Cowbells: Mahler, Messiaen, and Bill Bailey

Mahler, a constant inspiration, got me exploring cowbells (wiki: here and here).

For Mahler they represented a far-away realm, “the last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks”—suggesting Chinese poetry and painting (cf. Das Lied von der Erde).

He uses them in the 6th symphony, most strikingly (sic) in the first movement, where they feature (along with celeste!!!) in a pastoral vision that suddenly interrupts the trampling jackboots—in my post, on Bernstein’s performance from 12.05, or on Barbirolli’s recording from 8.24. This brief refuge is itself brashly crushed (Bernstein 15.01).

In a later revision to the score Mahler added this typically generous instruction:

Die Herdenglocken müssen sehr diskret behandelt werden—in realistischer Nachahmung von bald vereinigt, bald vereinzelt aus der Ferne herüberklingenden (höheren und tieferen) Glöckchen eine weidenden Herde—Es wird jedoch ausdrücklich bemerkt, dass diese technische Bemerkung keine programmatische Ausdeutung zulässt.

—which, in the spirit of David Pesetsky, I’m tempted to translate as “inaudible”, only it’s a useful insight into his vision—notably the final “this technical remark does not allow for a programmatic interpretation”.

Cowbells appear in the slow movement and finale too. But Thomas Peattie (“Mahler’s Alpine journey”, Acta musicologica 83.1, 2011) unpacks their complex associations, refining the literal programmatic interpretations of critics, and noting that such apparently bucolic scenes are both fractured and fleeting: Utopia as an illusion.

Mahler used cowbells again in the 7th symphony; church bells appear in the 2nd and 3rd symphonies, and sleigh-bells in the 4th. For bells in Bach’s soundscape, click here.

Cowbells also appear in Richard Strauss’s Alpine symphony. And they made a natural choice for Messiaen—part of his huge battery of tuned and untuned percussion, along with xylophone, marimba, woodblocks, and so on (not to mention piano and ondes martenot). Cowbells feature in a group of three wonderful works from the early 1960s: Sept haïkaï (with inspirations from gagaku and Noh!), Couleurs de la cité céleste, and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.

But that’s enough about WAM! Organology (Sachs-Hornbostel 111.242; cf. the cheesegrater) classifies cowbells as with or without clapper, tuned or unturned, externally struck or not.

Typically (cf. Whistled languages), they are considered as endangered: here’s a heritage project on the manufacture of cowbells in Alcáçovas, in the Alentejo region of Portugal:

And here’s Bill Bailey (currently a Strictly favourite) presiding over a charming rendition of The swan:

But what about the cows, eh? Here’s a health warning for them—”PC gone mad, if you ask me…” And now we have the headline

Swiss health authorities advise public against watching oom-pah bands

With the north Chinese ritual shengguan ensemble never far from my thoughts, I’m reminded of the yunluo frame of ten pitched gongs that adds a numinous halo to the wind instruments (e.g. playlist #8, in sidebar, commentary here). No longer part of the ensemble in north Shanxi, it should be!

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