Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphony No. 3
be tough enough creating epoch-making works of art even when you can devote
all your energies exclusively to the job, so imagine what it must be like
if you've also got a highly demanding professional career. In 1895-6, when
he was working on his Third Symphony (which still holds a place
in the Guiness Book of Records, or it did the last time I looked), Gustav
Mahler was First Conductor of the Hamburg Opera, busily carving out the
reputation that would, in 1897, win him the Directorship of the Vienna
Court Opera - one of the most influential positions in the musical world.
The demands of his profession - producing, rehearsing, conducting, and
(last but by all means least) administration - took up most of his
time. He had to organise his life so that in the summer months (the Opera's
close season) he could be free to devote himself to creative composition.
This he would do by retiring to a holiday retreat deep in the country.
The Third Symphony was conceived at Steinbach on the Atterssee,
in the midst of the not always pretty and peaceful profusion of Mother
Nature in the Raw.
is one of those rare, pivotal figures in musical history. On the one hand,
he was a “Child of the Romantic”, a fruit of the final flowering of a movement
that dominated most of the Nineteenth Century. Going back through
his early Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, his spiritual
forefather seems to be, not Wagner or Schubert (as you might expect?),
but Schumann. His inherent lyricism, allied to a flair for poetry and an
intense love of Nature, made the “Song of Creation” of the Third Symphony
just a safe bet but a racing certainty.
other hand, Mahler was a pioneer, a leading member of the fin de siécle
avant-garde, hell-bent on pushing back the boundaries of what is possible
or, more accurately, what is acceptable, judging by the controversy
his music provoked. He stretched conventional tonality to the limit, just
as he pushed symphonic architecture about as far as it would go. While
he favoured what Stravinsky would have described as a “wastefully large”
orchestra, it was rarely for the simple purpose of massive effect. Mahler's
orchestration was aimed unswervingly at clarity: in his hands the symphony
orchestra became a wonderful, kaleidoscopic chamber ensemble, a natural
(though not inevitable) consequence of his consistent use of polyphony
- which itself derived from his lifelong admiration for the music of J.
juvenilia apart, Mahler wrote music in only two forms, which is in itself
remarkable. With a man so full of contrasts and contradictions it comes
as no surprise that these were Song - the smallest, simplest, most
static, most intimate and personal of forms - and Symphony - the
biggest, most complex, most developmental and all-embracing of forms.
view of the Symphony is encapsulated in the famous conversation with Sibelius,
where Mahler declared, “A Symphony must be like the world - it must contain
Having made a pretty fair stab at that in his First Symphony, the
rapidly maturing Mahler considerably widened his scope in the Second
Symphony, which represented a journey through death to resurrection.
However, he seems to have concluded that he had, even then, set his sights
a little low. Aiming to put that to rights in the
Third, he broadened
the scope still further to take us all the way from Creation to Heaven,
in an attempt to imagine the history of an entire “universe” in musical
terms. Fascinating as the story is, we must leave it there, save
to mention that, in Das Lied von der Erde, he finally achieved what
we might consider his ultimate goal, the reconciliation of Song and Symphony.
put my cards right on the table - I find this Third Symphony one
of the most wonderful, uplifting, mind-blowing experiences in all music,
and I love every single minute of it (including the one mentioned in the
next but one paragraph!). Even so, at over 90 minutes long it is a lot
of symphony to find your way through if you don't know the lie of the land.
Some thoughts on the way the work is put together should be helpful, and
perhaps even interesting.
Mahler had planned the symphony to be in seven movements, but in the event
withdrew the seventh movement and used it as the finale of his Fourth
Symphony. I think this was because he realised that with the Third
he had pushed his philosophy as far as it would go down this particular
road: he knew that the Fourth would mark a retreat, a regrouping,
and in that transplanted movement (like in a time-capsule) he would be
carrying forward his poetic essence through a transition into some new
convinced that, consequently, he altered the conclusion of the sixth movement,
which now no longer prepared the ground for any successor. No other slow
movement of his ends fortissimo, and no other movement of his of any sort
ends with such a dull succession of (admittedly impressively sonorous)
chords punctuated by a battery of mundane tub-thumping. For me, this is
the most - nay, only - disappointing passage he ever wrote,
surely an uncharacteristic, even hasty misjudgement, one which reminds
me of the equally incongruous ending of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.
the symphony had a programme, which Mahler withdrew as he did all his proposed
symphonic programmes. He had an apparently ambivalent attitude to programme
music. Mahler the symphonist was at heart an absolutist, but the poet in
him found a programme to be a useful philosophical “scaffolding” during
the erection of his ambitiously large structures. As with your actual builders'
scaffolding, once the job was done it could be, indeed had to be, removed.
