Mahler's score markings

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David Pesetsky, the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT, is also the principal second violin in the New Philharmonia Orchestra of Massachusetts. For their 4/1/2009 rehearsal, he provided English translations for the sometimes-confusing performance instructions in Mahler's 1st Symphony.

Dave's sensitive interpretation of Mahler's artistic intent has been received with praise in musical circles. The first page is reproduced below, but any of you who plan to play or listen to this piece should read the whole thing.

German English
Langsam Slowly
Schleppend Slowly
Dampfer auf Slowly
Mit Dampfer Slowly
Allmahlich in das Hauptzeitmass ubergehen do not look at the conductor
Im Anfang sehr gemaechlich in intense inner torment
Alle Betonungen sehr zart with more intense inner torment
Getheilt (geth.) out of tune
Von hier an in sehr allmaehlicher aber stetiger Steigerung bis zum Zeichen From this point on, the spit valves should be emptied with ever-increasing emotion
Hier ist ein frisches belebtes Zeitmass eingetreten Slowly
Haupttempo Slowly
Noch ein wenig beschleunigend slowing down but with a sense of speeding up
immer noch zurueckhaltend with steadily decreasing competence
sehr gemaechlich with indescribably horrific inner torment
Etwas bewegter, aber immer noch sehr ruhig Somewhat louder, though still inaudible as before
Alle Betonungen sehr zart with smallish quantities of fairly mild inner torment
Gemaechlich Intermission
Ganz unmerklich etwas zurueckhaltend Slowly
Etwas gemaechlicher als zuvor Slowly
Zurueckhaltend Gesundheit
Von hier ab unmerklich breiter werden as if wild animals were gnawing on your liver


  1. Lukas said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    A lot of these say the opposite of their German versions. Am I missing the joke?

    [(myl) Yes. ]

  2. D. Sky Onosson said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 8:32 am


    Reminds me of this.

  3. D. Sky Onosson said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 8:33 am

    Sorry, the full link is here:

    I didn't realize that only a popup (which is too small) would appear.

    [(myl) Try right-click and "Open link in new window" (or the equivalent for your browser/OS combination)]

  4. Victoria Martin said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    I thought it was funny. And I'm sure the orchestra was grateful.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Lukas, Look at the date of the document.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:12 am

    DSO, although small, the page gives the idea. The theme is supposed to be "a Cro-Magnon skinning chant".

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    No wonder Alex Ross liked this. It's very much in the style of the Shouts & Murmurs feature of the The New Yorker. I guess some people find it funny. More power to them.

  8. fiddler said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:34 am

    David Pesetsky, the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics…

    I think I've received spam from Ferrari P Ward.

  9. Jens Fiederer said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    This would be funny even if you DIDN'T speak German.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Brilliant — even gets in a viola joke (in the link). Just what Mahler deserves!

  11. Mark P said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    It makes me want to hear and see the performance.

  12. Lukas said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    Ah :-)

  13. Catherine B said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    This is brilliant! :D

  14. Chris Waigl said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Many thanks, Mark, for posting this. It nearly brought tears of laughter to my eyes.

    Some thoughts:

    – We Germans sure have a lot of words for "slowly".

    – "Dampfer" is a steam boat. It should be "Dämpfer" (or "Daempfer"), ie muffler (or, in other contexts, silencer).
    – The beauty of the word "zart" (and I'm not joking) is getting somewhat lost. For being pronounced [tsart] (quick-n-dirty IPA, sorry), it manages to convey delicacy and tenderness remarkably well.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    In the musical sense Dämpfer is "mute." For some reason the piece either ignores umlauts (e.g. allmahlich) or uses -e digraphs in their place (e.g. gemaechlich).
    I still fail to see what's funny about it.

  16. Mariana said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    @Cory Lubliner : Mahler's music is typically associated with doom-and-gloom. It's just funny to interpret every expressive marking as a depressive one.

  17. Chris Waigl said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    @Coby: Thanks. I was hesitating about musical instrument terminology but failed to take the time to look it up.

  18. Bernhard Rohrer said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    What I find so absolutely hilarious is the mickey the transaltions are taking out of Mahler's composing style. As a serious fan of Mahler's 5th I really appreciate them ;)

  19. Ken Grabach said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    I think the direction for how to empty the spit valves was appreciated by the entire brass section. They are usually expected to do it surreptitiously, and with as little feeling as possible (and certainly not in unison!).

  20. Nathan said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    This is another great example of what Geoffrey Pullum called "the value of linguistic ignorance." (How does one link to a specific Language Log post here? I tried and it doesn't work in the preview)

    If you don't think it's funny, maybe your German's too good.

  21. scratchdaddy said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    I'm somewhat surprised that the musical directions are in German at all. As an American musician, I've always encountered directions in Italian.

  22. Sili said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    with smallish quantities of fairly mild inner torment

    Could be the soundtrack of my lovelife.

    as if wild animals were gnawing on your liver

    Prometheus light?

  23. Mariana said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 4:15 pm


    Really? You've only encountered Italian? Now *that's* unusual. You clearly haven't played much R. Strauss or Wagner. ;)

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    Even Beethoven. Check out Piano Sonata Op. 90, one of my favorites: 1. Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck. 2. Nicht zu geschwind und singbar vorzutragen. And of course anyhone can make ha-ha funny "translations" of these indications.

  25. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    Robert Schumann, too. The Peters Edition of the Piano Trio No. 2 has a passage marked "Ausdruckvoll" in the full score but "Espressivo" in the string parts.

    A cellist friend says if you want the cellist to play loudly you mark the part "dolce."

  26. Richard Sabey said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    @rootlesscosmo The first movement of Schumann's Piano Sonata no. 2 in G minor, op. 22, has a linguistically interesting sequence of tempo markings: So rasch wie möglich, Schneller, Noch schneller.

  27. marie-lucie said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    For overall tempo markings at the beginning of a piece, nineteenth-century German composers tended to use German indications, and later French composers such as Debussy used French ones. This was perhaps because the Italian ones which had become standard were also stereotyped for Baroque interpretation. An extreme, satirical use of non-stereotyped markings occurs in Satie's piano pieces (at least in French editions).

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