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Inside The Music: Out of the Deep

Discover more about classical music ahead of City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Out of the Deep concert with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Marvellous Mirga

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its brilliant Latvian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla bring with them vivid portraits of nature: Šerkšnytė’s crackling, smouldering Fires, Debussy’s foaming portrait of the wild sea and Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 1, with its chattering birdsong and – something it shares with the Debussy – one of the most glorious sunsets ever committed to manuscript. There certainly won’t be any let-up in the drama!

VIDEO: Debussy’s La Mer

VIDEO: Mahler’s symphonic landscapes

Moments to listen out for

Debussy – La Mer
Listen to how Debussy creates the richest of orchestral textures halfway through the opening movement to La Mer –  the sumptuous sound of 16 cellos divided into groups of four.

Debussy – La Mer
In the second movement, Debussy introduces a beautiful, fleeting waltz five minutes in to depict the dancing of the waves.

Mahler – Symphony No.1
Don’t miss how, in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1, Mahler takes the tune to Frère Jacques and uses it for an eerie funeral march.

Mahler – Symphony No.1
The final movement features one of the most exultant passages in all orchestral music – just bathe in the dazzling glory of the final three minutes.

Mahler – Symphony No.1
Around 40 seconds into the second movement of Šerkšnytė’s Fires, you can hear bricks and beams smash to the floor as the fire overwhelms the burning structure.

Debussy and Mahler’s Symphonic marvel of nature

Debussy was one of France’s truly great composers whose music did more than any other to change the course of his country’s music in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Through a new and skilful use of musical colour and texture, commonly referred to as ‘Impressionism’ (he never liked the term, though), Debussy conjured up moods and sensuous impressions. And La Mer is a supreme example of his subtle touch.

Debussy’s love-life was somewhat complicated – in the summer of 1904, he made the decision to leave his wife, whereupon he and his mistress Emma Bardac scarpered to the English seaside resort town of Eastbourne. And it was there, in Suite 200 of the Grand Hotel (today called the Debussy Suite), that he completed La Mer. Its genesis may not have been particularly special, but its orchestrations and musical ideas more than make up for it. The ‘three symphonic sketches’ are scored in as many movements – ‘From dawn to midday on the sea’ is a spectacular canvas that depicts the changing light on the ocean waves (listen to how the harp is used to depict light bouncing off the calm water), culminating in a spectacular midday climax. The sudden changes of moods and dancing woodwind in ‘Play of the waves’ conjures up the natural chaos of swirling currents and colliding waves, and the marine life teeming under the surface; finally, the heaving, swelling ‘Dialogue of the wind and sea’ shows the ocean in all its elemental glory – powerful, unrelenting, unpredictable.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is a rather more land-locked affair – its sunrise taking place in wooded countryside. The opening movement begins, as Mahler himself described it, with ‘a shimmering and glimmering of the air’, a winter scene that gradually thaws, welcomes cuckoo calls, faraway fanfares and, eventually, the onset of spring, enjoyed by a child who wanders the landscape, marvelling at nature. By now our little hero is growing up, as strings, brass and woodwind stir the mood. By the second movement Scherzo, the boy is now a young man ‘in full sail’ – confident, sprightly, alert, although there are hints of adversity to come… The third movement, with its weird funeral march interspersed with Jewish Klezmer music, warns the man of ‘the misery, the whole distress of the world, with its cutting contrasts and horrible irony.’ But all is well in the fourth movement, a blazing display of triumph over suffering, climaxing in a beautiful, refulgent hymn of praise. Mahler’s Symphony was a spectacular taste of what was to come from the Austrian’s pen – music that would contain, as he put it, ‘the world’ and which would place nature, with all its cruelties and pleasure, at its heart.

Raminta Šerkšnytė’s Fires was written in 2010, originally to accompany a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. In it, Šerkšnytė attempts to depict fire’s different characters, from the opening smouldering embers of the opening, erupting into flame before dissipating once again. The second movement is a burning, twisting fire, shooting out flames, engulfing everything in its path. Burnt-out masonry crashes to the ground. And finally, everything collapses in on itself to the sound of the opening notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

10 things you didn’t know about…Mahler

  • Mahler was better known for orchestral conducting during his lifetime than as a composer. In fact, his music wasn’t widely performed until around 50 years after his death.
  • And despite having a mighty presence on the podium, Mahler was just five foot, four inches tall.
  • In 1897, Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism – he believed it would improve his chances of being appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera.
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is the longest of any major composer, coming in at around 95 minutes.
  • And his Symphony No. 8, the ‘Symphony of a thousand’ calls for a huge orchestra augmented by 20 brass players, two piccolos, five flutes, several mandolins, harmonium, glockenspiel, two large choirs, a children’s choir and eight voice soloists.
  • Mahler’s believed in the ‘curse of the Ninth’ – Beethoven and Bruckner had both died after writing their Symphony No. 9. Mahler composed a ‘Tenth’, calling it ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (The Song of the Earth).
  • He once declared to his fellow composer Sibelius that symphonies must ‘contain the world’. Sibelius preferred their ‘profound logic and inner connection’.
  • While living in Vienna, Mahler befriended and actively encouraged the three major composers of what is known as the Second Viennese School: Berg, Schoenberg and Webern.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, Mahler moved to America to become the director of both the New York Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.
  • In February 1911, Mahler conducted his very last concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. He died in Vienna just three months later.

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