Yet it is precisely because such schemes drive the overall architecture
that they are useful for us to know (provided we don't lean on them too
heavily?). The Third Symphony was given the (rather attractive)
title Ein Sommermorgenstraum - “A Summer Morning's Dream”
(I've omitted Mahler's Nietzsche-derived prefix “The Gay Science”, as it's
nowadays somewhat open to misinterpretation). The movements bore the titles:
1. Pan Awakens - Summer Marches
2. What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me
3. What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me
4. What the Night (Man) Tells Me
5. What the Morning Bells (Angels) Tell Me
6. What Love Tells Me
glaringly obvious from this that the work is not cyclic, in the
normal manner of symphonies, but progressive, projecting a journey
of epic scale through a kind of hierarchical “universe”, from Inanimate
Nature to God in Heaven in “6 easy stages”. Mahler divided this vast structure
into two Parts, the huge first movement standing alone (as with the Second
Symphony, he sanctioned - even encouraged - a break of at least five
minutes between movements 1 and 2). Neville Cardus considered the second
and third movements an intermezzo, carrying none of the argument (again,
as per the Second), while the remaining four movements formed a
relatively conventional symphonic structure. I can't see it myself: for
a start, only the first half-minute is even remotely conventional! More
seriously, though, it's clear from Mahler's programme that the second and
third movements are actually integral parts of a linear scheme.
Mahler himself has muddied the water, because there's plenty of evidence
that the work falls into two halves (3 + 3 movements). This seemingly trivial
point is actually important, as it's the key to understanding the “map”
of this vast work. There are several strong arguments:
three movements are distinguished by each being built on two equal but
contrasting characteristics, whereas the final three movements each revolve
around a single characteristic (I've indicated characteristic pairs in
the synopses of the first three movements).
the idea of Man as the embodiment of half-animal, half-god is pivotal:
looking back from the end of the third movement, we see the birth and evolution
of Nature in the Raw. Looking forward from the start of the fourth movement,
we see the birth and evolution of the self-awareness that formerly only
lurked in the wings.
are stronger arguments, based on a favourite structural technique of Mahler's,
the “feeding forward” of materials. There is more to this than the simple
use of a common or garden “motto” theme (as in Tchaikovsky's Fifth).
Mahler would use one germinal theme to generate any number of new themes
(etc!), which would lend great cohesiveness to a movement. But, he would
go on to bind his large scale structures by feeding themes forward from
one movement to the next, or across some even larger partition.
murky sequence of alternating notes, which ignites the gas under the primeval
stew at the start of the symphony, reappears as the principal theme at
the start of the fourth movement. Then there's a trumpet call, flung like
a gleaming spear against a granite face not long into the symphony's introduction,
which reappears as a sinuous, passionate gesture in the fourth movement.
The dividing line is thrown into even greater relief by the fourth
movement's return to the brooding stasis of the symphony's opening, having
barely paused for breath since then, and of course by the introduction
of the human voice.
is one other wholly remarkable, and I think unprecedented, example of feedforward,
this time not of a theme, but of a structural device. The climax
of the first movement's first development section is capped by a distinctive
modulating sequence (which recurs at the end of that movement). At a similarly
crucial point in the finale, this same modulating sequence reappears, but
now in the thematic context of the finale. This has a truly startling impact,
like a draw-string snapping shut the structure of the whole symphony.
relationships and inter-relationships - those we notice and many
others registering subconsciously - give us the growing feeling that these
six, at first seemingly disparate movements really do belong together.
Far from being a disjointed gargantuan sprawl, this symphony exhibits a
quite exceptional structural integrity - the mark of a real symphony. But
it is also a devastating musical experience. The tunes (and, by gum, this
work is simply stuffed with great tunes!), the colours (which even
over a century on can make your ears sit up and beg), the dionysiac passion,
the breathtaking beauty, all add up to a nerve-tingling rollercoaster ride
for the mind and the heart. Alcohol and “E”? Who needs them, when you've
Pan Awakens - Summer Marches In: The symphony explodes into life with
a bold statement on eight unison horns. The family resemblence with a certain
Brahms theme is almost certainly a deliberate effort to convey a feeling
of conventionality as, within seconds, Mahler dashes our expectations with
a descent into a long, highly unconventional slow introduction -
a dark, slimy, protean musical ooze, from which are thrust massive outcroppings
of recitative [Characteristic 1: “primeval”]. There could hardly be a greater
contrast than the main subject proper, a timid, tremulous, spring-like
violin solo. But this “Life-Force” fails to extricate itself from inanimate
Nature, and the pot goes back on the fire. Then, at last, Life breaks free
and, hand-in-hand with the “Brahms” theme, develops into one of the most
swaggeringly banal marches in all music [Characteristic 2: “radiant/rampant
energy”]. Some still question whether such roughnecked stuff ought to be
allowed in a symphony. Well, in Mahler's philosophy, there is no way it
can be left out! A pastoral episode, pervaded by gentle whirrings and twitterings,
gives way to galumphing basses and thence to another huge, unbridled climax
in which the themes are re-worked even more riotously, giving us what is
in effect a double development section. The recapitulation is as unconventional
as the rest of the movement (full literal repeats were not part of Mahler's
ethos). At the very end, the rampaging Life-Force seems to run completely
amok. And so it is that the introduction of Discipline into Mahler's universe,
when it comes, is short, sharp, and terrible.
