of this symphony, he wrote:

“The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.”
(21st century translation: DUDE this finale I wrote is so epic I can’t even)

I do not even know where to begin so I will let this guy introduce Mahler:

As with any great masterpiece, you cannot take it all in in a short time. It’s like eating a delicious meal, you can’t stuff an entire meal into you mouth at once, you have to savor every bite or you won’t enjoy it. That’s why I’m gonna break it up over a series of posts. This piece really is hard to take in all in one sitting, after all, Mahler didn’t know the meaning of brevity (this lasts and hour and a half). You have to take time to get to know the piece and learn about it. In a world with 3 minute songs and 140 character tweets, you can lose attention quickly. But seriously, take the time to listen to and learn the background of this piece.

This symphony is nicknamed “Resurrection” because of the theme of life after death. We’ll look at Mahler’s intentions for the piece as well as the text he uses in the last two movements. And also, IMO parts of this symphony would make sweet battle music so I’ll draw attention to those parts in the next few posts.

As in the video, remember ROI (return on investment). If you take the time to listen to this piece and learn about it, you’ll get something out of it. This piece is well worth the time.


Fugues on Popular Themes

As promised, here is a playlist of fugues from popular themes. I think I was searching for fugues on YouTube and these came up. They were so nerdy they made me laugh and I was entertained for hours. Here are my favorites:

1. Fugue on Angry Birds- This theme fits perfectly with the Baroque style IMO

2. Nokia Fugue- Fugue on the Nokia ringtone

3. Fugue on Lady Gaga- Fugue on Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance

4. Final Countdown Fugue- Fugue on Europe’s Final Countdown

5. Fugue on Britney Spears- Fugue on Oops I did It Again


Fugues- The Nerdiest Compositions Ever Conceived

Bach-unfinishedfugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach. – Berlin State Library, Germany.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Some compositions are so nerdy that you can only start to appreciate them after you understand how they work. A Star Trek version of a Mozart opera is pretty high on the nerdy scale, but one type of composition rivals it: the fugue.

Fugues can get really complicated. Like I said in the last post, it could take a post or two to explain all their parts. So today we’ll explore the most fundamental parts of the fugue: subjects and answers.

Subjects and Answers

Fugues are based on a subject (or theme) that is presented in the beginning. This is followed by an “answer”. The answer is a repetition of the subject in which another voice comes in. For example on a piano, a fugue starts with the subject played by one hand, then the other hand plays the answer as the first hand continues on. It’s a dead giveaway that when you hear this subject and answer the piece you’re listening to is a fugue. Compare these fugue introductions:

Texture of Fugues

Fugues have a contrapuntal texture. This means they have two or more melodies going on at the same time. It’s like a more complicated version of singing a round (like Row Row Row Your boat or Three Blind Mice). The genius of these compositions is making two melodies sound good together. It gets even harder when there’s three or more.

Fugues of J S Bach

We can’t talk about fugues without mentioning Bach, who was the master of fugues. He wrote a collection of fugues in his Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as in other compositions (like the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor). But the work that really showed off his masterful skills in writing fugues was The Art of Fugue, in which he writes 14 different fugues and 4 canons based on one subject. It includes 4 voice fugues (4 different melodies at one time), exploring the vast amount of variations possible on one theme. By the way, when you can write something that has “The Art of…” in the title, you’re pretty good at it. But Bach was not just “pretty good”, he was the master of fugues. His preludes and fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier are so important to keyboard repertoire that most music colleges suggest playing one prelude and fugue for auditions or recitals.

Let’s listen to one of the fugues from this collection from book 2, the fugue in F minor. I played this (along with the prelude) in my senior music recital:

  • Hear the subject at 4:11, then the answer at 4:16
  • Listen for the subject at 4:25, 4:42, 4:46, 5:01, 5:15, 5:41

Next time we will listen to some fugues on themes you may know from popular culture. Stay tuned.


That one ominous organ piece you always hear on Halloween

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden sure is ominous, but nothing beats music in a minor key on a giant organ. It can strike fear into even the bravest of souls on a dark night. Perhaps that’s why Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D minor for organ is usually heard on Halloween, because is so ominous and evil sounding.

