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The hurricane that Mahler experienced

‘This foaming, roaring, raging sea…. these ebbing, shimmering, gleaming waves.’  (16 October 1904)

He was writing to Alma, after the first rehearsal of the scherzo of his fifth symphony.

He added: ‘Conductors for the next 50 years will all take it too fast…’

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  1. Maybe Mahler was afraid that the orchestra’s were technically unable to play his music right at a fast tempo so suggested a slow tempo? In his day it was very new music after all.

  2. Robt. Switzer says:

    On Sunday afternoon, I attended an extremely fine performance of Mahler’s Fifth, Daniel Harding conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The tempo of the scherzo, although not as slow as in the Bernstein video, was slower than most audiences expect today. I appreciated hearing details that can get lost at high speed (although the extraordinary acoustics of Walt Disney Concert Hall bring out details lost in many other halls, no matter the tempo). Anyway, the critic from the Los Angeles Times noted the slowness and would have preferred Mr. Harding’s having picked up the pace a bit. I think Mahler would have been impressed.

  3. Mahler’s music has suffered a similar fate to that of the post-Tannhauser Wagner. Both composers declined to supply metronome markings and, as a consequence, performances of their music have a much wider distribution of tempos compared to the relatively “tight” distribution of interpretive speeds in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, not to mention the Stravinsky works with tempos indicated only by metronome settings (with no additional descriptive verbiage). Both Wagner, and, apparently Mahler, were concerned that conductors were going to get the tempos wrong. They could have solved that easily, but deliberately chose not to. Big mistake, I think, considering the almost 2-to-1 spread of the durations of recordings of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, not to mention the draggy performances of Wagner sometimes taken to be echt-Wagner style (e.g. Goodall, some Levine).


    • @Sixtus- Mahler did leave us lots of clues about tempo, and it’s up to the conductor to really look for them. More often than not, one has to know something about the vernacular models he’s referencing, the classical works he’s referencing, many of which (like the Beethoven symphonies, which he constantly refers to, do have metronome markings) and even something as elusive as the poetic inspiration. A metronome marking would in many ways just be a short-cut that might be useful for finding the tempo, but not the character. I wrote a long piece a few years ago on finding one temp in Mahler 5- this very one, in fact.

      • But if Mahler was so concerned about tempo, he could have made the search for “clues” so much easier with metronome indications. There are timings for many of Mahler’s performances of his own works, but aside from their questionable accuracy, overall timings give NO clues to the relationships among various tempos within a movement. And even careful reading of all the clues has led to the preposterous situation like the last movement of the 9th performed by some of the greatest conductors having almost a 2-to-1 range of timings. And of course we have no Mahlerian timings for either the 9th or Das Lied to provide even a vague guideline. Mahler was almost perversely verbose when it came to admonitions to conductors not to speed up, or slow down, as might have been customary in such passages in his day (ironically, the same type of tempo modifications Mahler himself applied to his performances of, say, Beethoven). I only wish he had been numerically specific about the fundamental tempos of each of his pieces, from which the tempo modifications he verbally calls for would deviate.


        PS: I’m glad your article covered the Mahler 5th Scherzo in particular. I’ve found it to be the single most difficult Mahler movement for getting the tempos right in order for the piece to work as a unity and not disintegrate into a series of disconnected episodes. Some of the greatest conductors have come to grief in this movement and have had to use the Adagietto and Finale to “rescue” their performances, with variable success.

  4. I’m pleased Mahler didn’t include metronome markings as it gives a wide scope of possibilty, and takes into account variables such as acoustics of different venues.
    Kondrashin is brisk in the first movement of the 9th, while Karajan is considerably slower.
    To my ears,each of them is convincing and true to the essential core of the piece.

  5. Truthseeker says:

    Mahler himself often changed his tempos in different performances. The musicians of the NY Phil noted this, that from performance to performance he could make radical tempo changes, according to his feelings of the moment.
    There was a famous occasion when Mahler visited the Amsterdam Concergebouw Orchestra, and he conducted a performance of his own Fourth Symphony, followed in the second half by a performance of the SAME symphony conducted by his friend Mengelberg. The two performances were quite different, but provided the audience with an interesting experience.

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