The greatest, most entertaining transition in music history

Gustav Mahler

Transition master

In my opinion, the art of the transition is what makes composers composers.  Any asshole can write a nice melody.  Many assholes can write decent harmony.  Several assholes can write exciting rhythms.  But few assholes can transition between distinct musical sections in a coherent and impactful way.  Even some of the greatest composers occasionally display a lack of transitional aptitude (like the ungainly and blunt-force-trauma sequence extravaganza that Tschaikovsky employs leading to the climax in 1812).  But virtually every composer worth his salt is capable of executing a quality transition, which is why it’s worth noting when you find one that’s really magical.

There are a lot of really good ones that leap to mind: the transition into the “LOL Shostakovich” music in the 4th movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, the seamless transfusion from a militaristic march to a demonic waltz at the end of Shostakovich’s October, the great ritardando and unwinding of energy into the slow conclusion to the Elgar Cello Concerto.  But as great as each of these transitions is, none of them are as “wait, rewind that, did that just happen?” worthy as three bars in the last movement of Mahler’s epic Symphony no. 6.

The finale of the Sixth is a story in ups and downs; our hero experiences the lowest of lows and the highest of highs, ultimately losing everything because, as your mother always told you, fate is kind of a dick.  The bulk of the movement is a sort of grim and focused march, the kind you’d do if you were keeping your head down during a giant thunderstorm so as not to get rain all over your glasses.  This is not the music of an eternal optimist questing for glory to be turned away by fate, but rather a cynic’s journey through the morass of human existence, hoping like hell not to get run over by fate in the form of a metaphorical semi-truck.  These hammerblows of fate, though, have the ability to stop everything in their tracks, and they do.  The “hammerblow” episodes in the finale are riveting in their sheer impact, the weight of the world crashing down on one’s shoulders.  So how do we work our way back into our Ephedrine-like march having come from the lofty and powerful blows of the hammer?  Simple: we freak out a little bit and fall off a musical cliff.

If we’re going to have a really killer transition, we’re going to need a few things.  First of all, we need a dose of Fate.  Fate in this symphony, and in Mahler’s compositional universe in general, takes the form of a major triad morphing to the minor.  The 6th is littered with this brief interjection; it’s always there, and you can’t escape it no matter how hard you try.  Secondly, we’re going to need some elements of the march section we’re trying to get back to to guide us there.  Third, we’re going to need something that sounds like we dropped a 15-pound bowling ball off the observation deck of the Sears Tower and watched it hit birds on the way down.  Finally, we’re going to need the trombones to do the heavy lifting in making this thing sound delightfully off-kilter but all-powerful in its sheer devastation.

Mahler marks in the score that the music should be “massive” and that “everything should have brute force.”  Driving the music towards the transition are three basic ideas, one an 8th/2 16th note rhythm pounded out triple-forte (starting in the horns), the second a descending dotted rhythm (starting in the basses and low woodwinds) equally punishing, and the third a frenzied 16th note motive enclosed in the space of a minor third (starting in the trumpets).  These ideas interact for nine measures before culminating in……silence, a single alarming beat of nothingness.  And here’s where we throw the nitrous and kick it into overdrive: three chords, each punched with the controlled ferocity of Manny Pacquiao, Fr+6 built on E-flat in the trumpets and upper winds, G major in the strings and horns, Fr+6 built on D-flat in the low brass with descending 16ths in the low strings and winds, leading to a raucous C major replete with banging timpani and ringing triangle.  Now the trombones get to put on their non-chord tone entertainment hats.  Our Fate motive appears in the trumpets going from C major to C minor, but the trombones play a dotted rhythm beginning on A-flat, delightfully discordant and colorful, first under the major, then the minor, before playing a descending C minor triad.  The low strings and winds play 16th note pickups…and we’re back in our grim march, trying to dodge the hammerblows once more (hint: we don’t).

Music, in my experience, sounds better than reading a pseudo-technical breakdown of it.  In that spirit, here are five different takes on this transitional episode from recordings that I enjoy to varying degrees.  Give them a listen and see how you like it.

Valery Gergiev – Rotterdam Philharmonic

Dmitri Mitropoulos – Cologne Radio Symphony

Gary Bertini – Cologne Radio Symphony

Thomas Sanderling – St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Lorin Maazel – New York Philharmonic


6 thoughts on “The greatest, most entertaining transition in music history

  1. Yeah, Mitropoulos takes the cake.

  2. Awesome post Erik! Mahler 6 is actually my favorite too, so you’ve got my vote for best article on a transitional section of a Mahler work with audio examples. ;)

  3. Erik-

    Here’s one for you-

    Can you think of any compositions that sound like one long transition?

  4. @pete – I recall a Gramophone critic writing that Rimsky’s Sheherezade was a work in which the conductor must take care lest it sound like a series of transitions leading to interludes leading back to transitions.

  5. @Pete
    Sibelius 7 is often cited as just such a piece.

  6. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Havergal Brian- The Gothic Symphony at the Proms. A few more thoughts….

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