When I was a newbie music nerd, I was trying to find this piece. You know how hard it can be to find classical music when you don’t know the name of the piece:


The beginning was similar to this from the Pirates of the Caribbean. I heard Bach’s piece was on an old version of Phantom of the Opera but I couldn’t find which version it was. I don’t even remember how I eventually found it but once I did I downloaded the sheet music, even though I don’t have an organ to play it on. But that is definitely a bucket list thing: to play Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D minor on a giant organ like this:

The organ in Derry/Londonderry’s Guildhall in Northern Ireland via

History of the Piece

Mendelssohn helped Bach’s piece get published in 1833, 80 years after Bach’s death. Bach was not well known at the time until Mendelssohn brought awareness to his works, being a huge fan.

There is much controversy surrounding whether or not Bach composed this piece. Scholars began to be doubtful as to the composer of this piece in the late 20th century. The oldest manuscript of this work attributes it to J S Bach, yet some say the style and composition of the piece are uncharacteristic of Bach. Others see similarities between this piece and some of Bach’s other works. This just may well remain an unsolved mystery that music nerds will discuss and fight over until the end of time.

Enjoy as you read more about the piece:


What is a Toccata?

A toccata is a virtuoistic piece with fast moving sections. The first few minutes of this piece are the toccata (until 2:40). This is a Baroque toccata, meaning it is improvisatory in nature (not based on a strict form). This is kind of like the performer is making up epic passages on the spot, except this was already composed for them.

What is a fugue? 

In a fugue, a subject or theme is introduced in the beginning, and appears throughout the composition. Another line of music (or the other hand plays) is played which repeats the subject as the other line continues. The composer will then present the theme in various ways throughout the work. At 2:41 you will hear the fugue subject and then it is immediately repeated when the other hand comes in at 2:47. (hear it also at 3:56) There are more parts to a fugue but that would require an entire post (or two) to explain. In this fugue the composer plays around with elements of the subject throughout.

Which recording should I buy?

You were so blown away by that performance that you are now seriously considering buying it. My advice to you if you want to download this is DO NOT BUY IT FROM ANY ALBUM THAT HAS HALLOWEEN in the title. Whoever put it together probably abridged it and doesn’t know what they’re doing. You want the full version like the recording above. And don’t get anything that’s under 7 or 8 minutes. It’s either way too fast or it’s not the whole piece. Also, don’t get something that doesn’t have the artist’s name on it (usually listing the artist as J S Bach), that’s a big red flag. I enjoyed the recording in the video, if you want to get this version you can find it on Google Play or Itunes. If you want to check out other versions, look for albums that have an artist listed (it usually says what organ they’re playing on) and see which version you enjoy most.





If you’re like me, you like to watch your TV shows with the subtitles on, even though you are in no way hearing impaired. This may be because:

-you are eating chips and cannot hear a word they are saying
-someone in your residence is talking loudly on the phone
-someone in you household goes to bed early and you can’t turn up the volume
-entertainment value (mainly this)

If you pay attention to the subtitles, you may have come across interesting musical subtitles such as:

or more specific ones such as:
(I don’t really understand how this is helpful if you can’t hear)


You know something bad is about to happen when ominous music plays (video from Onion News Network via

When you see the caption (or hear the music) [OMINOUS MUSIC PLAYS] you know something bad is about to happen. The piece we’re gonna look at today falls into the ominous classical music category, and the bad thing about to happen is death. Seriously, when I listen to this it feels like something bad is about to happen, it’s that convincing (this can be especially ominous when you are driving at high speeds on freeways). This piece is Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as Death and the Maiden (you can probably already tell what’s gonna happen to the maiden). But first, here’s a little bit about where the name of the piece comes from, and the foreboding circumstances in Schubert’s life when he wrote the piece.

Schubert’s piece gets its name from a song he wrote called Der Tod und das Mädchen, which he uses in the second movement of the string quartet. The string quartet consists of 4 movements, reaching a climax of ominous-ness in the last movement. From beginning it’s like “prepare to meet your fate”, because the end is coming and it’s inevitable. And who better to write this music than Schubert, who at that point in his life had nothing going for him, and he knew he was dying. His recently composed music hadn’t been well received, and he was dying of syphilis.

Schubert was one of those composers who composed on the borderline of two eras: the Classical Period and the Romantic Period. He was composing at the same time as Beethoven, and if this next fact isn’t foreboding I don’t know what is:

He was a huge fan of Beethoven and took his death really hard. Schubert died a year later at the age of 31.

