Ahead of Philharmonia: Live from London, a global live stream of our performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen this Sunday, find out more about Mahler's Third Symphony. Programme note by Julian Johnson.
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As he had been with both his First and Second symphonies, Mahler was initially ambivalent about whether the Third was indeed a symphony or a symphonic poem. The early outline sketches from 1895 suggest various programmatic titles for individual movements and for the work as a whole. One such was ‘The Happy Life, a Midsummer Night’s Dream’, though without any intended reference to Shakespeare’s play. Another was ‘Symphony No. 3: The Joyful Science. A Summer Morning’s Dream’. The reference here is to Nietzsche’s Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, usually translated as The Gay Science, published in 1882. If there are any links between Mahler’s music and Nietzsche’s book they lie in a shared tone of irreverence rather than any philosophical content. A third possible title was simply ‘Pan: Symphonic Poems’. The reference to the Greek god Pan, the wild god of nature, was explicitly linked in Mahler’s sketches to Dionysus, the god of wine but also of ecstatic ritual. In both cases, Mahler’s reference seems to be to the timeless force of an unrestrained nature, unordered by the rational or moral codes of modern society, and the music to his vast first movement certainly seems to bear this out.
Like the Second Symphony, the Third is a mega-symphony, a work with a cosmic ambition to sum up the trajectory of creation itself, in Mahler’s own words ‘a musical poem embracing all stages of development in a step-wise ascent [that] begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.’ This vast conception has to be understood in the context of an age that was highly attracted to grand, all-encompassing accounts of the natural world. Mahler had a lifelong interest in philosophical and scientific theories and read widely in these areas, but he was also part of a cultural tradition in which artists and musicians expected to take on the great themes of life and death. He had a life-long devotion to the works of Richard Wagner, whose last music drama Parsifal (1882) was, at that time, still performed only at Bayreuth under quasi-religious conditions. Mahler’s Third Symphony thus grows out of an understanding of art as a kind of religious and philosophical quest.
Given such a conception, Mahler was understandably frustrated that his symphony became known, before its première, almost entirely through performances of one isolated movement, the so-called ‘Blumenstück’ (‘Flower piece’). In a letter to Richard Batka, of February 1896, he expressed his concern that the public would hear him simply as a ‘sensuous, perfumed singer of nature’:
‘That this nature hides within itself everything that is frightful, great, and also lovely (which is exactly what I wanted to express in the entire work, in a sort of evolutionary development) – of course no one ever understands this. It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of “nature”, think only of flowers, little birds and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan. There now! You have a sort of programme… Everywhere and always, it is only the voice of nature!’
Many commentators, including Mahler’s contemporaries, heard in this work not just the force of nature, but also that of the new politics of a popular and mass society. Richard Strauss likened the great march of the first movement to the experience of a May Day parade in the Prater Park in Vienna. The unison horn call that opens the movements was heard by some as the quotation of a 19th-century student protest song, as used also by Brahms in his Academic Festival Overture. Critics railed against what they saw as the symphony’s vulgar, banal and frivolous elements, perplexed about how to understand the sudden contrasts between the rarefied world of symphonic music and tunes and rhythms more usually heard on the street. Was Mahler trying to parody the hallowed genre of the symphony in this way? Often, they concluded that he was.
1. Summer Marches In (Pan Awakes)
This is an immense movement, conceived on a vast scale – not just in terms of its duration (over 30 minutes for this movement alone) but in its unwieldy form and sheer weight of sound. Few pieces of music evoke such a powerful sense of ‘the world without form’, summoning its materials out of a kind of primeval emptiness. ‘It is eerie’, Mahler commented, ‘how from lifeless matter (I could just as well have named the movement ‘What the Mountains Tell Me’) life gradually breaks forth, developing step-by-step into ever-higher forms of life.’ The opening call, played fortissimo on eight horns in unison, seems to echo into some vast emptiness. A sombre march rhythm begins, the only hint of directed movement, amid low rumblings in the percussion. The emptiness is broken only by unpredictable eruptive gestures, shooting skywards like spouts of molten lava. ‘Some passages of it seem so uncanny to me’, Mahler later commented, ‘that I can hardly recognise them as my own work.’ His representation of elemental origins was, necessarily, also a sounding of the Unconscious.
Out of this lifeless world, form and motion gradually emerge. The first sense of a tangible identity is voiced by a solo trombone, which comes to assume an unlikely central role in this movement. It emerges from the rawness of the opening section, calls into the silence, and echoes out around the amphitheatre of lifeless matter. But from its initial stark monosyllables it gradually learns to speak with a lyricism and expressive tone that make great demands of the player. The entrance of summer and the displacing of winter are marked by a tremendous march, starting from the distance, converging from all directions and eventually carrying all before it. In his annotations, Mahler marked one passage Der Gesindel (The rabble) and another passage Der Südsturm (The southern storm). These are the anarchic forces with which the world is renewed, the unstoppable, irrational and unordered harbingers of the new. Mahler described the storm as ‘raging like the southern gale we are experiencing here these days, and which – I am sure – brings with it fertility, coming from faraway, fruitful, hot countries, not like the gentle east wind we usually wish for. With a march tempo it roars, closer and closer, louder and louder, swelling like an avalanche, until all the loud, jubilant noise engulfs you.’
