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St. Anthony and the Fishes

Welcome! Today I want to introduce you to Mahler’s St. Anthony and the Fishes. This is one of the most popular pieces in The August Winds’ repertoire and one we enjoy bringing out for new audiences over and over.

(If you don’t know The August Winds, they’re one of Astraios’s founding ensembles. Ruth Ann Ritchie, flute, Natasha Merchant, oboe, Marianne Shifrin, clarinet, Michael Jones, bassoon, and Jonathan Kuhns-Obana, horn, all met as freshman at Indiana University. They played together all through undergrad, and re-formed the group in 2010.)

Knowing the background to this piece makes a huge difference in how you hear it. It’s fairly catchy at first and maybe you can hear a thing or two that sound vaguely like fish, but other than that…?

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an Austrian composer known for his grandiose works of huge proportions. A “standard” symphony is likely to have 3 trumpets and four horns, but Mahler went further. His Second Symphony, for example, requires 10 horns and 10 trumpets...and that doesn’t mention the extra timpani, expanded woodwind section…I could go on and on. In 1905, he set anonymous German poems to music in a collection called (ready for this?) Das Knaben Wunderhorn or, The Magic Wunderhorn. “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes” is the sixth song in the cycle. Here’s a recording of famed British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker performing the original work.

You can find the entire text to the song here but, quickly put, St. Anthony shows up to preach in Padua. When he arrives and finds the church empty, he goes and preaches to the fish in a nearby river. The fish are very impressed by his words and vow to do better, but as soon as he leaves they go back to their lazy, sinful ways. The piece is marked mit humor or “with humor,” so the composer intends this to be tongue-in-cheek.

Mahler later worked this song into the third movement of his Second Symphony, which you can hear here. (Sidenote: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra have some of the best recordings of Mahler Symphonies out there!) The arrangement for The August Winds was done by Michael Jones, our resident bassoonist and programming director.

But enough with the backstory. Let’s get to the music! Firstly, if you haven’t watched this video on how the instruments in a woodwind quintet individually make their sound, I recommend you do so.

Now we’re ready to dive into Mahler’s piece.

The bassoon begins setting a stately tempo. At 0:19 the horn comes in with the main melody—which was the vocal line of the original song. As the horn plays the melody, listen for the flute underneath. The flute (hey, that’s me!) has a fairly constant pattern of sixteenth notes, which sets me up as the fish. Notice around 0:26 where the clarinet has what musicians call “hairpins”—getting loud and then soft again very quickly. (In the music, “hairpins” are denoted like this: <>) This creates waves in the water. Around 1:00, listen for the instruments trading the music back and forth. By now St. Anthony has said a few words and the fish are drawing close to listen. The instruments will trade the lines back and forth as the fishes flit closer and splash their tails.

At 1:57 listen to the bassoon and how the character of the piece changes completely. You probably recognize that this has switched from a minor key (which we usually identify as sad or angry music) to a major key (which we tend to think of as happy). Here the fish have taken what St. Anthony is saying to heart! By 2:35 the fish are feeling downright virtuous. The horn helps create this feeling by having lots of separation between the notes—much more precision than the flowing sixteenth notes that have been running through the whole piece.

At 3:04, the flute and oboe join together to move to the final section. Natasha on oboe and myself on flute have the same rhythm, but while the flute repeats the same note over and over, the oboe runs up the same scale several times. Jon reappears with the main theme on horn. We slip back and forth between major and minor keys, and the clarinet leads one last big crescendo (getting louder) into 3:35. At this point, the fish give up completely, decide it’s too much work to be good, and flip their tails as they swim off into the sunset.

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