The song on which the second movement is about a young maiden facing death, a subject he could relate with being also young himself and facing the end. Schubert set a poem to music for the original song. In the poem, the maiden is not ready, but death says she will be OK when it comes (kind of a dark emo piece):

The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, rather,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.
Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!
The vocal range for the song is very low (lower than I can sing) which brings out the foreboding mood even more (and so does the fact that it’s in German):

So Schubert’s String Quartet is basically the 19th century classical version of death metal:

This may be hard to take in all at once. Sometimes when I listen to a longer piece for the first time I skip around and listen to a couple minutes of each movement. So here is a brief guide to each of the movements:

00:04- You can already tell something bad is about to happen. After the loud mwuhaha opening, quiet ominous music plays, then it returns to the faster ominous music. This is kind of an introduction IMO to the story of the maiden meeting her fate, conveying the moods that are about to occur. This movement sets up the ominous mood for the listener.

11:32- (it takes talent to play in the dark) This is a slower movement that is more sad (like a funeral) because the young maiden is facing her fate. It returns back to the ominous mood at 16:31, that may be when death comes to visit and she is not ready. It kind of switches back and forth between peaceful parts and ominous/evil parts, IMO depicting the conflict between the maiden and her impending death, and her coming to peace with it at the end. My favorite movement, so many moods conveyed in this section.

22:14- The ominous music continues in the style of a dark scherzo, with peaceful sections throughout

25:25- A roller-coaster ride until the finish. About a minute from the end it speeds up to the finale, when the end comes and it comes suddenly and violently.

Next week, we will look at another ominous piece (this one for organ).


The Gorgeous Piece You’ve Been Waiting For

I must now present you the piece promised in the last post. It is seriously worth the wait. You may be tempted to skip to the video and read past this but you must know the background of the piece. I promise you, this piece is worth the wait.

This piece is based on a tune by Thomas Tallis, a 16th century English composer. This tune appears in the 1567 Psalter for Archbishop Parker. A Psalter is like a hymnal but it contains versions of the Psalms of the Bible set to a meter so they can be sung to familiar tunes, and this one is based on Psalm 2:1-2:

Why fumeth in fight: the Gentils spite,
In fury raging stout?
Why taketh in hond: the people fond,
Vayne thinges to bring about?
The kinges arise: the lordes devise,
In counsayles mett thereto:
Agaynst the Lord: with false accord,
Against his Christ they go.

And if you’re wondering what that just said, here is the original text it is based on with modern spelling (you’re welcome):

Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing? 
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and against His Anointed

This is the original tune it is sung to:

What makes this piece interesting is that it is a fantasia, meaning it’s improvisatory‎, or free form. It is not based on a strict form of music. You can’t tell what’s coming next.

Now that you know the background of the tune Vaughan Williams is using and what he does with it,  we can get to his piece, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (prepare yourself):

Enjoy as you sip a cup of tea. 🙂


It’s about time we celebrated a composer’s birthday…

Vaughan Williams with a cute kitty, your argument is invalid.

Vaughan Williams- he’s not a name you hear as often as Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad composer. In fact, he wrote some pretty awesome stuff. And today is his birthday, so it’s a good time to learn more about him and his music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was an English composer born in 1872, but most of his music was published in the 20th century. He belongs to the Modern Era of composers, with the likes of Gustav Holst (who happened to be his classmate and friend) and Aaron Copland. His music is very lyrical and melodic, which is the musician’s way of saying that it’s easy on the ears. This is characteristic of English music, it’s something that you can enjoy while you relax with a cup of tea, such as his composition The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams composed 9 symphonies before he died in 1958. By the way, there is something odd about composers after Beethoven only composing 9 symphonies before they died. It started happening at the time of Beethoven, and it’s unexplainable. Composers try to avoid or put off writing their 9th symphony because of this. Seriously, look it up (see Curse of the 9th). Something is very odd about this. But anyway, back to Vaughan Williams.

He was also the composer of several hymn tunes, some of which still appear in hymnals today. If you attend a church that sings hymns, you may know some of these tunes he wrote: For All the Saints, O Little Town of Bethlehem (the tune for O Little town of Bethlehem may be different from what you know). He also arranged some hymn tunes for organ preludes. See here a performance of his arrangement of All People that on Earth do Dwell (complete with a procession of the Queen at 1:01), or listen to his prelude for the tune commonly sung as the Christmas carol Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.

So there’s a little background on the English composer Vaughan Williams, but there’s one more piece you must hear. Stay tuned next time to hear one of the most gorgeous pieces of classical music ever. If you think Moonlight Sonata or Pachelbel’s Canon in D are the most beautiful pieces ever, just wait until you hear this piece by Vaughan Williams. Seriously, it’s that good.