What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me: Another shock, but of a very
different sort. The second movement takes the form of an elegant, even
dainty minuet of classical refinement [Characteristic 1: “floral”], a cunning
choice to represent vegetable nature, as the minuet is essentially a static
form. The second subject appears as contrasting episodes that skim by,
like a wills o' the wisp or impulsive summer breezes stirring the blossoms
[Characteristic 2: “breezy”]. These alternate in a broad ABABA pattern
though, as in nature, Mahler's music is ever-changing, ever fresh and new,
and never twice the same colour.
What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me: Mahler follows the introduction
of delicate blooms into his universe with a scherzo movement bustling with
animals to trample rough-shod through his garden. The main allegro [Characteristic
1] is based on the song Ablösung im Sommer. Taken from the
early Jugendzeit set, this song describes how the Nightingale deputises
for the dead Cuckoo when summer comes - you can almost hear the “Kuck-kuck
ist Tod!” This little song is amplified enormously into a right old romp,
drunk with the joy of life - a joy stilled only by the looming shadow of
Man, heard from beyond the horizon as a long and challenging “post-horn”
solo [Characteristic 2 - the tune, you may notice, is remarkably similar
to the Jota Aragonesa]. Again, the “reprise” of the main music,
triggered by a quickfire reveille from the trumpets, is actually
further delirious development. Again, the creatures are stilled by the
post-horn but then, in a rapid crescendo, the apprehensive animals are
herded up-hill to the edge of a vast, vertiginous chasm, a flash of fearful
foreboding before all are stampeded by a shockingly ecstatic final eruption.
What the Night Tells Me: Into the stunned silence steps Man, in a fourth
movement as devoid of activity as the first three were hyperactive. It
seems that we are back with the primal stirrings of the start of the symphony.
But not quite: now the stirrings are not of the birth of Life but of Intellect
- and Conscience, for Nietzsche's poem and Mahler's subdued music
intone a warning: “O Man, Take Heed!” (What a pity that Mankind has not
since “taken heed”.) The music is also virtually devoid of melody, “without
form and void”, until hushed strings proffer the first movement's “gleaming
spear”. The singer, her dire tones now intoning an even darker warning,
at first refuses the temptation, but finally succumbs: thus does Man become
aware - aware of Joy, Heartache, Death, and of Eternity beyond Death.
What the Morning Bells Tell Me: From the brooding stasis of “Midnight”
we emerge attacca into sunshine, somewhere in the suburbs of Utopia. Children
intone bell-sounds as grown-up Angels sing of the Last Supper (a text taken
from Des Knaben Wunderhorn). Mahler's attitude to religion varied
between ambivalent and expedient. Here, as in the Eighth Symphony,
he was happy to juxtapose sacred and profane, finding a heightened drama
in that very contrast. (In passing, I can't help noticing how odd it seems
that Mahler, well-known for his love of children, required them to sit,
as quiet as church mice, for a full hour before being involved for a mere
four or five minutes!). The central episode, in which a couple of themes
presage the originally-intended finale (but now, of course, presage the
Symphony's finale), reaches a climax that is momentarily threatening,
although entirely in keeping with the text. This storm-cloud soon passes,
enabling the joyous singing to carry us through a final ascent into silence
. . .
What Love Tells Me: . . . from which the opening phrase of the great
Adagio emerges, an utterly transfixing moment. The theme, it must be said,
has that rather square-set look of a Victorian hymn-tune and, if Mahler's
detailed markings are neglected, it can all too easily end up sounding
like one: flexibility, of tempo and phrasing, is needed - oh yes, indeed!
- but above all this ravishingly beautiful music must be played with all
the Love it is intended to express. The movement, basically a set of variations,
is laid out with a masterly eye for cumulative dramatic impact. Casting
it into four paragraphs of sublimely intertwining melody (in which the
strings play divisi almost throughout!), Mahler demarcates his Road to
Heaven with three intrusive “stumbling blocks”, distinguished by the same
four-note horn phrase, very similar to the three-note heavenwards-striving
phrase that was to end his Eighth Symphony. Progressively expanding
in climactic urgency, a volcanic pressure builds up, released only when
that first movement “structural device” blows the lid off the third block,
clearing the path to those Pearly Gates - it's small wonder that Mahler
once said that this movement's real theme is expressed in the lines, “Father,
look upon my wounds! / Let no creature be lost!”
mind-blowing symphony demands a long (though hopefully not mind-numbing)
programme note. Writing and revising this has been a both a joy and a sorrow:
the former because there's so much I wanted to say, the latter because
there's so much that I had to leave unsaid. So, I must finish by taking
my hat off to Gustav Mahler, who in his music managed to say it all!
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.