Mahler 9 — odd moment in the score

An oddball item here, maybe more interesting to musicians than others. Or maybe not! Your call. 

First a conundrum. Or at least a conundrum for me. Twenty-five bars from the end of the third movement, in a passage marked Presto, Mahler writes what follows for the three bassoons (in unison) and the tuba (joined, with a slightly different configuration of notes, by the contrabassoon and the bass clarinet). It’s in the bass clef, of course:

bassoon 1.jpg

And then two bars later comes this, for the same instruments:

bassoon 2.jpg

So — bassoonists, tuba players, clarinetists, conductors, and anyone else who might have dealt with this in performance…what’s the difference, at a very fast tempo, between eighth notes and staccato quarter notes? Which is shorter? My instinct might be to play the staccato eighth notes longer than the eighths, but my instinct might not be very well informed. But what decision do people playing the piece make? 

Of course, that might vary from performance to performance. This is one of the places I understand very well from a composer’s point of view. It’s where musical notation becomes a kind of poetry. You have something in mind, something not quite describable, something that lies beyond what notation can directly indicate. So you find a way of writing that suggests what you want — or, anyway, suggests it to you. What the people playing your music make of it is of course another question. Your poetic notation might not be clear to them at all. 

I think that’s the case here. A staccato dot, of course, tells us that a note should be shortened. But by how much? That’s an impressionistic thing, guided by knowledge of a composer’s style, and by pure feel. And normally it’s easy to handle that. But when you have two kinds of short notes in quick succession — eighth notes, whose length is precisely defined, and staccato quarters, whose length is a subjective thing — what do you do?

I’d love to be enlightened. Mahler’s throwing a curveball here. 

Many thanks to the IMSLP – Petrucci Music Library, an invaluable (beyond invaluable) library of online, downloadable scores and parts. Took me just seconds to download the bassoon part in the symphony, and then take screenshots of the measures I wanted to quote. Petrucci’s scope is just about unbelievable. Any musician who wants access to classical scores needs to know this site!
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. D Shapiro says

    I believe the notes ought to be approximately the same length; the difference would be in their evenness. The staccato quarter notes are hit hard, with a quick fade, while the eighth notes are played evenly, with no fade, but with a break between them. This has also to do with reverberation, a different matter for different types of instruments (I’m a flute player myself, and of course the strings will have a completely separate set of issues): the staccato notes should be allowed to reverberate, while the eighth notes should be followed by some attempt to stop the sound during the rests. Removing the fingers from all the keys will sometimes help, by dispersing the air. Yes, there is considerable difficulty doing this in such a quick passage, but our orchestras are filled with virtuosos these days (I say this with true admiration, not as sarcasm).

    To get this, think like a composer. If you want particular sounds, stops, echoes, and so on, the notation is what you have to explain it to the players. Of course, I could be wrong, but that’s what makes sense to me.

    Thanks so much for this! Very interesting. And plausible.

    One thing I’ve learned, as a composer, is to try not to create notation issues that have to be discussed in rehearsal. Especially in an orchestra piece! You want rehearsal time spent on executing what you’ve notated, and bringing alive the feeling of the piece, not on puzzling out what your intentions are. That becomes all the more true for performances when you’re not around to be asked.

    Of course, Mahler could expect to conduct his premieres. Though not the Ninth — he died before he could premiere it, and Bruno Walter conducted the first performance. Walter would have been in the best position to know what Mahler wanted.

    (Which then, though, raises questions about his late-1930s performance of the Ninth, recorded live — a famous, seminal recording of the piece. Should we assume that most of what he does is what Mahler wanted, including the slow tempo for the second movement? Or would Walter’s memory have changed things, over the years, which would only be natural? And how about the strings’ vibrato in that performance? Wouldn’t have happened, if we’re to believe Roger Norrington, in Mahler’s time. So did Walter think that Mahler actually wanted vibrato, or that the change in performance practice didn’t matter, or that it wasn’t worth the trouble to get the strings not to do it, or that vibrato actually improved the piece? Does anyone know about this? Might be easily available information, that I just haven’t looked for.)

    If I wanted to notate D Shapiro’s very plausible idea of what Mahler might have wanted in this passage, maybe I might rewrite the dotted quarters as eighth notes, followed by eighth rests, but with a decrescendo under each note.

    One issue for composers is this — whether a subtlety indicated by an unusual notation is actually worth the time it takes in rehearsal to work out what to do. And/or the difficulty the players might have in reading the passage, especially at a fast tempo. (I’m thinking, for instance, of unusual beaming, which I’ve sometimes used, to indicate how a highly rhythmic passage should flow. Very expressive to my eyes, maybe baffling to the musicians faced with it, especially when they first sight-read the piece.)

    Composers should even ask themselves if the subtlety they’ve so painstakingly notated will be audible at all. The answer might often be: yes, in a performance by top-rank players, sensitive to the piece, and with lots of rehearsal time. And no, in what must be more common, performances by players not yet committed to the work, and with not so much rehearsal time.

    Painful for me to say all this, since as an artist, I’m all about nuance. But sometimes you just have to be practical.