2. What the meadow flowers tell me
The second movement sees a complete change of voice; in place of massive energy and force we are presented with utter transparency and simplicity. Mahler’s Ländler is marked grazioso, denoting a sense of ease and perhaps even a gentle sentimentality. ‘It is the most carefree music I have ever written’, Mahler said, ‘as carefree as only flowers can be.’ Its tremendous lightness of touch suggests a chamber-orchestra style in which solo orchestral voices often come to the fore. Like many of Mahler’s inner movements, this is a character piece, made up of contrasting sections more like ballet music than the symphonic narratives of Mahler’s outer movements. A sense of dream-like fantasy is never very distant here, more like the world of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the grand tone of Bruckner or Wagner.
3. What the creatures of the forest tell me
‘The Scherzo, the animal piece, is the most ludicrous and at the same time the most tragic…This piece really sounds as if all nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue. But there is such a horrible, panic-like humour in it that one is overcome with horror rather than laughter.’ Mahler’s sense of horror is perhaps less obvious to the modern listener, who is more likely to hear the charm of this movement. It is derived from one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs but, as with the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, turned here into a purely instrumental movement. Der Ablösung im Sommer (The change in summer) is typical of his naïve folk-style. It tells of the ‘change of the guard’ in the forest, from the spring (represented by the cuckoo) to the summer (represented by the nightingale). The symphonic movement takes up some of the simple humour of the song, in which the world of the forest birds and animals takes on a self-sufficient quality.
This world, however, is broken into by a distant fanfare signalling the human world. The famous ‘posthorn’ interlude (written for a flügelhorn) is directed to be played ‘as if from a great distance’. It provides a wonderful example of Mahler’s ability to create the haunting effect not only of spatial distance – but also of temporal distance. What starts out as a fanfare, such as one might imagine hearing from a distant posthorn, becomes a more sentimental folk-like melody. It creates a powerful sense of reminiscence – of looking back to a distant time. Mahler’s forest creatures, at first startled by this intrusion, begin to interact with the new voice. Two horns join in, and the rapt string chordal accompaniment is marked to be played ‘as if overhearing’.
4. What night tells me
The fourth movement brings the distant sound of the human world centre-stage as, for the first time in this work, we hear the human voice. An alto soloist delivers a setting of the dark ‘Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss’s tone poem of that title was written at exactly the same time, 1896). It begins in the depths of night, with a deeply mysterious atmosphere created by Mahler’s withholding any familiar sense of musical movement. In its place, we hear only the gentle rocking of the bass instruments, the slow tolling of bells and ‘sounds of nature’, like the haunting screech of a night-bird (in the oboe). Only gradually does the lyrical expression of the voice, joined by solo violin and horn, begin to draw out a sense of yearning movement in the face of the dark silence of nocturnal nature. In the context of Nietzsche’s philosophical fable, this poem has to do with the prophet’s disgust at contemporary man but also acts as an expression of faith in his potential for transformation. This threshold function is exactly how Mahler’s setting of it works within the Third Symphony – as a borderland between one state of consciousness and another, a place where the earthly and the heavenly overlap.
5. What the morning bells tell me
The brooding, meditative and deeply solemn tone of Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’ gives way to the light-hearted humorous tone of ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (‘Three angels were singing’). Mahler’s performance direction is keck (cheeky), and it begins with a boys’ choir imitating the tolling of the bells (‘Bimm Bamm’) before being joined by a women’s choir for the song proper. The original Wunderhorn poem has the title, Poor Children’s Beggar Song, and the childlike viewpoint of the song is key to Mahler’s setting here, just as in his setting of Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life), originally intended as the seventh movement of the Third Symphony, but which Mahler used as the finale of the Fourth instead. With childlike directness the song tells of the angels’ singing before moving to the idea of sin and forgiveness. Its irreverent tone makes for an unlikely and oblique account of the sinner’s tears of contrition and the promise of the eternal love of God, a divergence between text and setting that was exactly what confounded critics in Mahler’s lifetime.
6. What love tells me
With the Adagio finale, however, Mahler reverts to his most sincere and religious tone. Though this movement is written for instruments alone, Mahler uses his orchestra like a choir. The strings at the beginning are marked sehr ausdrucksvoll gesungen (sung with great expression). The chorale-like texture, the register and movement of the individual parts, all suggest a kind of intense choral singing, and for a while Mahler confines his string parts to the range of singers. The effect, when it comes, of allowing the orchestra to expand beyond the limits of human vocality is all the more powerful for the restrained beginning. This is a sublimated choir, one taken up into supra-human realms by the instruments of the orchestra, and the movement as a whole proceeds in this way, by a succession of expansions rather than by development or narrative. It enlarges itself from within, rising up through a series of ascending plateaux. Undoubtedly, it takes its model from the slow movements of Beethoven; the critic William Ritter was so moved that he claimed it as ‘perhaps the greatest Adagio written since Beethoven’.
The other echo that contemporary critics might have heard was Wagner’s Parsifal. The drama of that opera is played out between the diatonic chorale and march-like materials of the Grail knights and a rather tortured chromaticism associated with the idea of desire and longing. Mahler’s Adagio similarly moves between these two types of music, with the calm assurance of the D major hymn alternating with passages of searching and intensely passionate music. Like Parsifal, Mahler’s music finds its affirmative conclusion in a containment of that chromatic pain within the calm assurance of the diatonic – here, a sustained coda in D major. In doing so, it draws together a symphony of unprecedented heterogeneity, which has journeyed from the raw, elemental world of the first movement with the anarchic energy of its storm winds, through the sounds of meadows, forests and night, to the folk-like vision of heaven. The finale’s vision of divine love is given in a unity and purity of tone that would not reappear in Mahler’s music again until the Eighth Symphony a decade later.
Copyright: Julian Johnson.