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Mahler the Magnificent Melodist

German composer Gustav Mahler is most renowned for his orchestration – the nine symphonies that he wrote invented many sound combinations that had never been heard before, and he was famously demanding on his conducting students when it came to knowing the instruments of the orchestra. I sometimes think that the brilliance of Mahler as an orchestrator overshadows the other aspect that makes him one of Germany’s most famous composers – his skill at writing a melody.

He gains his skill as a melodist largely from his ornamentation, and his ability to string his audience along. Take the opening  melody – played by the oboe, if you hum the pitch that it ends on, which is found at 0:35, and go back to the beginning, you’ll find that it ends on the exact same note on which it begins – on an upward swing into the home note. This gives the violins the same impetus and energy to continue speaking about the same subject. About twenty seconds of music which ends up right where it begins, yet somehow every note of that twenty seconds is vibrant and engaging. How? The answer lies in the ornamentation. I won’t get into the details of which ornaments do what today – that’s a subject for another day. There’s a very simple trick for figuring out where the ornaments are in a piece of music – just take out all of the short notes, and listen only to the longer notes. If you can hum the long tones of a melody, than you can generally figure out the skeleton around which the composer builds the ornaments. This method isn’t foolproof – it doesn’t even cover this small excerpt 100% – but it’s a good starting point.

The 3rd Symphony features some of my favorite melodic writing that Mahler produced, and there’s a ton of depth here. The symphony – which usually clocks in at around an hour and a half – is the longest ever written, so I haven’t linked the whole thing here, but this minuet is simply fantastic. Check out the texture at the 5:36 mark – in the space of about forty-seconds, the melody gets passed from the clarinet and oboe to the bassoon and clarinet, to many others, and each of these combinations is supplemented by various additions – string pizzicati, accents in the trumpets and then the horns, and bouncing bow effects in the violins. There’s even what sounds like a ratchet in the percussion section at the 6:25 mark. And despite all of this chaotic orchestrational combinations, it all sounds crystal clear. Finally, I can’t move on without a shout-out to the viola section at 6:55 for the section solo. Awesome work!

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